Against the tide: Daam’s long journey

The Daam Workers Party has been active in Israel for many years. For most Israelis, Daam is the hardest political party to understand: It criticizes the establishment Arab leadership but also attacks the government. It consistently supports the Arab Spring but is a firm opponent of the Islamists. Unlike Hadash, it chose a socialist, feminist woman to lead it: Asma Agbarieh-Zahalka. The party aims to protect the rights of workers but refuses to surrender to the aggressive regime of Ofer Eini’s Histadrut (General Federation of Labor); instead, it organizes workers such as truckers in Ashdod and finds employment for Arab women via its union, the Workers Advice Center (WAC-MAAN). As a Marxist party, it follows an unequivocally secular line, but is happy to enter homes lined with portraits of venerated rabbis, Koran texts or statuettes of the Virgin Mary. It has tens of thousands of supporters, yet in the last election it won just 3500 votes.

Thus the Israeli leftwing finds Daam hard to stomach. Moreover, the party’s website is rich in analytical articles which do not appear elsewhere. For example, this week Daam Secretary-General Yacov Ben-Efrat wrote a piece entitled, “What’s left on the Palestinian side of the Separation Barrier?” in which he reveals a harsh reality: “Doubtless it will not be long until the unrest in the West Bank becomes palpable to the Israeli public on its side of the wall. The economic situation is bad. The PA is not paying salaries because its coffers are empty; since it employs 16% of the Palestinian workforce, the entire local economy is paralyzed. A Palestinian teacher earns NIS 3000 a month, and a laborer not more than NIS 87 a day. (Compare that to Israel’s minimum wage of NIS 182 per day.) According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, unemployment stands at 20%, reaching 34% among young people aged 15–25. What we’ve got is an active volcano, with the lava boiling over. Rather than do anything, Israeli leaders apparently prefer to hope that the lava won’t flow past the Separation Barrier.”

The terrible situation in the Palestinian Authority should be a cause of concern for every Israeli, but it seems that at present the only ones worried about the Palestinian volcano are Daam members. Hadash and the Arab leadership continue to support Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), whose existence is based principally on funds transferred to the Palestinians from the US, the EU and Israel. The idea that a regime of this kind can be maintained forever was destroyed with the Egyptian revolution which brought about Mubarak’s downfall. The Israeli rightwing believes the conflict can be “managed” indefinitely. The leftwing fantasizes about another spate of Oslo Accords which will bypass the essential problems of occupation with a slew of empty slogans.

Unlike Peace Now, which called on US President Barack Obama to give a speech in the city plaza, and for whom Obama was to be savior after all hope had been extinguished, Daam is not overly impressed by Obama. Daam members know what part Obama plays in the events in Syria, for example. In an article published at the beginning of February, Ben-Efrat wrote: “For two years the US and its allies did not lift a finger to prevent the massacres, destruction and war crimes carried out by the Syrian regime against its own citizens. They turned three times to the UN Security Council knowing full well that Russia and China would veto any resolution, and they organized conferences which resulted in no tangible assistance. They avoided sending military or humanitarian aid to the opposition, on the pretext that it was divided and that the Free Syria Army is not trustworthy, while Iran and Russia armed the regime and supported it financially.”

Ben-Efrat continued, “As a result of the West’s lack of support, the Free Syria Army, composed of military dissenters representing the revolution, lost its influence. Its place was taken by radical Islamic groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra, which was declared illegal by the US, and al-Tawhid in the Aleppo region. On the other hand, the murder of some 70,000 citizens, the destruction of two million homes and the killing of innocents caused two million refugees to flee and left them without a roof or livelihood. Thus the prophecy fulfilled itself: the Syrian revolution is turning from a popular uprising to a civil war based on ethnicity, in which no side is strong enough to win.”

Daam is the conscience of the Israeli Left, especially in light of the fact that the party closest to it in theory, Hadash, expressed support for Assad in articles published in its Arabic-language daily Al-Ittihad. This invites the question – why is the Israeli Left not rushing to vote Daam when all other leftwing parties have proved so disappointing? Similarly, why is the party not supported by all those Israelis who aspire to social justice free of nationalism, fundamentalism and zealotry? The standard reply is that Daam does not pass the “threshold” [the minimum percentage of votes required for a party to enter the Knesset – ed.]. This is only a partial and not entirely honest answer, since a party can pass the threshold only when people vote for it. Yet this chicken-and-egg dilemma does not apply here, because only massive support can get a party past the threshold.

The basic truth is that the Jewish and Arab establishments in Israel have a common interest in preventing Daam from getting recognition. In the campaign, the party worked under extremely difficult conditions with a very modest election budget, through activism on the ground accompanied by a Facebook campaign, radio broadcasts and newspaper advertisements. This is not sufficient to get the party’s message across to the wider public. The two establishments – Jewish and Arab – worked against Daam because they understood that its politics could bridge the schism between Arabs and Jews, “left” and “right,” Sderot residents and Um al-Fahm residents. The party’s adamant refusal to adopt an Arab nationalist approach bothers the Jewish Israeli establishment, because it can live comfortably with Hanin Zoabi but not with Asma Agbarieh-Zahalka. It bothers the Arab-Israeli establishment because the Arab parties exist mainly on the strength of tribal voting.

Thus Salman Masalha wrote in Haaretz on 5 February 2013, “In Umm al-Fahm, the city where ‘the opium of the people’ is given abundantly, it suddenly appears that its inhabitants discovered Marxism – half of them voted for Hadash. If this change had been genuine, Hadash would certainly have won the city’s mayoral post in the municipal elections, rather than the Islamic Movement. The explanation of the vote for Hadash is tribal: remove from the list Afu Agbarieh, a Hadash candidate [a resident of Umm al-Fahm – ed.], and there would be no trace of the imagined Marxist consciousness in the Islamist city. Something similar occurred in Yarka, a large Druze town, where nearly 40% voted Hadash. But a glance at the distribution of votes reveals an interesting picture: almost 50% of Yarka voters gave their vote to parties like Shas [a Mizrahi religious Jewish party – ed.], Likud-Beitenu and Habayit Hayehudi [a nationalist-religious Jewish party – ed.]. Hadash received a lot of votes because a local politician was high on the party list.”

Therefore Daam is swimming against the tide. Its message challenges the tens of thousands of Jewish and Arab voters who want to escape the clutches of tribal voting and address the fundamentals of politics in Israel. Daam too does not hide the fact that it is a leftwing party. But unlike Meretz, which calls for leftwingers to “come home,” Daam sees itself as building a new home and creating a new definition of leftist politics. One can agree or disagree with Daam members, but the more the Daam alternative is exposed to the Israeli public, Jews and Arabs alike, the more it will be possible to shape a principled leftwing political stream able to move away from the current divisive discourse that separates nation from nation, and towards a new discourse which addresses the social and economic problems common to both Jews and Arabs. Daam’s journey is long but worthy. Contrary to the politics of Balad, Ra’am-Ta’al and Hadash, Daam is a genuine ray of light in the attempt to foster a Jewish-Arab discourse free of nationalism, incitement, sedition and delegitimation.

Translated from David Merhav’s blog by Yonatan Preminger


About David Merhav