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[VID] 'I have a dream': Ayman Odeh's maiden Knesset speech

Head of the Joint List shares his vision of a shared, equal future for Jews and Arabs in Israel. But is it a vision left-wing Israelis and liberal American Jews can sign onto?

Joint List chairman Ayman Odeh walk into a polling station in Haifa, March 17, 2015. (Photo: Akrm Drawshi/Activestills.org)

Joint List chairman Ayman Odeh walk into a polling station in Haifa, March 17, 2015. (Photo: Akrm Drawshi/Activestills.org)

Ayman Odeh, the head of the Joint List, gave his maiden speech in Knesset this week. Odeh, a 40 year-old lawyer from Haifa, heads a list of parties representing Palestinian nationalists, Baathists, Islamists, and Jewish and Arab socialists.

He led this unlikely group to win 13 seats in the March election, making it the third-largest party in the Knesset — after the Likud and the Zionist Union. Odeh attracted attention both in Israel and around the Arab Middle East by sticking to his platform of universal human and civil rights, and for equality for all citizens of Israel.

His maiden speech, which is subtitled in the video embedded below, is a Middle Eastern version of “I Have a Dream.” Here is the first section, taken from the text, translated by Sol Salbe

Mr. Speaker, distinguished Knesset, the year is 2025, the 10-year plan to combat racism and inequality has borne fruit. Hundreds of thousands Arab employees have been integrated into the private sector, the high-tech economy and the public service.

The social gaps between Arab and Jewish citizens have been reduced remarkably and the economy has been prosperous for the benefit of all residents.

Jews are learning Arabic, Arabs are diligently honing their Hebrew skills. Jewish and Arab students are being introduced to the great thinkers and philosophers of both peoples.

Stumbling occasionally, perhaps from nerves, as he read his speech in Hebrew, Odeh describes his vision of a place that allows both Arabs and Jews to realize their national identities, but neither at the expense of the other. It is a mature vision — one that asserts inalienable rights without apology, while calling for acceptance and compassion from and for everyone.

He describes his own political  journey, from a Palestinian nationalist and activist who was once interrogated by the Shin Bet to a man who seeks to realize his identity as a Palestinian, without apology, in the state of Israel.

Implicitly, he is describing the emergence of the assertive and self confident third generation of Palestinian citizens of Israel. The first generation lived under military rule; the second was afraid and kept its head down; and the third is ready to take its place, unapologetically, as equals in Israeli society.

Ladies and gentlemen, Arabic is an official language. It is on Tel Aviv street signs as part and parcel of the urban environment, and lo and behold, it has not brought disaster upon any street’s residents.

Recognition of national rights does not take anything away from the rest of the citizenry. On the contrary, it enriches the space we live in. We will continue to demand to be recognized as a national group which is entitled to full civil and national equality, and we will struggle for it.

Odeh acknowledges with words of compassion the fears of the Jews, says explicitly that he is not a threat, and asks how he can be expected to recognize the fears of the Jews but ignore the plight of the Palestinians.

What is perhaps so remarkable about his speech is that his vision of fundamental equality between all citizens, of tolerance and compassion, is one that most Jews around the world would find inspiring if it were, say, described in a speech by an African-American man at a rally in Baltimore, Ferguson, Selma or Washington, DC. Or by a North African man in Paris.

Odeh, however, is a Palestinian Arab citizen of Israel, and he is describing his vision of a state that offers equality to all, but special ethnic privileges to none. A state for Jews and Arabs, but not a Jewish state.

Can the Zionist Union or Meretz embrace that vision? Can the liberal Reform rabbis at congregations in New York, Los Angeles and the suburbs of Washington — rabbis who speak out against racism, who organize food drives for the homeless and clothing collections for the poor — also advocate for a state of Israel that is equally the rightful home of its Jewish and Arab citizens? That, I think, is poised to be one of the defining moral struggles of the liberal Jewish community in the coming years.

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    COMMENTS

    1. Joel Cantor

      Odeh is largely irrelevant. A weak leader of a smallish divided party existing on the fringes of the israel political spectrum. Why is this magazine so obsessed with him?

      Reply to Comment
    2. Weiss

      A truly inspiring speech!

      Yet in this twisted version of Democracy, the 2nd and 3rd largest parties are completely excluded from the governing coalition.

      …worse than the Redneck Deep South of the U.S…

      That is what Fascism looks like…

      Reply to Comment
      • Ricky Rocket

        Don’t let the truth, that both parties proactively declared that they would not be part of the,government, destroy your little haste speech.

        Reply to Comment
      • Jello

        Hmm. The reason they are the 2nd and 3rd largest parties is because they are not the, well, largest party and they can not form a coalition. This is called losing in a democracy. I know it is hard to understand, but give it a try.

        Reply to Comment
    3. Jello

      1) I realize that you don’t live here any more but still it shouldn’t be asking too much for you to get some facts right. The Joint List won 13, not 14 seats.

      2) There is no contradiction between Israel being a Jewish state and full equality for all individuals regardless of their ethnic background. There will be no ‘national’ rights for the Arabs enshrined in law. What they do as individuals is up to them. They can dance the dabke, sing in Arabic, and do whatever they want to do as individuals in a free country. If their ‘national rights’ are important to them they can pursue them elsewhere. Israel is not going to turn itself into a state where the security of the Jews will be subject to an Arab veto nor redefine itself in such a way as to pretend that the Jews can be safe in this region without having a State and military to defend themselves. We are not so stupid as to accept the fate of the religious minorities in the Arab world.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        Listen to the speech, folks. Not Jello’s crabbed, twisted version of it.

        Reply to Comment
        • Ricky Rocket

          Brian, who,the bloody fock are you to censor someone?

          Reply to Comment
        • Jello

          Yes, folks, listen to the speech. It is a good one. There have been many good speeches made too in the parliaments of Syria, Lebanon and Iraq before those countries collapsed into massive bloodletting. We offer full individual civil rights and equality and in response the Arabs demand ‘equal national rights’ within Israel which is code words for the Arabs having veto power over government policy thus turning the security of the Jews here into a hostage to the whims of the Arabs. Syria and Iraq show us what happens to minorities in the Middle East when they can noy defend themselves.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Odeh’s speech was completely contrary to the paranoid specter you suggest. And you know it. And you hate that. This is the consistent pattern with the extreme right. Complain about the absence of an Abu Mazen, then loathe him when he comes along. Complain about the absence of an Odeh, then loathe him when he comes along. Odeh indeed scares you but not for the reasons you pretend. You should be applauding Odeh in the front row but instead you’re in the back row muttering and scowling and grinding your teeth. It’s your choice jello. Don’t act like it’s not. You want Jews to be a majority? Then let’s have a real 2SS. Don’t tell me the RoR business can’t be worked out. You guys don’t want it to work out. You’re too busy working on mass population transfer. Of Jews to where you want them and Arabs out of where you don’t want them. Weiss keeps using the word fascist. But the new Justice Minister, the pyromaniac now in charge of the fire department, and her buddy in the new Education Ministry, fit the label.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Not to mention that Netanyahu has just appointed a Rabbi to deputy defense minister in charge of civil administration in the territories who calls Palestinians and all Gentiles untermenschen and throws homosexuals into the mix for good measure. We don’t need to tell you what chapter in history that recalls.

            Reply to Comment
          • Jello

            It was a wonderful speech. He might even believe what he says, but it doesn’t really matter whether he does or does not. He is certainly trying to appeal to Jews, which in itself is a positive, and I applaud him for that. I am entirely in support of full equality for all citizens regardless of their background. However I do not accept that that full equality for citizens consists of granting “national rights” to some other group in my country.

            The paranoid specter I suggest is called reality in the Middle East where our neighbors are busy slaughtering their ethnic and religious minorities. Those minorities were citizens in their respective states. It did not help. The communists, like Odeh, have always made wonderful speeches. The reality has rarely agreed.

            The only way for us, the Jews, to maintain our presence and security in this region is by having a strong Jewish State with a strong military. That part is non-negotiable. Once the Arabs accept this there are lots of possible solutions to all issues under discussion. As of now the Palestinians (even the ‘moderate’ ones like Abu Mazen) are incapable of accepting the principle of two states for two peoples. All other issues are just noise.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Oh Israel could have everything it needs for permanent security, and a two state solution (which it needs for security) without that little fascist rider you’re tacking on about “Jewish State” which is code for something else. You’re not fooling anyone. The Gatekeepers know what they’re talking about. Noam Scheizaf knows what he’s talking about. You and your ideological allies not the only Israelis who know what’s what about security.

            Reply to Comment
          • Jello

            When the Palestinians explicitly accept “two states for two peoples” then we can talk about permanent security. Until then they are committed ideologically to destroying Israel and any state they achieve will reflect that in its policies. The “Jewish State” is codeword for Jews being able to defend themselves without the mercy or kindness of the Arabs. If that is objectionable to you then you are not paying attention to what is going on in this region.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            The “two states for two peoples” line is a gimmick, a trick, meant to reduce to a slogan a much more complicated agreement that would require several paragraphs of clarification about what this phrase actually means, so as to prevent what people know Ayalet Shaked would immediately turn around and do to Arab citizens of Israel with the signed “two states for two peoples” piece of paper she wants waving in her hand. “Jewish state” is code for many things depending on whose hands it is in and in Shaked’s hands it is ethnocratic fascism. You want Jews not at the mercy of Arabs but you are ok with Israeli Arabs at the mercy of Jews like Shaked. What it comes down to is that tricky manipulative slogans that pretend complex things are simple do not suffice. It’s just yet one more device for Netanyahu to avoid getting real. You would not sign a mortgage agreement reduced to a simplistic slogan and neither should a Palestinian or an Israeli leader be expected to.

            Reply to Comment
          • Jello

            It is not a gimmick. It is the fundamental basis for any solution. Either the Palestinian accept that they have lost the war to destroy Israel and must end that war, or they do not. The formulations that the Palestinians embrace consistently wish to leave this question open so that it can be reopened later and that is not acceptable as a framework for ending the conflict. If the Palestinians insist that they will not sign an agreement until they get a future veto over the internal affairs of Israel then they do not accept that an agreement ends the conflict. The conflict just continues and so do the Palestinian ‘grievances’ which puts into the question the value of any such agreement. Last time I read about the Kerry negotiations Bibi offered language to Kerry which fully guarantees the rights of the Israeli Arabs to full citizenship and equality, which corresponds to the several paragraphs that you suggest are required to clarify what ‘two states for two peoples’ means. That was not sufficient for the Palestinians and they continue to reject that formulation. Given the rejection Bibi is completely correct in insisting on this as a starting point for negotiations.

            Reply to Comment
      • Weiss

        This arrogant prick Jello and his loyal Right Wing Fascist Brownshirts are exactly why a Palestinian State will be forced upon Israel by the international community whether they like it or not…

        THIS Jew will NOT be silent !!!!

        Reply to Comment
        • Jello

          You mean a statelet will be forced on the Palestinians, but you can call the rump statelet with a capital in Ramallah an empire if you want. Read some of that vile Zionist Abunimah on the subject.

          Reply to Comment
    4. Danny

      Odeh is the beautiful Israeli. Before leaving Israel I was a Hadash voter, and I wouldn`t hesitate to vote for the Joint List if I lived there.

      Meanwhile, all the ugliness of Israel seems to have congealed to form Israel`s new government. May this government know only failure, and disappear from our midst in short order!

      Reply to Comment
    5. Ben

      Love the picture of Odeh. It’s about time we saw humanizing pictures of Arab Israelis. And that they are seen, and experience themselves and practice moving in humanistic, democratic, pluralistic directions. He’s almost perfect as the leader Israel has been waiting for. I look at him and I see the future.

      Reply to Comment
      • Weiss

        Ricky Rocket is one of the lamest drummers of all time in the most pretentious and nauseating 80s hair band ever …poison

        No wonder he can’t tell right from wrong…

        Reply to Comment
        • Gustav

          “United Nations Resolution 181, resolution passed by the United Nations (UN) General Assembly in 1947 that called for the partition of Palestine into Arab and Jewish state”

          http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/1695871/United-Nations-Resolution-181

          Was the UN reesponsible for a fascist resolution?

          According to Benny, DavidT, Weiss and Danny, the answer is yes.

          Why are they racist bigots? Because these racist because bigots oppose the idea of a Jewish state.

          Of course, at the same time, they never object to the existence of 22 Arab states!

          Reply to Comment
          • Gustav

            Only bigotted racists single out one ethnicity, the Jewish ethnicity and oppose the existence of a state for that ethnicity yet at the same time they pretend that other ethnic groups, for example Arabs, have the right to have 22 ethnic states.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            No one “pretends the Arabs have a right to 22 ethnic states.” Strawman alert. Everyone is deservedly wary, with Ayalet Shaked waiting in the wings as Justice Minister, of what is meant by “a state for our ethnicity.” Saudi Arabia-lite is your model for Israel?

            Reply to Comment
          • Gustav

            So you admit that the Saudi Arab model is not desirable, eh Benny?

            Now how about the other 21 Arab models? Or for that matter, the Palestinian Arab model? This is what article 1 of the Palestinian covenant says…

            “Article 1: Palestine is the homeland of the Arab Palestinian people; it is an indivisible part of the Arab homeland, and the Palestinian people are an integral part of the Arab nation.”

            That is the model drafted by the “moderate” PLO. Hamas’s model I am not even talking about.

            Hey Benny, my model is the same for the Jewish people. Is that ok with you?

            … Or is your model the same as the Palestinian Arab model?

            Stage 1: one and a half Arab states – One pure Arab state and one state (Israel) which is both Arab and Jewish in name and deed.

            2. Stage 2: Two pure Arab states – After the Arabs take over Israel too.

            Eh, Benny?

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            I love this exercise in math:

            22% of historic Palestine comprising one state = 1.5 “Arab states”.

            22% = 1.5/2.0 = 75%.

            22% = 75%.

            Q.E.D. Not.

            Apparently, to Gustav, it’s all about ethnicity even though he swears he’s not a racist. So, an Israeli state on 78% of the land with 25% Arab citizens would be 75% of a “Jewish State” and not 100% of a Jewish majority Israeli state on 78% of the land. It’s all zero sum in this ethic game.

            In a 2SS Israelis will get to live as citizens in 78% of the land. (With all sorts of written and unwritten proscriptions on non-Jews owning land and building houses inside that 78%.) But that’s just not enough for Gustav. And in a 2SS Israel will of course not have to pay compensation for decades of illegal occupation of the 22%.

            If you’re so stuck on this then why don’t you negotiate to let some Israelis stay as Palestinian citizens? In a situation where a Palestinian leader could go to his people with even a halfway fair deal with dignity it might be possible.

            eh, Gusty?

            Reply to Comment
          • Gustav

            Talking about straw men, read Benny’s post. It’s full of straw men. Now back to topic.

            We are back on part of our ancestral home land. Yes, we were willing to accept only part of our ancestral home land but the Arabs are on the record of saying that NONE of it is ours and it is ALL theirs and their’s alone.

            The Arabs have 22 Arab states but we can’t have even one Jewish state with an Arab minority in it? Only racist bigots like Benny express such sentiments.

            Reminder: Racism is discrimination based on ethnicity. According to Benny, Arabs can have 21 Arab States (he sorta repudiated the 22nd one – the Saudi model as he called it. But he never whines about the other 21 Arab States. He reserves his whining only about the Jewish state).

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Look, there are plenty of “the Jews” on record saying that ALL of it is ours and ours alone and NONE of it is theirs. Most of the kippa wearers east of the green line think that and plenty west of it think it too. A 2SS is meant to marginalize and neutralize the extremists on both sides, not endorse and empower them.

            Who said you can’t have a Jewish majority state with an Arab minority in it? I didn’t.

            Ya gotta stop with the childish ploy that “no fair, they get to ‘have’ 22 and I can’t ‘have’ just one!” And don’t put words in my mouth. I never endorsed any one “having” an “Arab state” or a “Jewish state.” This is not a bag of Arab and Jewish candy to be divvied up.

            Reply to Comment
          • Gustav

            Look Benny, you DID say that a Jewish state is by definition a fascist state. Yet you don’t whine about 21 Arab states nor about the proposed Palestinian Arab state which in it’s charter wants to call itself an Arab state.

            As for putting words in mouths, you are the one who is doing THAT!

            You are telling me that I am against the two state solution. I am not. At least not yet. But time is running out. What I am really against though is against your rejection (and the Palestinian Arab rejection) of the Jewish nation state. It is possible to have an ethnic state which respects the rights of it’s minorities but still be the state of the dominant ethnic group. But you seem to pretend that we Jews alone cannot bring about such a model and therefore we must forego our Jewish state. You are WRONG. Just plain wrong!

            You are right though for now while we are in war with the Palestinian Arabs. War makes decent treatment difficult. While they want to kill us and rob us of our state, it is difficult to treat them decently. Even so though, Israeli Arabs have better lives than most other ordinary Arabs in Arab lands!

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            You’re still putting words in my mouth.

            “It is possible to have an ethnic state which respects the rights of it’s minorities but still be the state of the dominant ethnic group.”

            One wants to parse most of the words of that sentence and ask what you mean. In detail. Does it mean what Shaked means? What Ben-Dahan means? What the Birthright tour guide means when he tells young Jews they should choose to save the life of one Jew over the lives of 100 goyim? Is that what “dominant” means? Is that what “respect” means? Is that what “rights” means? So to this slogan of “Jewish state”–you expect the other side to say, “oh sure, natch, it’s not like we have any reason to mistrust you too. I mean it’s not like you’re not doing population transfer right this minute in Susya; and abruptly yanking Arab and not Jewish families out of their homes in the Jordan Valley for some cooked up “military exercises” in which we just have to fire on their land and their homes…right there…because we just do…security you know. What a crock.

            “While they want to kill us and rob us of our state, it is difficult to treat them decently.”

            This is the narcissism. What do you think you’re doing to them? They say the same about you. But you’re special.

            Reply to Comment
          • Gustav

            It means what it means dude. We want ONE Jewish state. They already have 22 Arab states but YOU fret about the Jewish state, clearly not trusting US but you trust THEM even though they do not have a good record of treating THEIR minorities well.

            What exactly do you want me to say about what a Jewish state means? I’ll answer it this way: We have good intentions (most of us anyways) but we will not compromise about the idea of the Jewish state. If it turns out that despite our good intentions, they cannot bear being a minority in a Jewish state, they have 22 other options. Actually 23 if they do what is expected of them to bring about the two state solution.

            We on the other hand have no other option without Israel. We the Jews of Israel have given up on the idea of being a minority anywhere. And in particular, we won’t allow the Aarabs to turn us into a minority in our own state. And if they keep on trying, very bad things will happen.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Sigh. I give up. Got better things to do. This is my last reply. See: Arab Peace Initiative, of which we read 70% of your “most of us with good intentions” do not even know exists! And the people you elected do NOT have good intentions and I therefore take issue with your estimation of “most of us.”

            “they cannot bear being a minority in a Jewish state…we won’t allow the Aarabs to turn us into a minority in our own state. And if they keep on trying…”

            Total complete strawman bullsh*t.

            Reply to Comment
          • Gustav

            Sigh, not that old chestnut again, the “Arab peace initiative”…

            It contains the so called right of return demand in a form which gives up to 4 million descendants of Arab refugees the right to choose whether they want to return or to receive compensation. At the same time it ignores the rights of Jewish refugees from Arab countries and their descendants to receive compensation. The Arab “peace initiative” is a non starter until they amend their demands with regards to the refugees. Oh and by the way, why did they not accept Ehud Olmert’s peace offer?

            As for our good intentions, you don’t trust us even though as I said before, even in these times of war, Israeli Arabs have better lives than most Arabs in Arab countries.

            At the same time, you expect us to trust their good intentions even though the record of Arabs is apalling regarding the treatment of their minorities. Or even their own kind for that matter. No thanks, we will trust ourselves ahead of trusting them or your kind for that matter, Brian…er….oops…Benny dear…

            Reply to Comment
    6. Bar

      “What is perhaps so remarkable about his speech is that his vision of fundamental equality between all citizens, of tolerance and compassion, is one that most Jews around the world would find inspiring if it were, say, described in a speech by an African-American man at a rally in Baltimore, Ferguson, Selma or Washington, DC. Or by a North African man in Paris.”

      1. Israel is trying mightily to provide fundamental equality. The fact Mr. Odeh exists, as a lawyer, leading a party of 13, and able to freely articulate his vision is partial evidence of this.

      2. Israel’s president made a similar speech.

      3. Under Bibi Arab Israelis are the second highest state funding recipients in Israel after settlers.

      4. Actions such as affirmative hiring for government ministries are in effect already.

      5. The US and France do not face the same challenges as Israel. They are much bigger, much more heavily populated, not surrounded by enemies who happen to be brothers of Israel’s Arabs and who continually demonize and seek to attack Israel, much more established, not facing constant bombardment of diplomatic attacks, not facing unreasonable criticism at every turn and without groups of global players – NGOs and governments – that are seeking to undermine it at many turns. When Israel is in the same comfortable position as the US or France, then you can claim that what others seek and support elsewhere should be applied in Israel. And yet, ironically, as my other 4 points demonstrate, Israel does not lag far behind these two countries…it just needs more time and some peace.

      Reply to Comment
      • David T.

        “1. Israel is trying mightily to provide fundamental equality”

        Rofl. Is the Jewish state trying to abandon the legal differentiation between Jews and Nonjews, dropping the differentiation between nationals and citizens and becoming a state for all of its citizens?

        “The fact Mr. Odeh exists, as a lawyer, leading a party of 13, and able to freely articulate his vision is partial evidence of this.”

        As long as this is demographically insignificant and doesn’t threaten the state to be Jewish”, right? Because some Israelis are more equal than equal.

        “3. Under Bibi Arab Israelis are the second highest state funding recipients in Israel after settlers.”

        So under Bibi Nonjewish citizens are the second highest state funding recipients after Jewish citizens. What’s your point besides this blatant inequality and Jews illegaly confiscating private and national land from Nonjews and solely developing it for Jews? We allready know this state policy since 1948.

        5. “When Israel is in the same comfortable position as the US or France, then you can claim that what others seek and support elsewhere should be applied in Israel. And yet, ironically, as my other 4 points demonstrate, Israel does not lag far behind these two countries…it just needs more time and some peace.”

        So when Israel feels comfortable, it´s going to become a state for all its citizens, Nonjews will become nationals, equality will be enshrined constitutionally, the law of return will be extended to everyone who had to flee or was expelled and his/her descendants.

        But in the meantime it will keep an ethnic group expelled to maintain a regime dominated by a factual minority group which amounts to apartheid as defined by international law, because it’s cozier.

        Reply to Comment
        • Bar

          You do realize you didn’t address my points? Even when you come close, it’s not serious. Please try again.

          Reply to Comment
    7. Leo

      Listen to the whole speech. I cried when I heard it.
      The guy is right.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Gustav

      22 Arab states. That is not fascist.

      One Jewish state. That is fascist.

      Anyone who believes that is a racist.

      Reply to Comment
    9. Ben

      Interesting to see people come right out here and say, yep, we indeed want an ethnocratic state. Here read this :

      Stop whining. Long live Israel’s new and honest government. Israel’s new government won’t spout hollow slogans about peace, human rights, and justice. The truth will be thrust in the faces of Israelis – and the world.
      http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/1.655674

      Reply to Comment
      • Gustav

        The only ones whining are Gideon Levy and his ilk.

        Israel was created in order to ensure the survival of the Jewish people.

        We WILL survive and thrive. Arab Israelis can join us and thrive too, or THEY will not survive. At least not as part of us. Anyone is welcome to understand whatever they want to understand by my meaning. I know they will anyway and some will deliberately understand the worst connotations by it because they just want to whine…

        Reply to Comment
    10. Richard Lightbown

      Well give credit where it is due, there was a good turnout in the Knesset during his speech and no one heckled. And I can count seven Members, including Tzipi Livni, going forward to greet him as he steps down.

      Then again some fanatic shot Martin Luther King. I hope history does not repeat itself, because I think Israel needs MK Odeh.

      Reply to Comment
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