Against Racism and For Democracy: Reflections on Ayman Odeh at the HaaretzQ Conference

By Aaron Steinberg-Madow

As an Israeli politician gets up to speak, a crowd of Jewish Americans leaps to its feet. But the speaker isn't Jewish. His name is Ayman Odeh and he is a Palestinian citizen of Israel and the leader of the Joint List, the third largest party in the Knesset. MK Odeh has come to New York to address the HaaretzQ Conference with the New Israel Fund. He has come to enlist the support of progressive Jewish Americans in building a civil rights movement in Israel.

After serving as a councilman in Haifa, Odeh rose to prominence this year when he consolidated the diverse parties that had represented Palestinian citizens of Israel and the communist Hadash party into the Joint List. A staunch believer in the power of nonviolent civil disobedience and a champion of equality for all of Israel's citizens, Odeh frequently draws comparisons to Martin Luther King, Jr.

For many American Jewish liberals, the plight of Palestinian citizens of Israel might be unfamiliar, undermining as it does the myth of a “good” Israel within the 1967 borders and a “bad” Israel in the Palestinian territories. From Israel’s inception, the Palestinians who managed to remain in their homes during the 1948 War or who returned have faced immense discrimination. Israel imposed a draconian military regime on its Palestinian subjects, restricting their civil rights, freedom of movement, and access to employment, all the while seeking to confiscate the lands of those who were internally displaced. Though Israel ended its military rule in 1966, Palestinians citizens today remain unequal in countless ways, facing not only discrimination in every sector of public life but demonization from the highest Israeli elected officials. There have even been increasingly vocal calls for their expulsion. To consider the condition of Palestinian subjects of Israel is to acknowledge the presence of deeply ingrained Jewish racism that will not magically disappear upon the creation of a Palestinian state.

In New York, it was against this grisly backdrop that Odeh raised his voice for a truly multicultural Israel. In sharp contrast to the other keynote speakers, many of whom were Jewish Israeli lawmakers, he argued not for a two-state solution and the fantasy of “separation” from the Palestinians, but for an Israel of robust democracy and equal rights for all. During his keynote, Odeh did not merely call for the end of discrimination against Palestinian citizens, but for "a movement to end all forms of discrimination, a movement that is as principled as it is powerful." He spoke of Israelis - Palestinians and Jews - marching under the same banner of anti-racism and democracy, of a shared society that made its demands equally in Arabic and Hebrew. 

For the first time all day, the crowd of disillusioned Jewish leftists allowed itself to have hope: here was the Israeli leader we were waiting for. While Israeli Jewish liberals called for ending the occupation in order to protect Israel, Odeh called upon us to engage the history of Nakba and to fight racism. Where Israeli Jewish liberals bemoaned the rise of Netanyahu and his evisceration of the hope in a two-state solution, Odeh offered a moral vision that could build a movement. When Odeh finished his speech, the question was doubtlessly on the minds of many: how can we support Odeh’s transformative vision - a richer, more democratic distillation than anything concocted by Israel’s founding leaders - from America? 

Following Odeh's visit to New York, progressive Jewish Americans have realized that they face a historic choice. We can continue, despite all evidence, to believe that liberal Israeli Jews will be able to wrestle the Knesset away from the right-wing and broker the peace deal that will decisively preserve Israel's Jewish demographic majority and end the settlement project. Or we can throw our full support behind Ayman Odeh and the leadership of Palestinian citizens of Israel. We can support them, however they ask us, as they attempt to build a civil rights movement that will redefine the meaning of Israeli citizenship and align Israel with the Jewish values we profess to hold dear.

In the summer of 1964, Jewish Americans also had a choice about whether they would stand idly in the face of a wretched status quo or join a minority-led movement for civil rights. That summer, a minority of American Jewish young adults boarded buses to the American South and worked alongside Black Americans in pursuit of justice for all. But in our communal hagiography that often passes for history, it is as if those who went defined the ethical character of a generation. I was raised to believe that their legacy - against racism and for democracy - was my birthright.

Ayman Odeh is driving the movement for equality and democracy in Israel, but this is also our opportunity to actually inherit the civil rights legacy that we have been taught belonged to us. In a moment of deep division in the progressive Jewish community over Israel - there is no consenus on either the viability of the two-state solution or what tactics can best pressure Israel to move towards peace - standing in solidarity with Palestinian citizens of Israel represents an opportunity for unity and anti-racist action. Once again, the bus is idling outside of our homes. The only question is: how many of us will get board?

Aaron-Steinberg Madow is a graduate of Haverford College, where he majored in History and concentrated in Peace, Justice & Human Rights. He presently serves on the Steering Committee of Open Hillel.