Interview with Nabila Espanioly

Originally published in The Jerusalem Post Magazine


On Saturday, October 25, Buseina Abu Ghanem, a 31-year-old mother of six was shot to death while sitting in her car in Ramle. She was the 10th Arab woman from the same extended family, including her sister and stepmother, to be murdered in the city since 2005. She had been photographed with MK Haneen Zoabi (Balad) not long before, but this had meant nothing to her killers. Nabila Espanioly, a longtime activist for Hadash who is set to take up a seat in the Knesset early next year, is an outspoken critic of the public’s use of the term “honor killings” for these murders of women by family members.

Nabila Espanioly (Courtesy)

Nabila Espanioly (Courtesy)

“There is no honor in killing,” she says. “It is femicide (women killing). We had a discussion about it in the [Knesset’s] women’s status committee. On Monday there was a representative of the police and Welfare and Social Services Ministry and Arab MKs came and some Jewish MKs came. It was mentioned that in Ramle and Lod there was a pilot program in 2012 where they built a model of treatment [for] any woman who is under [the threat of] attack with police involved in protecting them.” Espanioly says that this pilot program was successful, but its budget was cut. Buseina was left alone and even though threats were known against her, she was killed. “They knew she was in danger,” asserts Espanioly.

Buseina Abu Ghanem with Hanin Zuabi

Buseina Abu Ghanem with Hanin Zuabi

In only four cases of 23 murders of women were the killers brought to justice, according to Espanioly. “We ask and demand the police take more responsibility, because if you kill and stay free there is impunity. If you kill and don’t pay the cost it allows you to commit the next [murder].” She says that the change in society must come from both sides. “We are tackling the attitudes that were used in the past to legitimize killing. There is a change in society, all the Arab parties’ members came and condemned the killings. It shows as a women’s organization we are succeeding in changing society. We took responsibility and [now] the government must take responsibility and protect women.” One of the issues in the Arab community in Israel is its distrust of the police. In the circumstances, even as activists come forward asking police to do more, how can they work with a society that views them as an enemy in some cases? Espanioly disagrees, pointing to the pilot program in Ramle. “If we put it as a priority and the government takes it as a responsibility and works together,” she says, “I think you are right. Due to history and experiences we experience today, like the behavior of the police against the protesters in the summer [the Gaza war]… the history and collective memory with the police is not a positive experience and not one that supports cooperation.”

Effective policing along with the state taking on responsibility can lead to what she calls a paradigm shift. “Today, the police in the Arab communities are not seen to be protecting against drugs and stealing, from the violence that is celebrated in some areas, in some towns and villages. The illegal weapons used by different groups, is known to the police, and nothing is done. These are elements and issues the police don’t deal with. The police don’t put the Arab community as its priority….

We need a paradigm shift towards the Palestinian citizens of the state, to see them as citizens and not see them as a fifth column or a threat.” The need for that paradigm shift dates back to the foundations of the State of Israel. In 1957 Emile Habibi, a leader of Israel’s Communist Party, gave a speech at the party’s 13th congress. He said that despite the suppression the party faced, the “Arab nation” was prepared to support the “faith that democratic powers will be victorious in our land.” He was confident that “Jews and Arabs can live in a shared homeland in equality, brotherhood and peace.”

Emule Habibi (Wikimedia commons)

Emule Habibi (Wikimedia commons)

Almost alone among the parties in Israel, Hadash, whose official name is the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality, has sought over the years to bridge the gap in Arab and Jewish relations in Israel. Its electoral base is both Jewish and Arab, and it has averaged three Knesset members since its founding in 1977. Bridging the ethnoreligious divide has not been an easy role to play in country whose politics are so divided on those issues. Early next year, Nabila Espanioly is slated to continue this tradition when she is sworn in as a new MK for the party. She is to be the first Arab woman from this party in the Knesset, and she’s to join the minuscule number of Arab women who have served in Israel’s parliament. A veteran peace activist of the Left, she sits down with The Jerusalem Post to discuss her background and her dreams for the state.

Bamberg, home of the university

Bamberg, home of the university

ESPANIOLY WAS born in Nazareth in 1955 and went to study in Germany at the University of Bamberg in the 1980s. When she returned to Israel in 1987 she started the al-Tufula center that concentrates on women’s empowerment and early childhood development. “I was born to a family of eight sisters and two brothers in Nazareth, and in my school, in my childhood, I was active but not organized politically. My awareness of systematic activism began after my studies in Haifa and in Jerusalem,” she recalls. When Hadash was first being organized in Nazareth in 1975 she joined. “Education is one element of success, but being a Palestinian and facing the discrimination and feeling it [against me as a person] first of all created awareness and I learned a lot through the peace movement and Hadash,” Espanioly tells of her background. She describes the many obstacles she faced, including being fired from three different jobs as a social worker due to her political activism.

When she traveled to Germany, it provided an opportunity that opened her eyes to differences. “It affected my awareness. It gave me other tools and learning from other cultures….I packed and went there with lots of hopes and had very little money. And it was not an easy choice. Germany at that time for a Palestinian student was a hard choice. I had to face that. Also the difficulty of being in Germany. The racism. The stereotyping towards the Palestinians. It wasn’t easy. But I had to work as a babysitter and also in a restaurant and housekeeping and cleaning to support myself; I went [there] without resources or a scholarship. It was not easy but I succeeded.”

Espanioly says Israeli society is going through a profoundly racist period in its history. In the old days when she was a communist activist she recalls the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) trying to encourage her to stop her political activism. “I wouldn’t call it racism then, it was trying to control… [there were] civil rights abuses at that time and not racism.

The atmosphere was not as racist as today. Today, if you are an Arab you think twice where to go to have a coffee if you are in a Jewish place. Or if you are a woman with a scarf, you board the bus and they [passengers] feel afraid with the expectation that you will blow up the bus. That is how they deal with her [the Arab woman].”

There has been an increase in racism and tension related to the conflict in Gaza over the summer. She traces the rise of the current situation to the 1980s and Rabbi Meir Kahane’s Kach Party, which was banned from standing in the 1992 elections due to racism. Racism is pervasive in her view. “Jews and Arabs experience it, and it is very dangerous for all of us.” she claims. “Not just for Palestinians in Israel, but those who want to build democracy and are interested in human rights and want to make a shared society, based on respect of minorities and respect of our differences. We are supposed to be able to live together.”

She says that while other countries have had public battles against racism, Israel is still in its infancy in understanding this issue. “I always say ‘racism is racism is racism,’ it doesn’t matter if it is against a Mizrahi Jew or Ethiopian. It may have begun with Palestinians, but it doesn’t stop there because it has no borders….The problem today is that we are in danger of fascism, not only racism. We have laws that are racist laws and we have politicians who say racist statements. Instead of taking hold of democratic rights, we see a decrease in the space for democratic values.”

A peace doze

A peace doze

ESPANIOLY HAS been a motivated and inspiring voice on the margins of Israeli society for many years. A cofounder of the left-wing peace group Women in Black’s Haifa chapter, in 2003 she won the Aachen Peace Prize in Germany, which recognizes individuals working for the underprivileged and mutual understanding. She has been particularly active on issues relating to bringing together women in the peace movement. She sees herself as joining a long line of Jews and Arabs who believed in a shared society, such as Communist Party leaders Tawfik Toubi and Tamar Gozansky and prominent women activists such as Samira Khoury of the Democratic Women’s Movement in Nazareth.

They were “great people who did a lot for the Palestinians and for the Jews in Israel. Although they were not appreciated enough in both communities, history will give them the credit for representing the interests of both peoples. In the end, when we reflect back in 200 years, I am sure they will be mentioned [as important] for both peoples, for Jews and Arabs.”

A Hadash poster

A Hadash poster

Espanioly emphasizes the respect that is needed in Israeli society for minorities and the majority. “Respect for the Palestinian narrative. Respect for the history of the Jewish people. They struggled for a society that is equal and open for all.” Espanioly’s path to the Knesset was an ideological choice for Hadash to ensure representation from a woman. It was agreed that MKs Muhammad Barakei and Hanna Swaid would step down. For her it can’t come soon enough. “We should have accomplished this years ago but I never say it’s too late, it is a beginning, and I hope it will become a model for other women. I hope it will open possibilities for other women to represent our issues.”

Women’s issues transcend the ethnic and religious divide in Israel, and she thinks there are issues that she shares concerns over with other female members in the Knesset. The 2013 elections produced the largest representation of women in Israel’s history, around one quarter of all seats. “I am ready to work together with different people and groups, not just those that think like me or believe like me. Some issues are common to women. They might be common to me and MK Michal Roisin [Meretz] or MK Merav Michaeli [Labor] and we can work together.

We can work together to advance women’s rights. I want to build coalitions with other people. I want to advance those dreams. I don’t only think about issues relating to Palestinian women only, we are part of the women in Israel. To be a full citizen and equal, in some issues Jewish women are not equal. We will work together to change that situation.”

In her view the “neoliberal” policies of the center-right government are falling particularly hard on the shoulders of women. “More privatization, which means the rich get richer and poor more poor. We know the poor people are mostly women and children, and we are paying these prices. This is a government that is seeing and solving its problem through violence and attacks, and we know women pay the price in times of war….All women are interested in democracy.  But she acknowledges that women won’t necessarily see eye to eye on national issues, such as “stop[ping] the occupation and building a national state for the Palestinians beside Israel. There are issues… we may differ, but I search and look for coalitions.”

Hadash leader Mohammed Barakeh

Hadash leader Mohammed Barakeh

The swearing-in ceremony for Espanioly is not to take place for several months, so she is occupying her time learning parliamentary procedure and accompany Barakei around the glowing halls of parliament. Every Monday she spends time with him. As an active lobbyist for years on various issues she is already familiar with the environment, but “I think that I have good teachers around me and those around that are ready to support, and [I’m] glad to be stepping into a supportive environment.”

ESPANIOLY SEES the media as playing a crucial role in stereotyping Arabs and creating a view of them as an “other” in society. “I think this is a call for the media to be more interested in presenting the Palestinians in Israel and its diversity, whereas the media usually work with stereotypes. We don’t hear about change and directions. We hear only about problems. There is segregation between Jews and Arabs and it is protected by the media and policymakers.”

It is no surprise that she stresses time and again that we should refer to Arab citizens as Palestinians. “There is a need to stop the use of the wording such as ‘Arab sector’ and ‘Arab-Israelis’ that strengthens misconceptions.” Arabs are not, in her view, like Ethiopian Jews or haredim, they are not a sector, but rather “a national minority, and we need to be dealt with as citizens, as a specific homeland minority with a specific history and identity.” The Arab parties in the Knesset, including Hadash, which is an Arab-Jewish party, are often not seen as playing a role in the politics of the state, except as an opposition. They have never been part of a coalition, for instance.

Israelis often read about members from these parties only in connection with anti-Israel activity. But she is adamant that it is unfair to blame Hadash or others for this; it is blaming the minority victim in her view. “I think we are effective. The fact that we are continuing is a big success and it is not easy. I think all the parliamentarians are trying to do their best…. It is not the responsibility of the politicians only; it is the responsibility of the government and other elements in the society and the media.”

Asked about the activities of Zoabi, the only other female Arab MK, Espanioly does not discuss her. “I can speak only about my own mistakes….As I said the issue is the responsibility to make that change. If we are interested in change. When I make my mistakes I will declare them and I will accept critique.”

THE HADASH activist has a poignant story to tell. A young girl who came up to her recently said she had so many school books she could barely carry them all to school. She looked at Espanioly and said “you must change that.” Inside the books were values that belonged in the 1950s. “When we look at the books that our children study from, when I looked at the Arabic teaching books from the [Education] Ministry, I looked at the texts and there was no emotion. The text was rigid and political representation was all [male], about the king, the prince, the queen and sultan; not one leadership position in the textbooks from grades 1 to 6 was a democratic figure, not even an elected committee member…. The Education Ministry has to explain how in the 21st century in what is called the ‘only democracy’ [in the Middle East], these are the books [the kids learn from].”

She advocates a change in society to embrace progressive values, peace and conflict resolution. Recently President Reuven Rivlin attended a memorial ceremony at Kafr Kasim for the 48 villagers shot to death by the Israel Police in 1956 for violating a curfew they did not know about. “I valued the symbol of the president being there, but I want more…. I hope one day we will have a government that can take responsibility for history.” Espanioly is optimistic, even in the shadow of the current tensions, that Israel will become a better society and more equal. “I have to be optimistic. Pessimism is a feeling for the privileged, and I am not privileged.”

2 responses to “Interview with Nabila Espanioly

  1. Pingback: What everyone missed in Burg’s appearance at Hadash | Seth J. Frantzman·

  2. Pingback: Bad fact checking: ‘The Nation’ fails Palestinian women | Seth J. Frantzman·

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