The Palestinian visionary [Tawfiq Zayyad] who warned Jews that fascism would target them, too

Tamir Sorek

Haaretz  /  June 12, 2023

Poet-politician Tawfiq Zayyad warned decades ago that the occupation and authoritarianism within Israel were inseparable – that Israel’s injustice against Palestinians would become injustice against Jews. Israel’s pro-democracy protest movement should heed his call.

In April 1954, the watchful eyes of the Israeli military government spotted a recently elected member of the Nazareth local council, who appeared in various villages in the area delivering fiery speeches against the military government, land confiscation, tax discrimination, and administrative detentions.

Soon the authorities decided to put an end to his defiant activities and imposed severe movement restrictions on him: he was confined to house arrest from sundown to dawn, banned from leaving Nazareth for six months, and was ordered to report twice a day to the local police station.

While this was a routine practice implemented by the military regime, the reaction of that young Palestinian activist is remarkable.

In a letter sent to Jewish and Arab [Palestinian] mayors throughout the country, he protested his travel restriction: “This act, now implemented toward Arab [Palestinian] municipal council members, might hurt Jewish council members as well, if this will be the will of the military governor or if his partisan interests would require this. The injustice, like justice, is not limited to national classifications.”

This was a clear attempt to mobilize the Jewish public for a joint struggle, using the logic of inseparability, in which Palestinian fight for freedom and dignity is an inherent Jewish-Israeli interest.

The explicit warning in that 1954 letter seems extremely relevant to the current day, when measures Israeli authorities have imposed for decades on Palestinians, such as spraying stinky liquid on demonstrators, throwing stun grenades on them, arbitrary arrests of non-violent protestors, as well as intimidating journalists, spill over (albeit in a very diluted form) and are being used against Jewish activists.

The thorn in Israel’s side was named Tawfiq Zayyad. He was 25 at the time and would later become a renowned poet and a political leader.

In 1954, not a single Jewish mayor took steps to support him. With no powerful Jewish allies, the authorities could further abuse their power, and in 1955 Zayyad was sentenced to prison for his political speeches. He was cruelly tortured in his cell, and even though he tried to tell the Jewish public, in Hebrew, about the torture, there was no meaningful protest of politicians or journalists beyond his own party, the Israeli Communist Party.

But he never gave upon his universalist politics, and in his political career later as the mayor of Nazareth and then a Knesset member, he was always trying to remind Jewish citizens that at the end of the day, they and the Palestinians are in the same boat.

In 1983, after the murder of Emil Grunzweig in the Peace Now-led demonstration against the war in Lebanon, Zayyad told his fellow lawmakers at the Knesset assembly: “The struggle for peace, for complete withdrawal from all the occupied territories, is a struggle for democracy inside Israel, it is a struggle to stop the increased fascist phenomenon. Nobody should have the illusion that it is possible to separate these two things.”

While Zayyad shared this approach with others in his party, he was the most explicit and consistent representative of the inseparability thesis.

His political speeches, as well as his poetry, reflected the idea that history progresses toward a utopian future in which economic exploitation is eradicated, political civil rights are disconnected from ethnic identity, and women are equal to men. Palestinians and Israelis are destined to live together in peace, and therefore the fight against military occupation, for civil rights, for economic equality and gender equity, are all part of the same journey toward progress, he believed.

Zayyad was also keenly aware of the discrimination against Mizrahi Jews (Jews from North Africa and the Middle East) and hoped to unite forces with them. Inside the Israeli Communist Party, he was the strongest advocate of the alliance with the Black Panthers which formed the creation of Hadash party in 1977.

He considered this alliance as a first step toward a large-scale Arab [Palestinian]-Jewish partnership, which he consistently emphasized as a priority. In the opening rally of the first Hadash election campaign, he stated: “The Black Panthers are not only our brothers in color [ahim le-tseva], but also brothers in the aspiration for liberation from exploitation. The place of our Jewish brothers who are here is not only in Hadash, but in every one of our hearts.”

In the late 1980s, with the emergence of the Islamic Movement, Zayyad became the boldest voice against gender segregation in Arab [Palestinian] political rallies.

“They consider a woman’s place to be in the kitchen and in the bed,” he said about the Islamic Movement. “We consider women to have the same rights as men to participate in all the battles. […] Every society that separates men from women in the way they call for is a backward society. The civilized society is a society based on the joint action of men and women.”

For Zayyad, suspending the principle of gender equality in a rally calling for civic and national equality, seemed inherently contradictory.

In the long term, however, the effort to unite major struggles in Israel, like Zayyad long aspired to, has failed. Binational class discourse is almost absent from Israeli politics; Mizrahi frustration has been channeled toward supporting the regime of Jewish supremacy, rather than challenging it; and the mainstream Israeli feminist struggle seems to be alienated from both Palestinian rights and class issues.

However, almost seven decades after Zayyad sent his warning letter to the members of local councils, it has become more relevant than ever.

The constitutional changes planned by the current government are aimed at stabilizing and securing the regime of Jewish supremacy – on both sides of the Green Line – but they come bundled with undermining freedom of speech for everyone, and threatening to increase economic, gender, and intra-Jewish ethnic inequality.

The anti-judicial overhaul demonstrations sporadically relate to these struggles, but they rarely relate to the core issue of Jewish ethnocracy, which the “reform” was conceived of in order to protect and even expand.

Today, in a pattern that replicates the cold shoulder Zayyad received from Jewish mayors in the 1950s, most of the Jewish public in Israel is reluctant to connect the dots, and the leaders of the anti-reform protest insist on excluding the discussion of Palestinian subordination, military occupation, and Apartheid from the demonstrations.

Ayman Odeh, head of the Hadash party, considers himself an ideological follower of Zayyad, and his speech at the Knesset following the recent election echoed Zayyad’s repeated warnings.

He said, “Those who covered up the murder of Shireen Abu Akleh received a political arrest of a journalist in Tel Aviv;… those who did not stop the separation of [Palestinian] families, received gender separation…. perhaps the extremism of this government will be the wake-up call… I say clearly that if you won’t understand today, I don’t know when you will.”

Is this the moment we will finally bear witness to such a fundamental — and essential shift in Israeli thought?

Military occupation and a regime of ethnically based discrimination are the fertile ground on which authoritarianism is thriving because they make violence and silencing the default methods for settling social and political conflicts. Therefore, without a drastic turn of the wheel, any suspension of the anti-liberal momentum would be temporary.

Today, liberal Israeli Jews should face the painful reality: they are a minority among Jews, and Jews have become a minority under the Israeli control system between the river and the see. Creating bridges to Palestinians, citizens and non-citizens alike, and dismantling the regime of privileges are not only moral choices, but a necessary path for survival.

Tamir Sorek is a Liberal Arts Professor of Middle East History at Penn State University; his biography of Tawfiq Zayyad has been published in English by Stanford University Press (2020), in Arabic by MADAR (2023), and will be published soon in Hebrew by Pardes