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Israel: Arab society, Ayman Odeh, and the Nation-State Law



Israel News AymanOdeh Arab (8 of 29)
Ayman Odeh is, in many
ways, the first Arab leader of his kind in

Jacobs/Business Insider

  • I spent a month in Israel talking to Arab-Israeli
    leaders during one of the tensest summers in years — and they
    described dire poverty, increasing tensions, and laws they see
    as “outright racism.”
  • Chief among the Arab leaders I met with was Ayman
    Odeh, leader of the Israeli parliament’s third-largest
  • He has been likened
    to Martin Luther King Jr.
    by those sympathetic to his cause
    and a
    terrorist by Israel’s ultranationalist defense

  • Arabs, who make up 21% of Israel’s population, suffer a
    litany of issues, from rampant crime and poverty to health,
    which Arab leaders say comes from decades of neglect from the
    Israeli government.

The soldier stepped forward and looked down the hill. Fingering
his assault rifle, he called to me, first in Hebrew, then, upon
seeing my confusion, in English.

I was walking up a narrow path at the edge of Sacher Park, the
largest public park in Jerusalem and one that borders both the
Knesset, Israel’s Parliament, and the Supreme Court. Tall willowy
cypresses stood sentinel on one side of the path, a cascading
metal fence on the other.

When I reached the point where the path met the Knesset service
road, the soldier, athletic and younger than me, pointed at my
camera. “What were you talking a photo of?”

“The fence,” I said. He seemed confused.

“Do you know what you were taking a photo of?” he said.

In Israel, a fence is never just a fence.

“It looked pretty in the morning light,” I said, trailing off,
aware of my frivolousness in a country conditioned by violence
and tension. I held out the camera and offered to delete the

He took my passport and questioned my intentions. I had a meeting
at the Knesset, I told him. With Ayman Odeh, I added.

Odeh is the Arab leader of the parliament’s third-largest bloc,
four Arab parties known collectively as the Joint List. He is

likened to Martin Luther King Jr.
by those sympathetic to his
cause and a
terrorist by Israel’s ultranationalist defense

He is, in many ways, the first Arab leader of his kind in Israel.
Whereas previous Arab or Palestinian leaders gained prominence
through force of personality or association with the Palestinian
struggle, Odeh has become one of the country’s most high-profile
politicians because he was elected to such a prominent position.

Israel News AymanOdeh Arab (4 of 29)
Sacher Park, the largest
park in Jerusalem borders the Knesset and the Supreme Court in

Annie Zheng/Business

“The fact that the third-largest party in the Israeli Parliament
is a Palestinian front is extremely significant,” Orly Noy, a
leftist Iranian-Jewish political activist and journalist, had
told me. “Just by existing it has had an impact on Israeli

I tried to see if Odeh’s name registered any response, but the
soldier’s eyes looked askance at the service road. He asked a few
more questions. I deleted the photo. The soldier flicked his
head, his eyes fixed on the road. “Go.”

As I shuffled the quarter-mile to the Knesset, I kept asking
myself a question that, as an American, has become almost
reflexive after an interaction with authority: “What would
that’ve been like if I wasn’t white?” In Israel, the question is
similar but tailored to the region: “What would that have been
like if I was Arab?” “If I was Palestinian?”

Arab-Israeli society is rife with issues, from crime to poverty
to health

Israel News AymanOdeh Arab (23 of 29)
A road in Jisr az-Zarqa, a
coastal Arab village that is one of the poorest towns in

Jacobs/Business Insider

It’s not a flippant question.

Many of the issues that plague Israel’s Arab community parallel
those faced by minorities in the US. Arabs, who make up 21% of
Israel, have a
lower life expectancy
than Jews, a higher
worse infrastructure services
, and
lower incomes
, particularly among those with higher
education. Nearly
50% of Arab-Israelis fall below the poverty line
, compared to

13% of Jews
, according to the most recent report, though that
number is an improvement over recent years.

The problem of crime and violence is particularly entrenched. A
recent study conducted by the Knesset Research and Information
found that 64% of murder victims
over the past three years
were Arabs, and 95% of all shooting incidents were related to the
Arab population.

In the months leading up to my visit to Israel, in July, the
country had been rife with tension, as it always seems to be.

Bloody protests in Gaza
commemorating the 60th anniversary of
the Nakba, the Arabic word for “catastrophe” — what Palestinians
call the Israeli War of Independence and subsequent exodus of
700,000 Palestinian Arabs — and the move of the US embassy from
Tel Aviv to Jerusalem had, in turn, sparked protests in
Arab-Israeli communities over the Israeli army’s conduct during
the protests. In Haifa, protests turned
into clashes with police
and left protesters bloodied or

In June, the Jewish residents of the northern town of Afula
protested the sale of a home to an  Arab family, with

the former mayor saying they
“don’t want a mixed but rather a
Jewish city, and it’s their right. This is not racism.”

Israel News AymanOdeh Arab (12 of 29)
A view of Nazareth, a city
in northern Israel with a predominantly Arab

Annie Zheng/Business

Israel News AymanOdeh Arab (11 of 29)
Shopkeepers in the souq of
the Old City in Nazareth, a city in northern Israel with a
predominantly Arab population.

Jacobs/Business Insider

The news in Israel is always full of headlines on protests,
clashes, foiled attacks,
, and incidents between Arab-Israelis and police
where fault is, it seems,
in the eye of the beholder

But it goes beyond that. As the Israeli novelist Iris Leal wrote
in May, “Israel’s Arabs
know they’re second-class citizens
and the most hated group
in Israel.”

These things weighed on my mind as I passed through the
successive security checks in an outer gatehouse that manages who
goes into the Knesset: metal detector, passport check, X-ray

After I put my backpack through the X-ray machine, an officer
took it aside and slowly dismantled every item inside, swabbing
it methodically for bomb residue and passing each piece back
through the X-ray.

Matan Cohen, a goateed Israeli doctoral student at Columbia
University, in New York, who serves intermittently as Odeh’s
foreign-policy adviser, smiled sheepishly as he waited for me, as
if to say, This is what it is.

We hurried down the path toward the Knesset, a squat rectangular
building that looks more like a university library than a hall of

Odeh invited me to the parliament to attend a special event on
the problem of crime and violence plaguing Arab-Israeli society.
Arab-rights activists, professors, police bigwigs, and Arab
families of victims, among others, attended. Most of the Knesset
members present were from the Joint List and the Zionist Union,
the center-left opposition bloc.

The atmosphere reminded me of a family reunion. Everyone seemed
to know everyone else, and this contrasted with the grave issues
being discussed.

Israel News AymanOdeh Arab (3 of 29)
Ayman Odeh gestures while
speaking during a special event at the Knesset to talk about
violence in Arab-Israeli society.

Jacobs/Business Insider

Israel News AymanOdeh Arab (1 of 29)
Attendees fill a committee
room at the Knesset during a special event to talk about violence
in Arab-Israeli society.

Jacobs/Business Insider

With Odeh busy running from committee room to committee room,
Cohen, the foreign-policy adviser, played the part of tour guide
and translator, stopping every so often to say hello to a leftist
or Arab activist or staffer he knew.

We sat in Odeh’s office, where posters of Martin Luther King Jr.,
Nelson Mandela, and the Freedom Charter of the African National
Congress hung on the walls. Cohen expounded on the state of
Israeli politics, the economic effects of what he sees as
de-facto segregation between Arabs and Jews, the shifting tilt of
the Supreme Court — a “fig leaf” on Israeli democracy, he said —
and the way Israel’s “balancing act” between being a Jewish and
democratic state creates problems.

His views are not Odeh’s — Odeh complains Cohen is too
pessimistic — but he is one of Odeh’s chief advisers. When Cohen
was an undergraduate at Hampshire College in Massachusetts, he
spearheaded a successful campaign to get the school to divest
from Israel. He said that, at 17, Israeli forces shot him in the
eye during a
demonstration against the 285-mile separation barrier
in the early 2000s to separate the West Bank from Israel.

“Whoever is more blatant, more discriminatory, more racist gets
the votes,” Cohen said of the state of Israeli politics today.
“It’s an uphill battle.”

The political drift in Israel is moving further and further right

aymanandco 4.JPG
Ayman Odeh
reacts with members of the Joint List party after exit poll
results in Nazareth March 17, 2015.

REUTERS/Ammar Awad

It’s impossible to talk about the Joint List, Odeh, or Arab
society without outlining the state of Israel’s politics.

Perhaps no politician has proved more adept at navigating
Israel’s parliamentary system, its tenuous alliances, and nonstop
wheeling and dealing than Benjamin Netanyahu. “King Bibi” has
held power for nine years and counting, longer than any prime
minister since David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding father.

He and his conservative Likud Party have won with a simple
formula: a vice-like grip on its base, fear-based appeals about
national security, and, with each successive government, a
growing reliance on nationalist, right-wing, and ultra-Orthodox

Netanyahu and his allies
have frequently played up anti-Arab sentiment
to curry
electoral favor with the far right. On Election Day 2015, with
Likud failing in the polls, Netanyahu said Arab voters were
showing up at polling stations “in
” to drive turnout of his base. It worked.

The collapse of Syria, the rise of ISIS, and the threat of a
nuclear Iran have pushed Israel’s politics to become dominated by
national security — even more so than in the past. That tilt
favors Likud since many Israelis
see the left as weak

Labor, the main center-left party, was in power during the first
and second intifadas, the Palestinian uprisings against Israel’s
occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, which coincided with a wave
of terror attacks.

At this point, the left has dwindled to 8% of the public,
according to those surveyed in a 2016 Pew Research poll. In that
poll, the right had swelled to 35% and 55% were in the center.
But ideas that were once fringe have become mainstream. The same
found that nearly half of the Jewish Israelis
surveyed said
they supported the expulsion of Arabs from Israel.

The effect is that left and center-left parties now try to appeal
to right-wing voters, Noy, the leftist activist and journalist,
told me.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Isaac Herzog, then-leader
of the Labor party, are pictured together as campaign billboards
rotate in Tel Aviv in 2015.

REUTERS/Baz Ratner

In 2015, Isaac Herzog, then the leader of Labor, ran a campaign
with ads advertising that he understood “the Arab mentality,”
that he saw Arabs through “the crosshairs” of a gun, and at one
point referred to Palestinians as a demographic threat,
: “I don’t want 61 Palestinian MKs in Israel’s Knesset.
I don’t want a Palestinian prime minister.”

Throughout the years, Netanyahu has accused the left of having
“forgotten what it means to be Jews.” Last year, Avi Gabbay,
Labor’s current leader,
unironically repeated the sentiment

The feeling among many left-wing Israelis,
according to Tel Aviv University professor Aviad Kleinberg
is that if Gabbay represents the left, they might as well vote
for the right.

Israel’s Arab Parliament members face an uphill battle to be

Israel News AymanOdeh Arab (2 of 29)
Ayman Odeh listens during
a special event at the Knesset to talk about violence in
Arab-Israeli society.

Jacobs/Business Insider

On the day I visited the Knesset — while Odeh and his cohort were
holding an event to talk about how to improve the lives of
impoverished and violence-weary Arab-Israeli citizens — the
ruling coalition was holding a joint-committee session debating
the so-called Nation-State bill.

Introduced in 2011 and debated sporadically in the years since,
the bill was written as one of Israel’s “Basic Laws,” which
collectively act as the de-facto constitution. The bill’s
apparent purpose is to set in stone the state’s Jewish character,
but critics decried the bill as “discriminatory,”
extreme nationalism, and “racist.”

The most contentious clause declared that “the State may allow a
community, including followers of a single religion or members of
a single nationality, to establish a separate communal
settlement.” Many suggested the bill as written could legalize
segregation. One far-right Knesset member argued
that the clause was necessary to push more Jews
into areas
dominated by Arabs.

The bill was far from the only piece of controversial legislation
the ruling coalition was attempting to push through before the
summer recess in 10 days. Perhaps then it was understandable why
Aida Touma-Sliman, a quick-witted Arab-Israeli lawmaker, feminist
activist, and member of the Joint List, seemed exhausted when I
met her in the Knesset cafeteria, a room ostensibly for members’
only but rarely enforced. As we ate vegetarian sandwiches after a
long day of meetings, she told me she’d been up nearly until dawn
that day sitting through committee votes.

When I asked her how she saw the Joint List in the political
climate, her once jovial demeanor disappeared. “If anybody thinks
that now is the time to lead huge initiatives related to the
rights of any citizen or human being in this country, I think we
have an illusion,” she told me. “We are in a situation where we
are trying to defend our community. We are in a defensive
strategy more than anything else, because we are really that

Israel News AymanOdeh Arab (5 of 29)
Storefronts in the Old
City of Jerusalem.

Annie Zheng/Business

One of the most prominent feminist activists in Israel, a 2007
Nobel Peace Prize nominee, and a former journalist, Touma-Sliman
does not suffer fools lightly. When I asked her what Odeh was
like in his younger years — the two have known each other since
he was in his 20s, and she refers to him as her “comrade” — she
cut off the line of questioning. The political predicament
doesn’t have time for nostalgic reminisces.

I asked whether Arab-Israeli MKs have raised the issue of
violence in Arab society before.

“One of the big lies in the Israeli media and the government is
that we do not deal with the everyday rights and lives of our
constituency,” she said, and instead are too focused on solving
the Palestinian question — the peace process, a two-state
solution, conditions in the West Bank and Gaza.

“We’ve been talking about the crime [in Arab society] for years
now. The government didn’t want to do anything and they didn’t do
anything. Then, when they wanted to deal with it, they blame us
for it.”

Later in the day, Odeh gave a speech in front of the Knesset
saying, “There is an unacceptable gap … between the declarations
and the head nods on the importance of dealing with this
phenomenon and the activity on the ground.”

Indeed, Arab-Israeli lawmakers have been sounding the alarm for
close to a decade. In 2012 — three years before Touma-Sliman was
elected — long-serving Arab-Israeli MK Ahmad Tibi held a special
Knesset meeting to discuss the issue, which many felt had reached
crisis levels. At the session, Netanyahu
called the lives of Arab-Israelis “insufferable”
and vowed to
help solve the issue by integrating the communities into the
economy and education system and increasing law-enforcement by
earmarking $46 million for improvement plans.

The issue came up again, in 2015, after a 100-page report
detailed underfunding in nearly every facet of Arab public life,
from policing to infrastructure. The report
found that the per capita budget
for residents of Arab towns
was 10% less than residents of the poorest Jewish towns and as
much as 45% less than wealthier ones.

Israel News AymanOdeh Arab (24 of 29)
A public bus in Jisr
az-Zarqa. Activists say it took them years to get the town
connected to Israel’s public bus system.

Jacobs/Business Insider

Israel News AymanOdeh Arab (28 of 29)
Because Jisr az-Zarqa is
not connected to the nearby highway, drivers must pass through
this single-car tunnel to enter the town.

Jacobs/Business Insider

Shortly after, the government
approved a $4.3 billion five-year plan, Resolution 922, to
improve education, housing, and policing
in Arab communities.
About one-third of the money has been spent so far. Rather than
specify the amounts of money used for programs, it
directs government agencies
to allocate 20% of their budget
to minority populations. While Odeh and the Joint List were
instrumental in negotiating the plan, other Joint List MKs and
those in Arab civil society suggested the
plan was a fraction
of the funding needed to bring about real

The government
says it has seen improvements in the number of Arab students

in higher education, and the rate of employment among
Arab-Israelis. And some Arab mayors
say they are feeling the positive effects
on the ground. But
many in Arab society say the situation with crime and violence
has not improved and that much more needs to be done to bridge
the massive gap that has built up over decades.

Israel is riddled with impoverished, crime-ridden Arab villages
and towns — and Jisr az-Zarqa is one of the hardest hit

Israel News AymanOdeh Arab (27 of 29)
A road in Jisr az-Zarqa, a
coastal Arab village that is one of the poorest towns in

Jacobs/Business Insider

In Jisr az-Zarqa, violence, poverty, and neglect have long been
the norm. On a sunny Thursday morning, I drove with the Israeli
human-rights activist Jafar Farah to the coastal Arab village,
one of the poorest towns in Israel. It’s prone
to gang warfare, shootings, stabbings, and arson
, and 80% of
the 14,000 inhabitants live below the poverty line.

Residents have complained of decades of police neglect — a police
station for the village was opened for the first time in November
— and said that when police are around, they treat residents as
security threat or potential criminal
.” The distrust is

Farah, who’s 52 and has a head of curly gray-black hair, has
devoted his life to improving the situation of Arabs in Israel.
In 1997, he founded the Mossawa Center, in Haifa, a city long
heralded as Israel’s “model” city of Arab-Jewish coexistence.

Farah winced as he shifted to get comfortable in his car seat.
His leg had been in pain for months. In May, Farah was detained
by police while he was looking for his son at
a Gaza-solidarity protest
. After seeing his son covered in
blood at the police station, Farah demanded to know why. Farah
said the officer’s response was to kick him and break his knee.
The Police Investigation Unit
has opened a probe looking into the incident
. The officer in
question has been placed on administrative leave.

We drove down Highway 2, the primary artery connecting Tel Aviv
and Haifa. Farah pointed at a crowded expanse of gray cinderblock
structures overlooking the highway. Though Jisr az-Zarqa abuts
the highway, there’s no exit. There were exits for the towns
before and after. We drove farther south, doubled back on an
interior road, and exited to a small two-lane access road that is
the only way into the impoverished village. Farah told me to pull
over. A police car was idling at the mouth of the road, stopping
any car heading toward the highway.

“I want to see how the police … ” he said, trailing off. His
eyes were fixed on the officer talking to a man in a newish white
sedan. “Policing is a big issue in the village.”

Farah has an acerbic sense of humor, honed after years of
fighting what he sees as thinly veiled racist attacks on Arab
communities. We drove through the one-lane tunnel that passes
under Highway 2 and forms the entrance to Jisr. Farah pointed in
each direction.

To the east,he said, Jisr is bounded by the highway. To the
south, Jisr is bounded by Caesarea, Netanyahu’s hometown and a
wealthy enclave of villas and private pools. An earthen
embankment, nearly a mile long, 30-feet high, and 15-feet wide,
was built more than a decade ago to separate the communities.
Caesarea residents said they wanted to block the sound of the
call to prayer from Jisr’s mosques and to prevent thieves. Jisr
residents see it as another example of official discrimination: a
separation wall built so that wealthy Caesareans don’t have to
look at the dilapidated town.

To the west there is the sea and the
Nahal Taninim Nature Reserve, created in 2000
amid much
consternation from Jisr’s fishermen who used the lands and
waters. To the north there’s Ma’agan Michael, considered Israel’s richest
, or collective community. The 1,400-person kibbutz
covers a landmass five times that of Jisr, whose population
density is more akin to Cairo than a fishing village. The town’s
mayor has estimated Jisr
would need to double in size
to properly accommodate its
fast-growing population. Plans to
add land to Jisr by moving the highway
or from unused land
near Caesarea or nearby Beit Hanania have been blocked by those

“The kibbutzim can’t give back its agricultural lands, of course.
Their fathers promised them those lands 3,000 years ago,” Farah
said with an acidic laugh as he looked out to Ma’agan Michael.
“But, remember, they vote for Meretz,” the social-democratic
left-wing party.

Israel News AymanOdeh Arab (26 of 29)
A newly-built police
station in Jisr az-Zarqa.

Jacobs/Business Insider

Israel News AymanOdeh Arab (13 of 29)
Jisr Az-Zarqa mayor Morad
Amash (L), EU Ambassador to Israel Emanuele Giaufret, and Mossawa
founder Jafar Farah, among others at a meeting to discuss efforts
to improve Jisr az-Zarqa.

Jacobs/Business Insider

Israel News AymanOdeh Arab (21 of 29)
A view of Jisr

Jacobs/Business Insider

The problems that plague Jisr are extensive and interconnected: a
weak education system, high crime rates, a lack of public
services, insufficient housing, and high rates of unemployment,
particularly among men. The men in the town used to make a living
fishing off the coast, but
scarcity and increased restrictions from the state
pushed most out. Many families now rely on income from the town’s
women, who pile into shuttles at dawn every morning to take on
menial jobs all over the country.

The majority of Farah’s advocacy in Jisr and other Arab
communities is about basic services: In 2013, Mossawa
successfully lobbied to have Jisr connected by public buses.
Other recent successes include the building of an early childhood
center and a building for the social welfare department. But the
center and department will be housed in the same location. “Not
good,” Farah said, shaking his head.

Sewage systems, water, and electricity are other major issues.
Near the southern edge of the town, Farah showed me how squat
houses alternated with unfinished multistory concrete structures
and ramshackle houses were built on top of one another. The
government won’t approve permits for new buildings because of the
proximity to Caesarea, Farah said, so residents build upward
illegally. The houses are linked by looping green cables that
carry electricity from one legal structure to half a dozen
illegal ones, like a perverse game of telephone.

“At a certain point, we need to be advocating for higher
education and not for sewage systems, you know?” he said.

We parked at the city-council building, which is a series of
trailers. The new police station, opened in November, is next
door. Residents weary of violence applauded the development, but
there was frustration, Farah said, that the city council had
asked unsuccessfully for years for a permanent structure. It
still isn’t built. At the government’s direction, the police
station was built on land that the town council had hoped to use
for development.

That day, Farah and the town council were due to show Emanuele
Giaufret, the EU’s ambassador to Israel, the progress made by an
EU-funded, Mossawa-coordinated project to empower the town to
“maximize the economic potential.” One of the main plans, in the
works for years, is to turn the village into a tourist
destination. Its coastline is spectacular, and the thought is
that it could become a beach town.

After a short presentation, residents led Giaufret and the other
attendees on a guided tour. We drove down a sand road to the
coast, flanked by scrub plants and the Taninim Stream. The tour
guide, a young Arab woman, pointed out the ruins of a stone
bridge and explained that the town derives its name, which means
“bridge over the blue,” from the bridge built to commemorate
Kaiser Wilhelm II’s visit to Palestine, in 1898.

Israel News AymanOdeh Arab (14 of 29)
A view of Taninim Nature
Preserve near Jisr Az-Zarqa.

Jacobs/Business Insider

Israel News AymanOdeh Arab (15 of 29)
Jisr Az-Zarqa derives its
name, which means “bridge over the blue,” from this bridge built
to commemorate Kaiser Wilhelm II’s visit to Palestine, in

Jacobs/Business Insider

Israel News AymanOdeh Arab (18 of 29)
Attendees walk along Tel
Taninim, a small hill on the coast of Jisr Az-Zarqa with ruins of
an ancient city.

Jacobs/Business Insider

Israel News AymanOdeh Arab (16 of 29)
Jisr Az-Zarqa mayor Morad
Amash (second-L) and EU Ambassador to Israel Emanuele Giaufret
(R) stand atop Tel Taninim.

Jacobs/Business Insider

Israel News AymanOdeh Arab (17 of 29)
Two residents of the town
take photos in front of the coastline.

Jacobs/Business Insider

Israel News AymanOdeh Arab (19 of 29)
Jisr Az-Zarqa mayor Morad
Amash (R) calls paramedics after a woman on the tour faints in
the sun.

Jacobs/Business Insider

Israel News AymanOdeh Arab (20 of 29)
A paramedic and a
lifeguard from a nearby beach attend to a woman who has fainted
while on the tour. EU Ambassador to Israel Emanuele Giaufret (R)
speaks to others in the group.

Jacobs/Business Insider

As we walked along Tel Taninim, an ancient hill overlooking a
wild and untouched Mediterranean beach, one of the women on
the tour fainted. Her son splashed water on her face. She woke up
and fainted again. It was ascertained that she was diabetic and
didn’t have insulin with her. Others tried to shield her from the
sun with a scarf. Marwa Zoubi, Mossawa’s social and economic
program coordinator, turned to me.

“This is the problem: The closest ambulance has to come from
Caesarea,” she said. “Because the highway doesn’t connect to
Jisr, it is 20 minutes away. The closest hospital is in Hadera,
30 minutes away.” Jisr has no hospital, no post office, no
social-security office, no bank, and no ATM, she added. There’s
little land to add any of those things.

Ten minutes passed before a lifeguard came from a nearby beach
and administered first aid. Later, a paramedic showed up to take
the woman away. The tour continued.

When it ended, the ambassador met the town council in a community
center. Farah gave a speech and pulled no punches.

“I know it’s not an easy time to be an ambassador to this
country,” Farah said as he leaned between the lectern and a
crutch. “Your position is either you support us here or we become
refugees in Europe. I hope to not become a refugee in Europe.”

A law passed that Arab-Israelis believe is the state saying
‘Don’t even dream that you will be equal’

OrenHazanNSB 3
member Oren Hazan takes a selfie with Israel’s Prime Minister
Benjamin Netanyahu, center, and MP David Bitan, right of
Netanyahu, after a Knesset session that passed of a contentious
bill, in Jerusalem, Thursday, July 19, 2018.

AP Photo/Olivier Fitoussi

What Farah was referring to was unmistakable. At 3 a.m. that
morning, the Knesset passed
the Nation-State Law
after a contentious and dramatic
eight-hour debate. 

The decorum in the Knesset often strays from civil — fistfights,
cursing, and shouting are all par for the course — and the debate
over a bill one Joint List member called “the death of democracy”
did not disappoint.

waved a black flag
from the podium, Joint List MKs Tibi and
MK Touma-Sliman shouted at Netanyahu, “You passed an apartheid
law, a racist law” — to which, Netanyahu shouted “How dare
you talk this way about the only democracy in the Middle
East?” Jamal Zahalka, also of the Joint List, ripped up a
printed copy of the bill. In the end, the law
was softened
in response to the criticism. The “exclusive
communities” clause was replaced with one stating that the state
sees “developing Jewish settlement as a national interest.”
Another dropped clause would have instructed courts to use Jewish
ritual law when no legal precedents existed.

Israel News AymanOdeh Arab (9 of 29)
A view inside the Supreme
Court in Israel.

Annie Zheng/Business

Israel News AymanOdeh Arab (10 of 29)
Lawyer Hassan Jabareen,
founder of Arab legal advocacy group Adalah, speaks to press
after a fight erupted at a Supreme Court hearing between Israeli
and Palestinian families

Jacobs/Business Insider

But the criticism was swift, strong, and widespread. The American
Jewish Committee said the law
puts at risk
“the commitment of Israel’s founders to build a
country that is both Jewish and democratic.” Major Israel-backers
Jewish Federations of North America and the International
Fellowship of Christians and Jews
expressed concerns over discrimination

Eventually the EU
joined the chorus
. Mordechai Kremnitzer, a professor emeritus
of the Faculty of law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem,
wrote in the left-leaning daily Haaretz that the law “raises
the overt, blunt discrimination
to the constitutional level.”

There are some indications that Netanyahu’s coalition many have
miscalculated with the law. Tens of thousands of Druze, the Arab
group that serves in the military and is frequently held up as
something like a model minority,
have come out to protest
the law as promoting inequality. In
response, Netanyahu
convened a committee to handle the uproar
from Druze and
other minority groups. A number of petitions, including one by
the Joint List,
have been filed against the law
in the courts.

NSB israel 1
Arabs hold a Palestinian flag during a protest against the Jewish
nation bill in Tel Aviv, Israel, Saturday, Aug. 11,

AP Photo/Ariel

Ben-Dror Yemini, a columnist for Yediot Ahronot, Israel’s paper
of record, told me the law was a “provocation” and “stupid” but
not racist. “It’s an unnecessary law, but not a racist law. We
don’t need this kind of law because it won’t change anything,”
Yemini said.

On that last point Farah agreed. But whereas Yemini believes that
discrimination in Israel is no worse or better than other Western
nations, Farah told me that discrimination against Arabs is
already widespread. The Nation-State Law only codified it.

In the case of the Arabic language, Farah said, it has never been
treated as an official language. The Knesset does not offer
translation in Arabic and laws aren’t translated. Most public
offer little Arabic in their literature, websites, and signs
And as far as “exclusive communities,” lots of Israeli towns and
kibbutzes already have admission committees, which critics say
towns to prevent Arabs from moving in

“If we would use ‘I have a dream,'” Farah told me, “the law is
saying, ‘Don’t even dream that you will be equal.'”

The leader of the Arab-Israelis remains an unshakable optimist

Israel News AymanOdeh Arab (29 of 29)
A view of the Negev Desert
from the highway.

Jacobs/Business Insider

Ayman Odeh is an optimist, almost unfailingly so. I met him a few
days before the vote, at a popular Lebanese café in Haifa, where
over a salad he tried to convince me that recent measures that
Netanyahu’s coalition put forth were a response to the growing
strength of the Arab population.

He rattled off stats: Arabs are now 18% of university students,
23% of students at the Technion (Israel’s MIT), 16% of medical
students, and Arabs in the medical field roughly equaled their
proportion in society. And, besides, he said, this is the first
Knesset in which Arabs hold 13 seats, the third-largest bloc.

It’s an encouraging notion, but one that belies some of the
reality. Odeh’s Joint List formed out of extreme circumstances.
In 2014, the Knesset passed an election law that raised the vote
threshold a party needed to be seated from 2% to 3.25%. It was no
secret that some of the law’s sponsors
pushed the bill as a means
to exclude Arab parties.

The Arab parties, which have vastly divergent viewpoints ranging
from an Islamist party to one with a Communist history, were
forced to band together. An
unprecedented 63.5% of Arabs
came out to vote, up from 56% in
2013. But it’s been difficult to keep the coalition together, as
Odeh acknowledged, saying, “It’s not easy to hug together a
Communist and an Islamist with a liberal and a nationalist.”

And with the bloc’s inability to pass laws in the face of
Netanyahu’s rightist coalition and the general rightward drift of
the center-left opposition, it’s anyone’s guess if the upcoming
election next year will generate the enthusiasm of 2015.

Odeh seems unconcerned. Perhaps it is because his vision, by
necessity, is wider than just the goings-on of the Knesset.
Reading Malcolm X jump-started his political education. “There
were times I had to stop reading to take a breath because I
couldn’t breathe,” he told me. But lately, he has taken Martin
Luther King Jr. as his north star.

Odeh has become the de-facto leader of Arab society in Israel, a
role he has taken to with gusto. When I met with Odeh, he had to
stop the interview several times to speak with the family of an
Arab child who had been kidnapped the previous day. He can be
found frequently leading rallies and protests against Netanyahu
and the ruling coalition in Tel Aviv, Haifa, and elsewhere.

When Farah, the rights activist, was injured at the
Gaza-solidarity protest in May, Odeh was
on the news
criticizing officers for what he saw as police
brutality and suppression. He was eventually suspended from the
Knesset for a week after lashing out at police officers at the
hospital where Farah was being treated. His outspokenness has
drawn vicious criticism from Netanyahu’s most right-wing allies,
like Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, the founder of far-right
Yisrael Beiteinu Party.

“Every day that Ayman Odeh and his associates are free to walk
around cursing at police officers is a failure of law enforcement
authorities,” Lieberman
posted on Twitter
at the time. “The place for these
terrorists is not in the Knesset — it’s in prison. It’s time they
pay a price for their actions.”

Odeh appears to be a new kind of Arab leader in Israel

aymanodeh 5.JPG
Ayman Odeh
is seen after he was wounded during clashes in Umm Al-Hiran, a
Bedouin village in Israel’s southern Negev


One of the most contentious issues in Israel since the 1990s has
been the eviction of Bedouin Arabs from the Negev Desert in the
south and the West Bank. Nomadic Bedouins lived in the area long
before the state formed, but after Israel’s victory in the
Six-Day War, in 1967, the state expropriated it as state land
with the intention of establishing Jewish towns there. Bedouins
established villages in the lands, built illegally since the
government rarely approves
for Arabs.

Since 1948, Israel has
established 700 towns and communities for Jews
and fewer than
10 for Arabs, despite similar population growth, a statistic
Arab-Israelis and leftists often cite as evidence of “apartheid.”

Recently, the Israeli army has issued dozens of orders to
demolish Bedouin villages to make way for Jewish settlements. The
Bedouins, the government has said,
will be moved to new more modern homes
; current Bedouin
villages often lack electricity or running water. But Bedouins
argue that the sites are inadequate. One site is next to a
garbage dump, and there is little room for their animals to

Odeh has led the fight against the demolitions. Two weeks after
the election of 2015, he
led a 75-mile march
from the Negev Desert to Jerusalem to
call attention to the Bedouin issue. In January 2017, Odeh was at
the forefront again. After a Supreme Court order, the government
moved to demolish and evacuate the Bedouin village of Umm
al-Hiran to make way for a Jewish town to be named, unironically,
Hiran. Hundreds of armed police launched a predawn raid on the
village while residents and activists — Odeh among them —
attempted to stop the demolition.

The day
erupted in clashes
, and
a Bedouin-Israeli was shot by police while driving his car
The man lost control of his car and plowed into a policeman,
killing him. The driver
was fatally shot by police
, who said they suspected a
terrorist attack.

Odeh was in the thick of it, attempting to get past police to the
man’s body. It ended with Odeh
covered in pepper spray
and, he alleges, shot in the head
with a sponge-tipped bullet. Police said he was hit by an errant
rock thrown by protesters. When I asked Odeh, given the current
climate in the Knesset, whether he felt his activism was more
important than his parliamentary work, Odeh pointed to the

“After that protest, we had a year with no demolitions of houses.
I will happily be shot again if it will lead to another year of
no demolitions,” he said. “With respect to the parliamentary
work, the public work is the one that, all across history, has
made the changes in the world.”

In April, the residents Umm-Al-Hiran reached
an agreement to voluntarily leave
the village and move to a
new development in Hura, a Bedouin town in the Negev Desert.

Odeh told me that he wants to present a “moral alternative” to
Israeli society based around equality. His goal is not just to
energize Arab-Israelis, but to win over Jews, to pull the center
of gravity away from the right wing.

AYmanOdehUmmalHiran 6.JPG
Ayman Odeh (front
row C), wounded during clashes, stands with other Arab Israeli
politicians in Umm Al-Hiran, a Bedouin village in Israel’s
southern Negev Desert.


Almost to his detriment, Odeh has espoused a politics that is
“soothing” to Jewish-Israelis and focused on coexistence, Noy,
the leftist journalist, told me. In the current climate, she
said, Jews are not that interested in hearing about
“possibilities of coexistence,” and Odeh’s insistence risks
alienating those Arab-Israelis who desire a more combative
leader. Even now, with the Nation-State Law galvanizing Arab
society, there is no guarantee that Odeh will be able to hold
together the Joint List for elections next year. There is still a
lot of “bad blood” between the four parties that form it, she

Odeh is thinking beyond his immediate bloc. He talked about
forming a “democratic coalition” for those who want to resist not
just Netanyahu’s government, but right-wing and antidemocratic
governments all over the world, and told me that the most
important question in Israel right now is who can exclude who

Will the right wing win over a big-enough majority of Jews to
exclude Arab-Israelis, or will Arab-Israelis form a coalition
that excludes the right wing? Such a thing has happened before,
he reminded me. In the 1990s, Arab-Israeli Knesset members helped
Labor leader Yitzak Rabin form the government that negotiated the
Oslo Accords, one of the most significant movements in the
Israel-Palestine peace process.

But times are different. In the age of US President Donald Trump,
he said, Netanyahu appears reasonable, and that could open the
door for moves that could shake the status quo to its

Cohen, Odeh’s adviser, told me that many Israelis believe the
government is laying the groundwork for annexing Area C, which
comprises 60% of the West Bank and is where 500,000 Jewish
settlers live. As part of the Oslo Accords, the West Bank was
divided into three areas. While A and B are managed by the
Palestinian Authority, and Area C is under complete
Israeli-military control. Estimates for the Palestinian
population there
range from 150,000 to 300,000
, according to The Washington

Taking Area C, something
proposed openly by right-wing education minister Naftali
, would all but end the two-state solution.

There is ‘no future for the Israeli economy’ without Arabs

ummelfahem 2
officers stand guard as right wing activists wave Israeli flags
and carry banners during a demonstration in the Israeli Arab town
of Umm El Fahem. Hebrew banner reads, ”Israel needs Jewish

AP Photo/Sebastian

For all the apparent provocations against Arab-Israelis — the
Nation-State Law, the demolitions, the tirades of right-wing
politicians — there’s a growing awareness that they are
increasingly integral to Israel’s future.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development said in
its 2018 report that Israel
needs to better integrate its Arab-Israelis
or risk economic
stagnation and declining living standards for all of Israel.

While Knesset members may have little interest in helping Arab
society, Odeh said, the ministries and the bureaucracy have
acknowledged that economic development and equality is “in the
interests of everyone.”

As Robert Cherry, a Brooklyn College professor of economics who
has written extensively on discrimination and race,
wrote last year, there is a wide gap
between the inflammatory
anti-Arab rhetoric of Netanyahu, Bennett, and others in the
ruling coalition and the positive actions they have taken to aid
Arab-Israeli society.

“Netanyahu knows and understands that there is no future for the
Israeli economy without the Arabs and [ultra-Orthodox Jews],”
Abed Kanaaneh of the left-wing coexistence organization Sikkuy,

told The Jerusalem Post
in November. “You can say a lot about
him, but on economics, he knows what to do.”

As part of Resolution 922, the $4.3 billion five-year plan for
the Arab sector passed in 2015, funding
was increased for Arab business centers and accelerators
the government plans to invest $25.6 million in small and
medium-size Arab businesses.

The government has also pledged to fund 30 months of salaries for
Arab employees if a company hires five or more people from that
population. The Innovation Authority, the office charged with
developing the science and tech industries, said it was
expanding grant and support programs
for Arab entrepreneurs.
The hope is to increase the percentage of Arabs working in the
tech industry. Currently, they make up only 3% of the workforce.

Israel News AymanOdeh Arab (6 of 29)
Ayman Odeh chats with
residents in Wadi Nisnas, a neighborhood in his hometown of

Jacobs/Business Insider

Israel News AymanOdeh Arab (7 of 29)
Ayman Odeh chats with
residents in Wadi Nisnas, a neighborhood in his hometown of

Jacobs/Business Insider

“This is what beats the racism: economics,” Dror Sadot, Odeh’s
spokeswoman, said with a laugh as we walked with Odeh through the
winding alleyways of Wadi Nisnas, a colorful Arab neighborhood in

Odeh stopped in every shop, every restaurant, and every market
stall, and greeted each proprietor the same way he greeted me —
with a million-dollar smile, a bear hug, and a pat on the back.
Having started his career in the city council, he knows everyone,
and everyone knows him.

People called out to him, “Ayman, Ayman.” Haifa is a city, but,
as residents told me, it acts like a village. Odeh is the village
kid who made it big.

We stand in front of the vegetable market, and a Jewish professor
at the local university put down his bags and said something to
Odeh. He then shook his hand vigorously. I asked Sadot what the
man had said.

“You bring pride to Haifa.”

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