An Arab Woman Running for Mayor of Tel Aviv


Anyone walking a month ago along Rothschild Boulevard, one of Tel Aviv’s central streets, was probably surprised to see some 200 Arab women along with Jewish artists and intellectuals, marching to demand the right to work in dignity.  Only a couple of days after the attack in Jerusalem, these women made their presence felt in Israel’s capital of hedonism, carrying banners with slogans such as “Women’s unemployment = poverty in Arab villages,” and “Give Arab women the chance to have a job.”   Despite the openness we associate with this city, such a march was still a strange sight here.

This, in case you were wondering, was a march to mark International Women’s Day organized by the political party Organization for Democratic Action (ODA), headed by Asma Agbarieh-Zahalka.  The police gave the demonstration the go-ahead, as required by law, yet the Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality was reluctant to allow it, on the grounds that a march on the Sabbath in the center of the city would disturb the residents.

Persuading the women to come was no easy task either.  In addition to flyers and explanations about the importance of the event, many long conversations with the women were required to convince them to come to Tel Aviv so soon after the attack in Jerusalem.  They came, finally — thanks to Agbarieh-Zahalka’s unrelenting efforts.

Agbarieh-Zahalka got married six months ago at the age of 34 — relatively late.  But ODA’s Knesset candidate held on to her family name, a familiar name in political and social circles, and simply added her husband’s.  You could say that this is little more than a minor post-feminist gesture  compared with her daily work in the political arena.  However, for an Arab woman leading an Israeli political party — even in 2008 — this is a clear statement.

The Edge of Paradise

I admit that, due to preconceptions, I expected to meet a fighting woman — the extreme, angry type full of slogans and catchphrases.  But Agbarieh-Zahalka is the opposite extreme.   In the party’s offices on Ha’Aliya Street in south Tel Aviv, I met a smiling young woman, crying out against discrimination but aware of the weaknesses in Arab society, and able to explain the crimes of Israel’s leadership without resorting to the empty phrases we hear so often from politicians.  Happily, this is a woman of vision whose feet are firmly on the ground.

Next to her bed is Viktor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning, which reveals the author’s experiences in a Nazi concentration camp through psychology.  “It’s a small book but it’s taking me a long time to read it,” she says, “However, it is the extreme situations that enable me to value life, as I know things can get much worse.  Humanity has already proved that it can be truly terrible.”

Agbarieh-Zahalka’s time is divided between Jerusalem, the Wadi Ara area, and Jaffa.  In East Jerusalem she coordinates the legal assistance offered to workers by the Workers Advice Center (an NGO set up by ODA), and is responsible for work placements.  In Wadi Ara and the Hadera area, she leads various courses that promote the empowerment of women, and is active in pushing for the cancellation of the so-called Wisconsin program.  And in Jaffa, on those days when she remains closer to the family and home, she is the chief editor of the party’s magazine, for which she also writes sometimes, and heads a project that promotes safety at work, especially in construction.

“Being revolutionary is a round-the-clock job,” she explains.  “My work is my life; I live it and breathe it.  Even at home with my husband, it’s there always — even when drinking coffee!”

Contrary to what might be expected, her political and social awareness did not come from home.  Her parents were not active in any party or organization, and politics was not among the subjects of conversation around the dinner table. Agbarieh-Zahalka, who grew up in Jaffa’s Ajami neighborhood and spent most of her youth in her mother’s grocery store on the same street as their home, was just a “normal girl” until the age of 22, and hoped to be a teacher.  “I felt that life was like a corridor, and we were simply waiting for paradise,” she remembers. “I was giving up, because I believed that everything is transitory — that was how my lack of consciousness manifested itself.”

To get her teaching certificate, she began studying for a BA in Arabic literature and philosophy at Tel Aviv University.  “For an Arab, choices are limited,” she says.  “Employment discrimination is everywhere, and I wanted to combine something professional with something for my own development.”

Leaving home to go to university was just the first step in a long eye-opening process.  “Jaffa is insulated and slightly conservative.  It is disconnected from the Arab public and has to keep its distance from Western culture and Tel Aviv, especially since the other side [Tel Aviv] didn’t allow it to integrate.  There have always been two societies in Jaffa living parallel lives, with relations of uneasy respect.  When I was a child, we had Moroccan neighbors, and we got along well with them, because they were similar to us, simple people from the same class.”

One of the most pressing issues in Jaffa today is the eviction of around 400 Arab families, most of them among Ajami’s most veteran residents, on the grounds that they have built unauthorized extensions to their homes.  Apart from the doubts regarding these claims, the timing of the eviction is critical.  Apparently it is not by chance that the eviction notices were served now, when the municipality is planning to construct boutique hotels in Jaffa.  Meanwhile, real estate entrepreneurs get the green light for countless exclusive residential projects.

This is the background to the march last Friday, when about 1,000 people protested the “Judaization” of Jaffa and the systematic expulsion of its Arab residents.  When we open this subject, Agbarieh-Zahalka — who was among the marchers — chooses her words carefully.  “Land Day in Jaffa took place to a backdrop of continuous deprivation of the Arab community in all spheres of life,” she says.  “The paradox is that Jaffa is part of Tel Aviv, the country’s richest and liveliest city, but in all parameters — education, employment, culture and housing — Jaffa is at the bottom of the scale.”

“Although Jaffa is part of this metropolis, in practice it is a peripheral town.  Jaffa residents are foreigners in Tel Aviv.  Thus Land Day in Jaffa became ‘housing day,’ in the light of the ongoing process of bringing in real estate sharks at the expense of the city’s poorer Arab residents.  A similar process is taking place in many capital cities around the world, but here it has a nationalistic flavor, in light of the discrimination that the Arab residents bear.  This is part of globalization and aggressive capitalism, which not only undermine workers’ rights but also the human right to reasonable housing.”

“But Jaffa is not just a problem of housing.  And Jaffa’s problems cannot be solved simply by arresting young people.  The problems run deeper and demand an extensive change of approach, which must include putting a stop to racism and acknowledging Jaffa’s right to exist.  Jaffa is a victim of the policy of privatization — property values have skyrocketed, and the local population which is fighting to survive now finds that its basic right to remain in its home town is under threat.”

“What is happening today is the direct continuation of the policy that has reached absurd proportions.  On one hand there are grand buildings for rich residents who have moved in from outside the city, and on the other hand there are buildings in a terrible state which house the poor population.  Incredible wealth and the government’s capitalist policy put into practice by the municipality — the result is crime and hopelessness.  To solve this problem we need a strong social force which can stand against this policy.  The struggle for decent work is the struggle for life.”

Opposition at Home

When she was growing up, Agbarieh-Zahalka was not aware of what was festering beneath the surface — the gaps between Jaffa and Tel Aviv, the discrimination or (most importantly) the fact that there was something to work towards.  “In the nineties we entered the age of globalization, and we were promised peace,” she recalls.  “I was 22 then, at university.  I was apathetic and didn’t understand what was going on around me.  It was not spoken about, neither at home nor at school.  There was a kind of fear about talking politics; the fear of a minority, the psychology of survival.”

The apathy began to dissipate in 1995 when a group of Arab and Jewish activists opened an ODA center in Jaffa.  ODA called for a Palestinian sovereign state in the 1967 borders and, in the social arena, struggled for the welfare of workers.  Agbarieh-Zahalka was offered the job of linguistic editor for Al-Sabar, the party’s magazine.  “Local leaders and ODA leaders, mostly Jews, were at the center’s opening event,” she relates.  “I was particularly impressed with one woman activist, Michal Schwartz, who began talking to me in Arabic.  I was amazed that a Jew was talking to me in Arabic — talking with me, not at me — about Jaffa and the situation of Arabs there, but I didn’t understand much at the time.”

In time, she began to understand the significance of the articles she was editing, and for the first time got to know people who believe in doing — not just in talking.  “They taught me to write and through them I learned about journalism, later accompanying the writers in the field,” she says.  “We would go from house to house in Jaffa, sit with the residents over coffee and sell the magazine for three shekels.”

How did the linguistic editor become the party’s leader?

“It happened gradually.  I was active long before the last Knesset elections.  The Party’s General Conference convenes every four years and chooses the person most suitable to represent its positions in the clearest way.  Obviously it’s connected to the person’s work in the field; it’s daily training that everyone in the party undergoes.  But we don’t have primary elections and we don’t run for places on the party list.  We are taught not to fight over a seat in the Knesset.”

How does your family cope with your political activities?

“There was bitter opposition at home.  But I am stubborn, and the awareness I received from outside, from people who believe in what they do, people who have a vision of an equal society and believe that it is possible to achieve it in spite of everything — this awareness was stronger than their opposition.  At home I received the basics — education, university — but they didn’t think I would take this into politics, let alone opposition politics!  It sounded risky to them.  They said things like, ‘Better the devil you know. . .'”

Did you ever experience racism?

“Yes.  When I began going out of Jaffa, there was racism everywhere.  As soon as I understood that life was worth fighting for, the differences between Tel Aviv and Jaffa were clear.  Today I love to sit in cafes, especially on Rothschild Boulevard, but at first I was afraid to talk Arabic in those places, I was even afraid to answer the cell phone.  I wasn’t afraid that they would do something to me, I was afraid that they would be afraid of me.”

And that’s despite Tel Aviv’s reputation as a left-wing, open-minded city.

“Tel Aviv is seen as very left-wing, but it keeps its distance.  Tel Aviv makes it clear to Jaffa that it has still not understood that it must live together with Jaffa.  On the other hand, I saw a different side of Rothschild Boulevard on International Women’s Day a year ago, when we shouted in Arabic to the skies, and the sky didn’t fall.  However, it’s not comfortable feeling rejected.  Discrimination can make you respond in an extreme way, to escape to religion or to simply give up — and I wasn’t ready to give up.”

Toppling the Wall

The next turning point in her understanding occurred in the year 2000.  This was the year in which, in her eyes, something important took place.  “We understood then that in addition to the problem of the occupation, there was the issue of social rights,” she says.  “Instead of peace and economic growth, we got the intifada on one hand and poverty on the other, and this was symbolic.  That year, people said “No!” to Oslo and inside Israel citizens participated in the intifada.  Some explained this as a national awakening, while others called it an Islamic awakening.  We saw it as despair with the political situation, but mainly with the economic situation.”

Today, ODA has announced that it would run in the Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipal elections, mainly to tear down the wall between the two cities.  “We want to build an alternative,” Agbarieh-Zahalka says, “so that Jaffa will be a part of Tel Aviv and a part of the 21st century.  The discriminatory political-economic system has shunted us to the sidelines.  At first, it discriminated against Arabs in Jaffa, but now it discriminates also against Jews in Tel Aviv with astronomical housing costs.”

What is the municipality’s role in these circumstances?

“The municipality advances this policy — it is the slave of the capitalists and aggressively promotes privatization.  An example of this is all the huge residential towers that have grown up in Tel Aviv.  Housing is expensive, culture even more so, and as for secure employment — forget it.  We want to promote an agenda that gives priority to workers, at the expense of the capitalists; an agenda that supports organized labor, full employment, and public housing at feasible rent levels; we want to see more youth clubs, more educational programs and in general to channel funds in the directions required by the city’s local population.”

ODA members believe that social consciousness leading to change can be achieved in cooperation with artists and intellectuals — both Jewish and Arab.  “We want to recruit workers and artists who support such an agenda,” she says, “to change the character of Tel Aviv, to get it out of its bubble, so that it sees the Arab sector and the Jews who are becoming as poor as the Arabs, and we need to unite forces in the economic struggle.”

The practical response to poverty from the party’s point of view was the founding of the Workers’ Advice Center (WAC) which provides assistance to workers.  Today there are six branches throughout Israel, one of which is in Tel Aviv.  Recruitment to WAC began in the employment bureaus, with WAC activists offering the unemployed concrete job proposals with fair conditions.

“The workers were amazed to hear that they could work with a proper wage slip and  a pension fund. At first we recruited only six workers, but since then we have recruited over 2,500 workers to organized employment.

“For Arab women, the situation is even harder.  They are oppressed both as Arabs and as women in a patriarchal society.  We succeeded in getting 250 women back to work in agriculture, which greatly improves their situation.  A woman working in agriculture via labor contractors earns 10 shekels an hour, and double this sum if she works independently.  We aimed to plant the phrase ‘organized labor’ in their vocabulary!”

How do you measure the extent of your success?

“A short while ago, I gave a lecture in Kufr Qara, and I spoke without notes.  Afterwards, a woman who had sat in the audience and had earlier participated in one of our empowerment workshops, came to me and said, “Wow, I too want to develop and be able to speak in front of a crowd without notes.”  When I saw she was alone, I asked how she came without her husband, and she replied that her husband had gone to another event, and she had told him she couldn’t accompany him since she had to come to the lecture.  A 45-year-old Arab woman who is able to say ‘no’ to her husband cannot be taken for granted, and this means that change is indeed possible and is taking place.  There were other cases of women who returned to work — one bought a car, another renovated her home, and a third even bought a house.”

Today, Agbarieh-Zahalka still lives in Jaffa, and says that the second best thing to happen to her — after ODA — was meeting her husband, Musa Zahalka, a theater actor from Jaffa who earns a living as a renovator.  “Three years ago he took an interest in me,” she smiles.  “I wasn’t really ready for a relationship but in the end we met.  He’s exactly what I always wanted — an intellectual worker, helps in the house and a great cook.  Sometimes I feel that as an Arab woman I need to fight for my place in the kitchen!”

The bottom line, despite personal, gender and political achievements, is that Agbarieh-Zahalka believes that on the philosophical level change will come, and it will be worldwide.  “I continue to look for allies around the world,” she says, “because I am a great believer in human beings, in their right to life and security, and most importantly — their right to a future.”

Asma Agbarieh-Zahalka, a socialist that announced recently her campaign for the mayor of Tel Aviv, challenges the current Labour Party mayor Ron Huldai, who made the city a haven for the rich and pushed the poor workers and the Arab city of Jaffa to the margins.  The original interview in Hebrew was published in Tel Aviv, the weekly supplement of Yediot Ahronot in Tel Aviv on 4 April 2008.  The English translation was circulated on Debate, a South African mailing list.

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