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Election Diary: The Workers Who Built the Campaign

Asma Agbarieh
2006 / 12 / 17

EARLY February. Kufr Qara. Two months until elections. It is a meeting between members of ODA-DAAM, the Organization for Democratic Action, and a group of workers. Women and men. Today the workers will make a decision as to whether they want to be on the list of ODA candidates for the Knesset. The topic is at the end of the agenda. I m on pins and needles. Unlike me, the workers sit relaxed in their seats. The youngest is 27, the oldest, Munir Ka war (Abu Wisam) is 66. His opinion counts the most for me. And for a reason.



Three years ago, when ODA last ran, Abu Wisam claimed that the society wasn t ready for the notion that manual workers could represent themselves: "People will say, What do they know about politics? " When the time arrived to discuss ODA, I asked, "What do you think today, Abu Wisam?" Instead of answering directly, he told the group a story: "Thirty years ago I worked at a building site in Tel Aviv with a young construction engineer from Russia. He used to invite me during the break for a cup of coffee nearby. One day that I ll never forget, one of our fellow workers asked us to take him along so he could go to the bank. After he d done what he needed, he returned to the car to wait for us while we had our usual coffee. We yelled to him that he should come join us. He excused himself, because he was embarrassed about his dirty work clothes. To my astonishment, the engineer got up, took a stand in the middle of this Tel Aviv street, and delivered a speech in praise of the workers, telling my friend, You are the foundation of the whole society! In Russia they knew how to value the worker."

This story was the dramatic introduction to Abu Wisam s announcement that he would join the ODA list. He was joined by laborers from Kufr Qara, Nazareth, Um al-Fahm, Kfar Manda, Shaab and other places for a total of 29 men and women.

At the campaign kick-off in Haifa on February 11, the workers representatives and the ODA members took the stage, announcing our rebirth as a workers party. The energy, enthusiasm and strength gathered there would burst forth, in the next month and a half, into many a forum, into the local and foreign media, and even as far as the Agbarieh General Store, run by my mother in Jaffa.

One of our finest moments occurred when twenty laborers came straight from their jobs to join the audience in the auditorium of the Nazareth Cinematheque, where Aljazeera was broadcasting a live debate. On the stage, beside the well-known leaders of the other parties, sat their representative, me. There we demonstrated our identity: not an Arab party, not an Arab-Jewish party, but an internationalist workers party. Adel Mana a, one of the moderators, described the panel thus: "We have here a national communist current from the past (Hadash), a pan-Arab current (Balad), an Islamic current (RAAM), and a workers current (ODA)."

Between racism and bread

The agenda we put forth in the campaign, which focused on the workers situation, was alien to the other Arab parties. Their slogans soared high above the public s everyday concerns. Here you had one party demanding abolition of the Law of Return (which promotes Jewish immigration) and a change in the flag (which currently represents Jews only). Or another demanding the liberation of Muslim cemeteries and Waqf lands (lands of the Supreme Muslim Council). In contrast, ODA set itself the down-to-earth task of liberating the working class from unemployment and from exploitative conditions. "One can t deal just with what s on the plate," said Muhammad Barakeh, leader of Hadash, in a symposium with us at Mar Elias College. But what to do, Comrade Barakeh? With no foundation, how can we build a roof?

ODA became something of a media item, with lots of invitations to talk shows on Israeli channels. In the light of this fact, an interviewer on Arab radio asked me, "Don t you think that all this media interest is the result of a gimmick?" I disagreed: "The media is seeking us out because we are raising the issues of unemployment and poverty, issues that have become a top political problem in Israel and the world."

Our message found a receptive audience at home gatherings, which were an important forum in the campaign (someone invites guests to her home for the purpose of political discussion). One gathering, organized by ODA candidate Siham Alawi of Kufr Qara, was outstanding. In the living room, awaiting me and my colleague, Hitam Na amneh, were five men and thirty women, most of them manual workers. Siham was proud to have persuaded her neighbor, a teacher, to come.

One of the men complained: "Why didn t you mention that the Arabs suffer from racism? Why do we have to accept the national anthem Hatikva, which doesn t represent our dreams?" (A change of the anthem is one of the demands made by Hadash.) In response, I asked the others, "Does anyone here have any doubt that we re Arabs and suffer from racism in this country? As for the anthem, when was the last time the thought of it robbed you of a good night s sleep?" The chuckles exposed the deep gap that yawns between the important issues, on the one hand, and, on the other, the slogans of parties that don t do a thing on a day-to-day basis to rescue Arab society from poverty and joblessness.

Sans mustache

We were the only Knesset list with a woman in first position. On Israel s Channel 2, Gidi Gob (a well-known singer and TV host) asked me how people received me as a woman heading a party list. I admitted that indeed, "people didn t rush to the streets to hand out baklava." I could report, nonetheless, that the barriers between me and the workers groups had fallen quickly. "Once we started to discuss what a workers party could offer them, they even forgot I don t have a mustache."

The fact that I m female opened a door, enabling us to bring to public discussion a major issue that s been absent till now from the discourse of the Arab parties. I mean the miserable situation of women in Arab society. On every possible occasion I explained the immediate need for bringing Arab women into the labor market, so that we can cope with the poverty that today afflicts one out of every two Arab families. "The Workers Advice Center, of which I m a member, will do everything possible to open up jobs, but we cannot do it without governmental cooperation, and it s up to Arab society to free the woman so that she can go out to work."

ODA in Tel Aviv

A woman leading a party list and an Arab no less! This fact also attracted interest in feminist panels and dozens of Jewish home gatherings. With our number-two candidate, Nir Nader, I took part in one such gathering organized by Michal Ne eman, a well-known artist. The house was as crammed with books as her table with goodies. Around the table sat a group of artists and writers, including Tzibi Geva and Alona Kimhi. Haaretz reporter Orna Kazin, who was interested in our positions, had come to cover the story.

In these home gatherings, I confess, I wanted not just to speak but to listen. I wanted to understand the reasons for the interest in ODA shown by the progressive Jewish public. I found, on the one hand, a deep disappointment with Hadash and Balad, the parties that most of the radical Jews had voted for in the past, both because of their nationalist turn and because of their lack of accomplishment, apart from speeches. Between one election and another, one doesn t find them out in the field with people. The work of ODA members in the areas of culture, politics and society is appreciated, I learned, in progressive Jewish circles.

The central concern raised in many Jewish home gatherings was over "waste of votes," for it was clear that ODA would not get enough to cross the threshold of 2% (expected to equal 80,000). (It was interesting to note the place this issue occupied in Arab society compared with Jewish. In the former, most of the manual workers don t vote in any case, because they don t think they can change anything. The Jewish voter, on the other hand, takes his ballot very seriously. We admitted that we wouldn t enter the Knesset, but we also stressed that we weren t just engaging in a public-relations campaign: rather, we re building a workers party step-by-step. Every vote for ODA means greater power for the workers in the long run. It shows that we re getting deeper into the public consciousness, so that we can gather momentum from election to election.

I noticed that Kazin, the Haaretz reporter, didn t say a word at the meeting. A few days earlier she had published an article mentioning her decision to vote for Hadash, despite misgivings because of the nationalist line that it s taken in recent years. At the end of the meeting, I asked her opinion. She said it had given her food for thought.

Whenever I spoke before a Jewish audience, the big challenge for me was to persuade my listeners to take part in creating an atmosphere responsive to the needs of Arab workers; to join us in the basic demand to open jobs; and to recognize the harmful effects of the Wisconsin program on Jews and Arabs alike. (On Wisconsin.) It was important to us that we should know and that all the workers should know that in this place, Tel Aviv, live people who do not belong to the Zionist consensus, people who oppose, for example, the separation wall, people who don t buy into the illusion of unilateral separation, people who aspire to a just solution for the Palestinian question.

One day before the elections, Kazin published an article and photograph featuring the home gathering at Ne eman s on the front page of the culture section in Haaretz. She wrote that our answer to the question of "wasting votes" was persuasive. The next day, just before preliminary results were announced, she wondered (in a blog) whether ODA would get enough support to expand its activities.

Workers Join

Tuesday, March 28. Election Day. Five p.m. in Nazareth. Three construction workers enter the office. The oldest, in his fifties, is Mustafa Abu al-Hija from Reineh. Excitement lights his face. They came to meet the head of the list, who appeared on Israel s Channel 10 wearing a construction helmet. They wanted, in their words, "to meet this strange beast. What is this party that takes interest in workers like them?"

There was a heart-to-heart talk, led with tact and sensitivity by ODA General Secretary, Yacov Ben Efrat. It turned out that Abu Al-Hija had been fired after forty years and all doors had been shut in his face. For the last two and a half years, he d been pursuing his hobby, wood carving, mainly to kill time. The sparkle returned to his eyes when he heard the story of Abu Wisam, 66; with WAC s help Abu Wisam has managed to find work again, training new laborers on construction sites. There is no necessary reason, said Yacov, why a productive work life should stop at age 50.

Tuesday evening, 10 p.m, Kufr Qara. The polls have closed. The young workers stand in the polling stations and count the ballots showing our letter, quf. Abu Wisam is there, and with him his wife, their friend Abu Karam, and a large group of female workers and youth. The result was more or less known in advance, but nevertheless, suspense filled those gathered there. The group from Kufr Qara had worked like bees around a hive. They had organized the election meeting of the village s workers and addressed it, they had gone house-to-house, accompanying people to the polls. The enthusiasm and energy radiated by this committed group were the real answer to the question posed by the reporters from Haaretz and the Arabic radio, al-Shams, and to all the others who asked, about whether votes for ODA would be wasted.

As expected, overall voter turnout was the lowest in Israeli history (63%), and the Arab turnout was the lowest ever for a Knesset election (56%). On election day, there is a socio-economic class that votes and another that doesn t. The Arab working class doesn t. It long ago lost its faith in the parties, or in its potential to change the conditions of Arab life. To alter this basic mind-set will demand enormous energy.

But workers are joining ODA. If a few dozen activists managed this time to bring in 3691 votes, how much more will new members harvest! The campaign has given ODA a big push toward fulfilling its role for the many thousands whom the other parties have abandoned. The next campaign begins today.




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