The Zoabi tragedy

The first time I saw Haneen Zoabi was on my third or fourth day in Tel Aviv in 2012, I had just moved into a room on Herzl, a block off from Florentine. I was watching The Café on Al Jazeera, and there she was with fellow Israelis, the mayor of Efrat at the time, a young lady involved in the social protests at the time, the one guy who wanted to draft Hassidim in Tsahal, Schlomo Zand and a couple of others.

I asked one of my roommates who that Palestinian lady was who interrupted every speaker off point to talk about Palestine or her as a Palestinian woman, and advocating that Israeli Jews were immigrants who could leave if they didn’t like her opinion.

He told me that she was Member of Knesset Haneen Zoabi up to her usual antics.

I later learned that Haneen Zoabi was also on the Mavi Marmara flotilla in 2010.

And more recently she took very controversial positions on the kidnapping of the Israeli teens in the West Bank, reminiscent of Malcolm X’s “chickens coming home to roost” comments on the Kennedy assassination.

I remember thinking, and still do, that nothing says democracy like a Congressman or MP calling the majority of a population immigrants who were free to leave, and being absolutely allowed to do so.

But as time goes by, I can’t help but reflect on the tragedy, and the irony that is Haneen Zoabi’s life.

Haneen Zoabi wants to be a Palestinian activist, firebrand and politician, while she is an Israeli politician and an anti-Israel activist and firebrand.

Israel is a democracy, and she is now appealing against the Knesset’s decision to bar her based on her most recent rant. It is a freedom of speech issue, but the truth is, insensitive remarks like the ones she made would ostracize anybody from their political peers, and Zoabi is an expert at that.

My position on the Mavi Marmara is pretty straightforward, they shouldn’t have been there, and they shouldn’t have assaulted the soldiers (albeit with knives which are still deadly). But then I learned that Haneen Zoabi was the sitting Israeli-Arab MK on the flotilla. Arab leaders alternate taking stands against the occupation, a position shared by almost half of Israeli-Jews, and I do not know if Ms. Zoabi encouraged the humanitarians on board to resist when they were boarded, but she should have been the voice of reason on the boat, told people to calm down and not take drastic action. As the most senior member of government present on the flotilla, I’m afraid, in my mind at least, that she shares the responsibility for the casualties. She should have known better, she could have been a spokesperson; she could have avoided this tragedy.

But Zoabi’s life is a tragedy, the tragedy of a person who thinks she is born on the wrong side of the border, while ironically being Israeli allows her to exist in ways that wouldn’t be possible if she were in fact Palestinian.

Palestine established quotas recently to increase female representation in politics, but it is still an uphill struggle for Palestinian women to get elected independently and even then for them to have the voice they deserve once in office. There is very little doubt that if Haneen Zoabi had been a Palestinian citizen, she would be in that demographic, and not one of the leading voices for Arabs and a model for Arab women in politics.

Haneen Zoabi said herself, that even as an Israeli MK, she was foreseen as representative of Arab women issues, something she resents as a feminist and would like to involve men in just as well. Her tenacity and personal courage (even if I don’t agree with some of her more radical positions), have allowed her to rise to a leadership role in the Israeli-Arab community regarding the conflict and other social issues of importance to the Israeli-Arab community, a role that she would be struggling with on the other side of the border.

Haneen Zoabi is right on several issues, notably equality in practice between Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews. Oded Ravivi is not someone who’s open to any actual dialogue, I can imagine any conversation with him turning to a shouting match, and something needs to be done about the occupation. I also can’t relate to the challenges facing a Palestinian female politician, and even less a female Israeli-Arab politician, the years of resentment and having to deal with blows from your community as a woman, and by rival Knesset members as an Arab.

But that’s the irony, and in a way her tragedy: Haneen Zoabi wants to be a Palestinian politician, activist and firebrand. She wants to change things for Arab women, she wants to show them that they can achieve what she has, she wants to be a voice against the occupation and a flag bearer for Palestine. And she is all of those things, and more, but only because she is Israeli.

About the Author
Mame Bougouma Diene is a civil servant on permanent vacation even when he works 70 hours a week, who also blogs for the Times of Israel in French. He's French-Senegalese American, loves Israel and the Middle East, would really like to see an end to this intractable mess in his lifetime.