In early December Member of Knesset Ayman Odeh, leader of the Joint List, visited New York to participate in a series of meetings and conferences. Ameinu staff and leadership had an opportunity to meet with him and to hear his vision for a more equitable and just Israel. MK Odeh also encouraged an ongoing dialogue with the American Jewish community and called on American Jews to fight for the civil rights of Palestinian-Israelis, just as they fought for African-American civil rights in the United States.
1. Ameinu: What are the most pressing issues that must be addressed in order to develop the Palestinian Israeli sector?
MK Odeh: Today we are facing two problems that are chained together and must urgently be addressed: the decades-long Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem and the systematic discrimination against the Palestinian citizens of Israel. As a citizen of a country which is at war with his people, I know that ending the occupation is both a moral imperative and an absolute precondition for having a true democracy. But democracy also requires that all are treated equally under the law, and have the opportunity to develop and flourish in all aspects of life.
Any economy is the sum of all its parts. Israel’s economy depends on the success of all its populations, including Arabs and Hareidim. Economists at the Israeli Ministry of Finance agree that investing in the growth and development of the country’s Arab citizens will benefit the economy as a whole. So long as the government continues to discriminate against the country’s Arab citizens in budgetary allocations, and refuses to actively work to remedy the tremendous inequality between Arabs and Jews, all of us will continue to lose. But there is an alternative.
We have the opportunity to create a win-win proposition by investing in people — through education, culture, housing and employment. After a long campaign, the government recently passed a resolution promising a sum of about 10-15 billion NIS to the country’s Arab population. While this is a good first step, we need to make sure the government doesn’t backtrack and that the money is actually delivered, and that, from now on, all government ministries will allocate their respective budgets equally and without discrimination.
Almost a year ago, I marched from the Negev towards Jerusalem with a community whose silencing echoes like thunder. In the Negev desert, Bedouin communities have lived since before the founding of the state, but the Israeli government refuses to recognize their villages.
Together with community leaders and members of the Joint List, we marched from the unrecognized village of Wadi al-Na’am, which sits in the shadow of the toxic-waste-dump of Ramat Hovav. In Wadi al-Na’am, like in all unrecognized villages, there are no government-supported schools, no national health care services, not even a paved road.
Tens of thousands of Israeli citizens in the Negev live under constant threat of expulsion from their lands. A demolition order is hanging over the heads of the people of Umm al-Hiran. The government plans to strip Umm al-Hiran of its Arab name and its Arab population and build a new Jewish community called Hiran in its place. This shows an ugly and outrageous reality: the village is not being destroyed because of its geography or planning issues. It is being destroyed because its Arab residents are unwanted.
What the story of Umm al-Hiran makes blatantly clear, like the case of the state’s unequal budgetary allocations, is that we have to choose today between two alternative political visions: either equality for all or continued discrimination, either an inclusive and pluralistic society or an exclusionary and segregated society.
2. Ameinu: How do you envision a culture of shared society in Israel?
MK Odeh: The only future is a shared future. And we need a shared future, because our divided reality is not only tragic but also unsustainable. We, Jews and Arabs, Arabs and Jews, must continue working for a shared society based on mutual respect and the promise civil rights and equality for everyone living in this country.
Having grown up in Haifa, a mixed city, I know that reading literature, a history book or the news in both Arabic and Hebrew not only enriches me personally, but also allows me to better understand the society I live in, in all its complexity. Attending school with different kinds of people is a blessing, not something to fear. In days of racist incitement against Arabs, growing repression of political dissent, at a time when we hear about books being banned by the Ministry of Education because they “promote miscegenation,” it is crucial to raise our voices and insist that equality and inclusivity are not a threat, but things to celebrate, together.
A crucial step on the way to creating such a society would be for the state to take responsibility for its past wrong-doings, such as the Nakba, the 1956 massacre in Kufer Qassem, or the military regime imposed on Palestinians in Israel until 1966. We, Palestinian citizens of Israel, should be granted equal civil rights and collective national-minority rights. Taking responsibility for historical wrongs and granting people their individual and collective rights is not something to be afraid of. On the contrary, I believe it will be a gesture of goodwill, a sign that we fully recognize each other and are committed to building an open, pluralistic society for all.
Every day in Israel, a Jewish woman walks into Rambam Hospital in Haifa and an Arab doctor performs open-heart surgery on her. Forty-two percent of doctors at Rambam are Arab, and this scene plays out in every hospital in the country. If we can trust each other at our most vulnerable times, I believe we can trust each other enough to build a shared society. Our future will be as bright as the shared future we are willing to dream of, as prosperous as the shared society we are courageous enough to work towards. We at the Joint List are living proof that Jews and Arabs can refuse to be enemies, and that we can share our society as equals.
3. Ameinu: Do you see the interests of Palestinian Israelis and Jewish Israelis as distinct or integrated?
MK Odeh: The interests of both peoples are mutual, common ones. We all share the desire to live a life of dignity. It is not to the disadvantage of my Jewish neighbor that I have running water and my child has a good school to go to. Quite the opposite. Not only Palestinian women will benefit from higher rates of participation in the workforce, so too will the economy writ large, as instead of depending on welfare these women will become tax-paying citizens.
Communities grow and flourish together. And the struggle for equality, dignity and freedom is an interest of everyone who cares about this place.
4. Ameinu: What role does the larger issue of the occupation play in your work to promote equality and reconciliation between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Israelis?
MK Odeh: As I said earlier, we Palestinian citizens of Israel are between a rock and a hard place, since we are citizens of a country which is at war with our people. And so, beyond the fact that everyone committed to social justice, democracy and equality must oppose the occupation, we specifically stand to gain much from the establishment of two independent states, living side by side. Were a Palestinian state to be established, and we Palestinian citizens of Israel granted civil, political and social rights, for the first time we’ll be able to be proud of the place we live in.
The occupation, its discourse and its practices, doesn’t stop at the Green Line. It penetrates and makes its way into all aspects of life on both sides of the 1967 line. The hegemonic public conversation in Israel is, and always was, dominated by militarism and nationalism. I want to start a new public conversation — a conversation on shared citizenship, Jewish and Arab, democratic and equal. This conversation will lead the way to a shared society based on equality, dignity and justice. And its path must include an end to the occupation and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, living alongside, not at the expense of Israel.
The prisoner dreams of freedom, and the prison haunts the dreams of the prison-guard. The occupation is the Palestinian people’s tragedy, but it is also Israel’s prison. We must free both peoples from the prison of occupation.