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What Makes Asma Run

How Asma Agbaria-Zahalka is turning a socialist party of Arabs and Jews into a political phenomenon in Israel

Liel Leibovitz
January 11, 2013
Asma Agabaria-Zahalka at the March of Human Rights on Dec. 7, 2012.(Yael Golan)
Asma Agabaria-Zahalka at the March of Human Rights on Dec. 7, 2012.(Yael Golan)

Facebook is far from a reliable instrument for measuring political fluctuations, and the level of discourse it encourages often leaves much to be desired, but when I saw Asma Agbaria-Zahalka’s face for the umpteenth time on my virtual wall, I grew curious. The most remarkable thing was that my acquaintances who were posting enthusiastically about Agbaria-Zahalka were a diverse bunch—Jews and Arabs, some educated and others less fortunate, a few of them well-off and a few struggling. Yet all seemed intrigued by the young woman, and all seemed to suggest that she might be that rarest of birds: the one who might once again galvanize the moribund Israeli left.

On the surface, there isn’t much to suggest that Agbaria-Zahalka and her party, Da’am, stand much of a chance of making it to the Knesset come this month’s election. The party’s last few campaigns have been more or less disastrous; in 2009, it hardly won 2,700 votes. But that was before the J14 movement, before the tents in Rothschild Boulevard, before Israelis collectively howled against the steep cost of housing and stagnant salaries and the other ravages years of rampant neo-liberal economic measures had wrought. And when they started paying attention to the economy, they started paying attention to Agbaria-Zahalka: Her unabashedly socialist platform is attracting a growing amount of attention in recent months, from a series of ads featuring a wide array of Israelis ecstatically stating their support to the sudden swelling of attendance at her many public appearances.

For years, Agbaria-Zahalka herself wasn’t paying much attention. She was born in Jaffa in 1974, and like most people she hit adolescence and started looking for some form of teenage rebellion. The only path available to her, as a young Arab woman, was religion; her family was traditional, but Agbaria-Zahalka found herself diving deeper into Islam, becoming more observant, more strict. She liked what the religion had to offer and particularly what she saw as its commitment to justice and good will.

Then she enrolled at Tel Aviv University. In 1995, as a student with meager means, she took a job to help finance her education. It was with a brand new political party, Da’am; the party had its newspaper, and Agbaria-Zahalka was hired as a copy editor. “I was not interested in politics,” she told me, “but I read the stories I was editing and understood that there were problems and that we can advocate for alternative policies and help people in their struggles. I realized that what I needed to do wasn’t just fix texts, but fix reality. I joined the party.”

The party was an odd fixture in the otherwise monochromatic Israeli political landscape. It was founded in 1995 by a group of Jewish and Palestinian activists and focused on advocating both the establishment of a Palestinian state side-by-side with Israel and a radical reform of Israel’s economy. Its basic credo was that only real collaboration between Arabs and Jews could bring about peace and prosperity, which led the party to establish Ma’an, a workers-rights group, and start organizing.

An obvious demographic were Arab women, about 80 percent of whom are unemployed. Agbaria-Zahalka and her colleagues reached out to these disenfranchised women and helped them find jobs in agriculture. It was an uphill battle: For years, Israeli employers have been arguing that no Israeli would ever deign to take on such physically demanding, unrewarding work, which led to the government’s importing tens of thousands of laborers from abroad. And if employers did hire local residents, they usually did so through third-party contractors who paid their charges far less than the minimum wage and failed to provide rudimentary welfare and safety conditions.

Ma’an helped change that. Since it began its campaign in 2005, it helped more than 4,000 women find employment. It’s still a small fraction of the population, but for the few suddenly shown possibilities previously unimagined, the change was revelatory. “I would come home from work every evening,” one such worker, Wafa Tiara, said in a recent interview with the Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv. “I would shower, and then I’d sit down right away and start breastfeeding my baby. And as I was breastfeeding I was thinking about how it was that I left my home at four in the morning to go to work and came back with only 85 shekels. This pain of being exploited drove me mad, but I had no other choice.” Agbaria-Zahalka helped Tiara find work that paid double. Soon thereafter, Tiara, too, joined the party.

What was true for Tiara, Agbaria-Zahalka believed, was true for many other Israelis, of all religions and ethnicities and walks of life. “Whether they like it or not,” she said, “Jews and Arabs today are joined at the paycheck. They’re both victims of bad policy.” In recent years, Ma’an has organized art teachers, archeological-site diggers, and truck drivers and put out ad campaigns in Russian, Arabic, and Hebrew. With most Israeli-Arab politicians concerned primarily with their own constituents, and with most Israeli-Arab parties focused primarily on the question of the conflict, Agbaria-Zahalka realizes that her political approach is unorthodox.

“You can continue to fight over the country you say the Jews took from you in 1948,” she said, “or you can realize that the Jews themselves don’t have a country today. It was taken from them. It was taken by the government and given to tycoons, and we all need to fight to get it back.”

It’s a complex argument for Agbaria-Zahalka to make, and it’s rendered harder still by the presence of another high-profile Israeli-Arab female politician with diametrically opposed views, Haneen Zoabi. A combative member of Knesset from the nationalist Balad party, Zoabi is the bête noire of Israeli politics. In 2010, she was on the Mavi Marmara, the Turkish ship that attempted to defy Israel’s siege on Gaza and was overtaken by Israeli commandos in what has become a highly publicized international incident. As a result, a coalition of her fellow Knesset members and right-wing activists attempted to have Zoabi barred from running in the upcoming election, an effort that failed only after the intervention of the Supreme Court. Exiting the courthouse, Zoabi was assaulted by thugs; she’s hardly treated any better when interviewed by the Israeli media.

Agbaria-Zahalka has much respect for Zoabi—“when Arab women enter politics,” she said, “each with her own vision, so different, objectively it shows that Arab women are breaking new ground, and that is blessed”—but could not disagree with her more. “We will not go together with the Muslim Brotherhood like she did on the Marmara,” she said. “I object to the siege on Gaza, I think it’s a travesty to starve an entire people. And I’m against the political persecution against Zoabi. But we’re fighting against the Brotherhood. I want to promote a real left that doesn’t see Islam as its salvation. I don’t want to go 1,400 years back in time. I want to go into the future.”


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Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.