A Jewish Non-Zionist in the Knesset

A Conversation with Hadash MK Dov Khenin

No one expected a strong showing from Dov Khenin in the December mayoral elections in Tel Aviv. A Jewish Knesset member from mostly-Arab, non-Zionist, communist party, Khenin’s far-left politics seemed an intractable barrier to the mayoralty of a 90% Jewish city. As the election neared, however, the center-left incumbent Ron Huldai began to look weak. Khenin was running on a platform that mixed environmental issues with denunciations of the soaring cost of living in the city. He called it a “red-green coalition” – a blending of socialist and environmentalist issues that traditionally appeals to both the middle and working class, and in Tel Aviv proved particularly attractive to young voters. Polls showed surprising gains for Khenin. There was speculation that the election would come down to a runoff, and a Khenin win was not out of the question.

In the end, Khenin received 34% of the vote to Huldai’s 50%, narrowly missing a runoff. At first glance, it’s not a superb showing for Khenin. But consider the context: in the concurrent mayoral elections in Jerusalem, a secular candidate in favor of Jewish settlement in Jerusalem’s Arab neighborhoods narrowly beat out an ultra-Orthodox rabbi who predicted that all Israeli mayors will be ultra-Orthodox within 15 years. Khenin’s relative success in Tel Aviv exposes the widening gaps within the Israeli political culture. It also demonstrates a possible way forward for the Israeli left, whose leading party, Labour, has been reduced to also-ran status in national elections.

A former law professor and a prominent environmentalist, Khenin entered the Knesset in 2006 as the only Jewish representative of Hadash, an avowedly mixed Jewish and Arab party supported mostly by Arab voters. Founded in 1977 by a faction of the Israeli Communist Party, Hadash was once the dominant political movement among Israeli-Arabs. A vocal critic of the occupation and an early supporter of a two-state solution, Hadash received half of the Arab vote the year it was founded. Recently, Hadash’s Arab support has eroded in the face of competition from pan-Arabist and Islamist parties, but polls show that the party is poised to pick up four seats during the February elections, the most it has held in over two decades. [UPDATE: Hadash won four seats.]

Khenin did not run for the Tel Aviv mayoralty on a Hadash ticket, but rather on a local list called Ir Le’ Kulanu, or City for All. Huldai made an issue of Khenin’s non-Zionist politics. Khenin argued that his position on Zionism had nothing to do with his ability to run the city, telling the Jerusalem Post, “When my opponents try to divert the discussion from the issues on the agenda in Tel Aviv to grand ideology, I think that they are afraid of debating the real issues here in the city.”

Khenin returned to the Knesset after losing to Huldai, upsetting some supporters who had hoped that he would lead the list in the city council. In the Knesset, Khenin was among the only Jewish Israeli politicians to oppose the December invasion of Gaza from the start. He led public demonstrations against the war beginning on December 26th, the day before the aerial bombardment began. Labor and Meretz, the left-wing Zionist parties, supported the first stages of the war. Meretz eventually withdrew its support with the start of the ground invasion on January 3rd.

On January 23rd, the Israeli daily Haaretz accused Hadash of delivering different messages regarding the war on their Hebrew and Arabic websites. The Hebrew site simply condemned the attacks on Gaza, while the Arabic site seemed to support “resistance” on the part of the Palestinians. In an interview with  Haaretz, Khenin said, “Hadash has one platform in two languages, and that is its political basis. It’s true that Israel has two communities with different sensibilities, different terminologies and different political traditions, and we must try to transmit our message within this reality.”

We spoke with Khenin via telephone on January 6th, in the early days of the ground war in Gaza.


I originally planned this interview to be about your mayoral campaign in Tel Aviv, but given current events it’s important to ask you about Gaza. What is your position on Israel’s actions in Gaza?

We of course oppose the war in Gaza. We think that the war cannot be and is not actually a solution to the problem. It is part of the problem. We think that the only way to achieve security for the people in the Israeli Negev is through a real cease-fire with Gaza, including the opening of the blockade on the Gaza strip and an agreement on an exchange of prisoners and detainees including the release of Gilad Shalit  [an Israeli soldier abducted by Hamas in 2006]. We think that such a ceasefire agreement is possible and such an agreement can open a possibility for a real dialogue; a political dialogue between Israel and the Palestinians and the Palestinian National Authority in order to achieve a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian settlement.

What do you make of Meretz’s initial support for the bombardment, and the support of the mainstream Jewish Israeli left?

Well, unfortunately Meretz supports the war. It is most unfortunate. I think that this is the moment for leftists to raise opposition and to make it clear to the Israeli public that there is an alternative. The war option is not the only one. We can have another political way.

Why is it that they supported the bombardment and your party doesn’t? Are there political considerations that exist for them that don’t exist for Hadash?

I think that it is time for political courage. You have to be courageous in [Israel] right now to oppose the war. But this is the time not to wonder where the wind blows, but to make it clear what your policies are and what your suggestions are for the Israeli situation. There are people from Meretz who decided to leave Meretz and join us. It reflects the disappointment of some Meretz activists in the position of the leadership of the party vis-à-vis the war.

Hadash is often grouped in the media with the Arab parties, and your voters are mostly Israeli Arab. What does it mean for Hadash to be a mixed Jewish Arab party?

You know, Israeli policy is based more and more on the total separation between the Jews and the Arabs. This separation exists not only on social and cultural grounds but also in the way politics are being conducted. As a matter of fact, there are two lines of politics in Israel. There is the line of politics for the Jews spoken in Hebrew and there is a different line of politics for the Arabs spoken in Arabic. It is extremely important to have these very brave political experiments of Hadash combining Jews and Arabs together into a joint political movement based on the same political principles. This is the reason why Hadash is so important in the Israeli political spectrum.

What is Hadash’s position with regard to an endgame for the conflict?

Hadash was the movement to coin the slogan “Israel and Palestine: Two States for the Two Peoples.” This is our slogan and this is something we believe in. The creation of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel is the only feasible way to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At the very same time, we believe that both states, Israel and Palestine, should be democratic ones. In Israel the Arabic minority should have full equality, and if there is a Jewish minority within the Palestinian state it should also have its equal status.

Some on the left argue for a single bi-national state. Why doesn’t Hadash support such a proposal?

People speaking about one bi-national state are only proving that they are totally separated from reality. Uniting within a single state a very modern society from the first world and a very poor society living in conditions of the third world is a sure recipe for an explosion of the situation in this country. At the very same time abandoning the idea of a Palestinian state is surrendering to Israel’s extremist right wing who all the time try to establish the idea of Eretz Yisrael Shlema [Greater Israel]. You can see that the extreme Arab nationalistic idea is also at the very same idea an extreme Jewish nationalistic idea. This is proof why this idea is not something more than a very imaginary illusion.

Do you consider yourself a Zionist?

No.

It’s fascinating, especially from an American perspective, to know that a left wing Israeli politician who isn’t Zionist received so much support in the mayoral elections in Tel Aviv.

It is only proof that Israeli society is much more open to possibilities for progressive change within Israel than most people think. I think the possibility for change within Israel is much bigger than most people abroad believe. The fact that so many thousands of Tel Avivians, and especially young ones, voted for us is proof of their political maturity.

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