Op-Ed by Clarissa Green
In the country that prides itself on being the homeland of the Jewish people, being an Arab woman in politics is tough. Although Arabs make up roughly 20% of Israel’s population, only five Arab women have ever served in the Knesset since Israel’s first national elections in 1949. In 2015, Arab women won 3 out of the Knesset’s 120 seats, which to date marks their greatest victory for representation in the Israeli legislature. The state of Israel just celebrated its 70th birthday - so why has it taken so long for Arab women to see themselves represented even marginally in Israeli politics?
One major obstacle is the history of marginalization of Arabs in Israeli political institutions. According to Amendment 9 of Israel’s Basic Law regarding the Knesset and political parties, a political party "may not participate in the elections if there is in its goals or actions a denial of the existence of the State of Israel as the state of the Jewish people, a denial of the democratic nature of the state, or incitement to racism." This amendment has been cited numerous times by Israel’s Central Elections Committee to disqualify various Arab political parties; most recently the Ra’am Balad party, which supports the establishment of a Palestinian state. It is difficult for Arabs to get involved in Israeli politics when some of their most central beliefs are outlawed on principle.
While it is already an uphill battle to be an ethnic and/or religious minority in a self-declared Jewish state, it is an added layer of complexity to also be a woman. In addition to the challenges Arab women already face in Israeli political institutions, they are also often subjected to enduring patriarchy within their own communities. Many politically-minded Arab women in conservative areas of the country face resistance from their families when it comes to running for public office or spearheading political organizations, due in part to traditional gender roles and expectations for women as well as notions of family honor. Arab women in Israel also face high levels of domestic and gun violence: according to a report by Haaretz (one of Israel’s leading newspapers), half of the women killed in Israel in 2018 were Arab -- a statistic that becomes even more sobering considering that Arab women constitute less than 20% of Israel’s population. Since the struggle for equality and the fight against discriminatory policies are the most central components of Arab activism in Israel, women’s issues -- and women’s voices -- are often pushed to the side.
Although Arab women in Israel face unique obstacles to political involvement and representation, all is not lost. October 2018 marked an unprecedented victory: 26 Arab women (including the first Druze and Bedouin women) were elected to local councils in Israel, including four women who started and are running their own political parties (some of which consist entirely of Arab women). Even women with non-political backgrounds are joining the action -- in 2018, one woman running for public office was a schoolteacher, another was a former beauty pageant contestant.
Participation by Arab women in Israeli politics could increase with greater investment in their education. Israel’s Arab sector is grossly underfunded in comparison to the Jewish sector, and this is profoundly evident in the contrast between the two education systems. The Arab education system in Israel is plagued by low government funding compared to the Jewish education system. Arab student drop-out rates are double that of Jewish students, and Arab schools experience chronic classroom shortages, among other problems. If Israel invests in its Arab citizens and makes an effort to facilitate a safe political environment for all, the next historic victories for Arab women could be in the Knesset.
Clarissa is a senior in the School of International Service at American University majoring in International Relations and minoring in Arab World Studies. She is also a Research Assistant with the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University where she engages with a number of issues related to the Middle East and Muslim world.