“I believe in partnership”: An Israeli Arab Leader Dissents

Israeli Arab leader Nael Zoabi is fed up with the violent rhetoric of “his” MKs. An interview with one of the prominent voices calling for coexistence.

"What's so bad about being part of the establishment?" Nael Zoabi

“I really understand Ali Salam, the mayor of Nazareth. How much can you grit your teeth? How do you say ‘enough is enough!’ Then enough is enough. What do the Arab leaders want? War? Nazareth against Nazareth Illit? After all, there is one road separating the two cities. The houses there are adjacent to each other. He saw that everything was about to explode, and the people stirring everyone up won’t take responsibility.”

The man sympathetic to Nazareth’s mayor is Nael Zoabi, principal of the Tamra Ha’emek elementary school and an activist for Jewish-Arab coexistence. Zoabi was speaking after Salam excoriated Joint Arab List MK Ayman Odeh on prime time television for “ruining” Nazareth, which Israeli Jews are now avoiding out of fear for their safety. “The rabble rousers, who know how to speak out against the establishment and the state, won’t stick around to treat the wounded city. They’ll move on to the next microphone. So yes, I really understand why Ali Salam did what he did.”

As happens every time there is conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, the Arab leaders, and especially Arab MKs, take sides in the starkest manner. The discourse in Israel’s Arab community is fiery and inflammatory. At a time when blood is being shed, anyone tuning in to Israeli media would think that all Arabs are Hanin Zoabi, an MK who gained notoriety for participating in the Mavi Marmara flotilla, or Jamal Zahalka—an MK from the radically anti-Zionist Balad Party. The average Israeli viewer would also think that the moderates among them are like Ayman Odeh: polite people who don’t raise their voice, but who in that same friendly tone whitewash and cover up crimes and murders by their fellow Palestinians. “I can’t sit in my house in Carmel and tell the Palestinian people how to fight,” Odeh said recently. “I think that my people will choose how to fight, will choose its path.” With this comment, Odeh revealed his immoral position on murderous Palestinian violence.

One Voice                                                                                                         

Despite the dominance of militants and jingoists, quite a few others are not afraid to express a different point of view. Nazareth mayor Ali Salam is perhaps the most aggressive of them all. His public hazing of the most unmistakable public representative of Israel’s Arabs reflects the cracks in Arab support for the Joint List. Salam’s tirade was not just criticism of irresponsible behavior by Arab MKs; there are quite a few political interests, as well as previous hatred, between Salam and Odeh, a member of Hadash. However, Salam’s outburst in front of the television cameras shows that the Odeh-Zoabi-Zahalka axis does not represent all of Israel’s Arabs.

In recent years, more and more Israeli Arab public figures have openly criticized Arab MKs for their nationalist and separatist behavior. One of them is Nael Zoabi, who is an educator in every fiber of his being. Zoabi hails from the village of Nein in northern Israel and is a “proud Israeli,” as he puts it. Nael, a distant relative of Hanin Zoabi, believes in a “true partnership” with Jewish society. In a recent confrontation between Nael and MK Zahalka, the latter asserted that “there were always Arabs in Mapai, in Likud, even [Avigdor] Lieberman has Arabs. He [Zoabi] represents the establishment, the Likud.”

Zoabi is not alone. There are others, such as Father Gabriel Nadaf from Nazareth, who is working to bring Christian youths into the IDF. In addition, there is Lucy Aharish, an Arab Muslim journalist from Nazareth who grew up among Jews in Dimona, supports Jewish-Arab coexistence, and has consistently and courageously criticized Islamic terror and the radicalization of Israel’s Arab leaders. There is also Muhammad Zoabi, an eighteen-year-old from an Arab Muslim Zionist family who has expressed pro-Zionist opinions for several years and has used social networks and the media to speak out against terrorism. While he is popular on Israeli social networks, he has suffered abuse from Arabs. These are critical voices, articulate and brave, who oppose the Arab MKs’ one-dimensional view.

An internal conflict between those who want to get along, and those want unending conflict.

Mr. Zoabi, MK Zahalka actually claims you are a collaborator with Israel.

“How did he put it? That I’m ‘part of the establishment.’ I’d like to ask a question. What’s so bad about being part of the establishment? Why do I need to fight the establishment? Why should I live in an Arab ghetto? Why isolate myself? Why not take part in what is happening around me? I’m a citizen of the country and I want what is best for it. I share the same piece of land with the Jews and I want to live with them in peace and brotherhood, together. I have no purpose in heating up the atmosphere and continuing to cause divisiveness between Arabs and Jews.”

“Arab MKs must internalize the fact that in the end we, the Arabs, live together with the Jews. We can’t change this fact and it won’t change, and we must work together as much as possible to create true coexistence here. By the way, I’m not ashamed of the fact that I work to be part of the establishment. I want the best for those who live in my village. I want the best education for my children and students. I want a functioning society, law and order, and culture, and everything that other citizens receive. So I will work as much as possible with the establishment in order to achieve these goals.”

In your opinion, are Arab MKs irresponsible?

“Public leaders must act responsibly, with moderation, and with a level head in order to address the vital interests of those who elected them. Unfortunately, our basic problems are abandoned in favor of other flags. It is the job of Arab MKs and of those with power and influence to look out for the interests of the place where they live. In practice, our problems are abandoned, and in the name of the flag of the Palestinian problem, the needs of Israeli Arabs are completely ignored.”

Arab MKs claim that they are working for the benefit of their Palestinian brethren.

“The Palestinians have a father and a mother. They have leaders who can speak on their behalf. I don’t understand why our MKs appoint themselves to speak for the Palestinians. Who appointed them for that? In practice, they are becoming part of the problem and not the solution, and they are dragging the entire Arab public down with them. I want to be part of the solution, not the problem. I want to be a bridge for peace, a bridge for dialogue and understanding, and not take part in provocations—of incitement or various flotillas.”

נאיל זועבי
Nael Zoabi

Arab MKs Feed off Provocations

Nael Zoabi belongs to the large Zoabi family whose head, Seif al-Din Zoabi, tied his fate to the State of Israel. Even before the state was established, he had connections to the leaders of the yishuv, and later he became a Mapai MK. Since Israel’s founding, the Zoabi family—which today numbers some 15,000 people—has produced MKs, ministerial advisers, soldiers, police officers, and judges. Nael belongs to the branch that chose to walk hand-in-hand with the Jews.

Zoabi is also one of the most enthusiastic Arab supporters of national service for Arabs. He has introduced the study of the Holocaust into his school. “I don’t understand why everyone is so impressed by the fact that we study the Holocaust. There has never been such a terrible event in history. It has no parallel in the world. One people decides to slaughter another only because of its identity. That is truly awful. Truly awful. These are things that every student in the world must know, and all the more so a student in Israel.”

Are you actually saying that Arab MKs don’t want to address the needs of the Arab public?

“Our MKs should be responsible and cautious in what they say. I feel that they are mainly concerned about their own political and electoral gain. Each of them wants to show that he exists on television and in the global Arab media. But who is looking after the little guy in Nazareth?”

In the end, the Arab public elected the Mavi Marmara Zoabi and not Zoabi the school principal.

“I feel that I am the silent voice. We are not being heard because we don’t have a well-oiled PR and media machine. There are dozens of microphones for every provocation by Arab MKs, but no one listens when someone wishes to present a different side, either in the Arab media or the Israeli media. The media and society in general love to hear totally extremist voices. Talk of coexistence and peace—that we have no other country, no other state, and we have no other citizenship—no one listens to these things. The spotlight is always on the agitators.”

So where do we go from here?

“A lot depends on us. We are the silent voice of the Jewish and Arab population. We are sick of provocations and sick of war and we want to live together. I believe in true partnership, and we have no other choice. We live here and we will live here together, in defiance of the jingoists, the separatists, and the inciters.”

English translation by Miriam Himmelfarb. 

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1 comments on the article

  1. I hope that , when intelligence rather than excitement rules, we can see a change.