Listening to a Responsible Israeli Arab Member of Knesset

Recently I had the good fortune of listening to a serious, substantive and sensitive Palestinian Arab of Israeli citizenship in Jerusalem. It was as refreshing as it was unusual.

MK Ayman Oudeh is the head of the Joint List, the third largest party in the current Knesset which is a new amalgamation of 4 parties -- 3 Israeli Arab political parties (Balad, the United Arab List, and Ta'al) and one Arab-Jewish party (Hadash). He spoke to a packed audience of foreign and local journalists and bloggers at the Jerusalem Press Club at Mishkenot Sha'ananim a few weeks ago in Jerusalem. It was an important and enlightening briefing for everyone who was there, including myself.

Mr. Oudeh is a breath of fresh air on Israel's political scene. A successful lawyer from Haifa, he was active in local politics for many years, representing the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality (Hadash) from 1998-2003 on the Haifa City Council. He has been serving as the Secretary-General of Hadash since 2006, and is currently a member of the Knesset House Committee, the Knesset Committee on Labor, Welfare and Health, as well as the chairman of the Cultural Affairs parliamentary group. Last year, he was listed among Foreign Policy magazine's Top 100 Leading Global Thinkers of 2015, and now that I have heard him speak I am not surprised about this award.

Why do I say that hearing Mr. Oudeh was refreshing and unusual? The answer is that he was not vituperative or vicious in his criticism of many of the policies of the current Israeli government (as are many of his colleagues in his political party). Rather, he was calm, cautious and careful in all of his statements, which demonstrated substance, sensitivity and sensibility. I found him to be a respectful and responsible representative of his community, the Israeli Palestinian minority of Israel, which comprises 20 percent of the population of the state of Israel.

Mr. Oudeh began by quoting a famous statement by the well-known Palestinian author Emil Habibi: "I am a Palestinian from Israel." This clearly stated that he is a member of the Palestinian People at the same time that he is a citizen of the state of Israel. This was an important statement of identity. He wanted us to understand that he is no longer just an "Israeli Arab"; rather, his identity includes his belonging to the Palestinian People at the center of his being, just as many Jewish citizens of Israel see their belonging to the Jewish People as essential to who they are.

The second major point that Mr. Oudeh made very clearly and coherently is that in the complex situation of Palestinian Arabs living in the same country with the Jewish majority, we should not give simplistic answers to complicated issues. Rather, "All answers should look for the common interests of both peoples (Palestinians and Jews)." This point of view is one that has characterized Mr. Oudeh and the political party which he comes from (Hadash) for a long time. It is not an "us against them" philosophy but an inclusive and cooperative one.

His third main point in his introductory remarks also succinctly expressed his main dual concerns as a Palestinian person and an Israeli citizen: "We support a Palestinian state for the Palestinian People and we struggle for equality for the Palestinian Arab minority within Israel." Once again, it was not "either-or" but "both-and".

After presenting clearly his basic world view as a Palestinian Arab political leader in Israel, he then was carefully -- and correctly, in my view -- critical of some of the positions and statements of the current Israeli government towards his community. In particular, he was visibly upset with recent actions and statements of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. "He is the leader of the incitement against the Arab population of Israel and its leaders," he said. "After the recent attack of a lone Palestinian Arab citizen in Tel Aviv, Netanyahu gave an inciteful speech against that whole Palestinian Arab population in Israel," he added.

In Mr. Oudeh's view, there are many examples of the Prime Minister's incitement against the Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel. He believes that Netanyahu sees the Palestinian Arab Israelis as a threat to his regime, since they represent twenty percent of the society! In his view, the Prime Minister and many of his colleagues do not really want to see his community as having a legitimate political voice in the country. They continue to defame the community over and over again, and are not serious about granting equal rights or equal opportunity to the Palestinian Arabs of Israel. Even though they sometimes give lip service to these ideas, they don't actually believe in them and they certainly do not do very much to advance these ideas in actual practice.

With an audience of journalists in attendance, Mr. Oudeh was naturally asked some challenging questions. For example, does he think that Palestinians who kill Israelis are "martyrs"? His answer was "No!" He condemns these acts and his condemnation conveys a message to his community. He is against harming innocent civilians! Another challenging questioner asked if he recognizes the right of the Jewish People to a state of their own. I found his answer to be amazingly forthright and focused. He said clearly:

There is a Jewish People that has a right to self-determination. But the state has to be a democratic state, with equality for all of its citizens.

He also went on to make a plea for multiculturalism in Israel society, advocating that it will be better for all of us:

We need to realize that having more than one culture in this county is good for everyone. I know Israeli Jewish culture [he quoted Tchernichovsky!] and the Jews of Israel should know our culture too! We should live in a multicultural society. If we talk more about the content of our culture (rather than just the symbols), we can solve many problems.

I deeply appreciated the opportunity to meet and hear from such a reasonable and responsible Palestinian Arab Israeli politician. I found that his style and his substance were both constructive and committed to finding real solutions which will strengthen Israeli democracy for all of us, Jews and Palestinians alike, who are all citizens and share the same country. I appreciated his pragmatism as well as his political philosophy, and I found his current critique of the contemporary handling of key issues in majority-minority relations to be right on the mark and worthy of careful consideration.

In this candid encounter, I learned a great deal from one of our most important and effective emerging political leaders and I developed great respect for his persistence and positive approach. More people in Israel and abroad should get to know this emerging leader and his ideas for the future of all of Israel's citizens.