Israel and Palestine Are My Two Mothers

Issawi Freij has been active in the Israeli-leftist party Meretz for many years. He was elected to the fifth place on the electoral list. In an interview with Arik Bender, Freij explains his constant inner conflict between his Palestinian identity and the Israeli one.

al-monitor Israelis and Palestinians hold their respective flags as they march together down the main street leading into Ramallah while a Palestinian policeman looks at the banner reading, "Let's make The Peace Process Work." Some 50 Israelis from the left-wing Meretz party took part in the march. Photo by REUTERS/Abbas Moumani.

Topics covered

peace, palestinian, negotiations, issawi freij, israeli-arabs, israel, identity, elections

Nov 18, 2012

If current expectations will be realized, and Meretz will garner five mandates [in the next Knesset], one of those seats will be taken by Issawi Freij of Kfar Kassem. With the elections coming up, he marches under the banner of equal rights and states that "Meretz's position is that what is good for the Jews, is also good for the Arabs."

Meretz party members hope for five seats in the upcoming election campaign, as opposed to the three seats they won in the last elections. If these expectations are realized, then Issawi Freij — an accountant from Kfar Kassem — will become the first Arab [Israeli] Knesset member of the [Meretz] movement since Meretz's Hussniya Jabara was elected to the Knesset in 1999.

In the party's Central Committee that was convened the day before yesterday [Nov. 11], Freij was elected to the fifth spot in the list while beating out former MKs Avshalom (Abu) Vilan and Mossi Raz to unrealistic spots on the list. This was achieved as a result of Freij's gamble — instead of opting for the seventh slot reserved for a representative of the Arab sector, Freij asked to cancel that reserved spot. Instead, he fought for a spot among the leading five seats, and hit the jackpot. He garnered 425 votes as opposed to Vilan's 367 and Raz's 363 votes.

Freij, 49, is the father of six daughters and one son. He lives only four houses away from the home of another Knesset [member], [Sheikh] Ibrahim Sarsur, head of the [southern faction of the] Islamic Movement and chairman of the United Arab List. "If I will be elected to the Knesset that will definitely bring great honor to Kfar Kassem. However, I don't see myself as an envoy of the village but a representative of the Israeli Left and the Meretz party — an equal among equals," Freij declares.

Freij came to the Central Committee armed with a letter of support from author Amos Oz. "Issawi Freij is a veteran activist and an eminently worthy member of the movement. His positions on peace and social-justice issues emanate from Meretz's core values. The presence of an Arab MK in the faction will serve to emphasize the main messages of our movement," Oz wrote.

Freij's political path began more than 20 years ago. During his studies in the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where he studied economics and accounting, Freij joined the Jewish-Arab student group CAMPUS, then afterward transferred to Ratz [forerunner of Meretz] and then Meretz. "I believed then, and I still believe today, in the great importance of the Jewish-Arab partnership," he says. "As a citizen of the State of Israel, [and] as a Palestinian Arab, I feel that we Arab citizens should no longer restrict ourselves to the role of 'preacher at the gate' that is held by the Arab parties. I don't want to be someone who only says the right things. I want to be a partner to the action and to the charting of the path of the State of Israel. Meretz, as a Jewish-Arab party by definition, is the only place in which there is true partnership stemming from a [jointly held] world-view. I truly hope that this partnership will serve as an example for analogous partnerships on the national level."

Freij has run for office three times already but now, as a result of the realistic spot he secured on the list, he hopes to finally serve as Knesset member. "I started off as a rookie but I advanced with the years to become an officer in the Meretz ranks. Now I want to become a general and represent the party in the Knesset," he says. "I believe that this time I will make it to the Knesset as a member of a party that does not assume the title of 'Arab lovers' but instead, that of 'lovers of rights for all human beings,' whoever they may be. Meretz places equality and humanity in the forefront, and as one who grew and developed in its ranks, I feel appropriate and worthy to be in its leadership."

Meretz received barely a quarter of a mandate in the Arab sector. In your opinion, how many seats are you worth?

"I am not a contractor for votes. Meretz is much appreciated in the Arab sector, but in the last three election campaigns the sector was not wise enough to place an Arab candidate in a slot with realistic chances for election. I can confidently say that Meretz will significantly increase its electoral power in these elections, and receive at least three times more votes in the Arab sector now than it did in the past. Israeli Arabs want to view their representatives as involved in the decision-making process, and not merely serve as "token Arabs" to decorate the Knesset lists."

Although Meretz is on the far-left of the [political] map, it is still considered a Zionist party. How do Israeli Arabs feel, as members of a Zionist party?

 "I will define myself the way I like, and you define yourself as you like. In Meretz we have a joint social-political-economic party platform, and that is what guides me — not the specific people [on the list]. I have had had enough of the view that says — what's good for the Jews is bad for the Arabs, and vice versa. Meretz adopts the approach that what is good for the Jews, is also good for the Arabs. I agree with that approach, and many in my sector feel that way too."

Many people accuse the Arab public representatives, especially Knesset members,  that they deal too much with the Palestinian problem and neglect the issues for which they were sent to the Knesset.

"I tell you this: I feel like a child born to two mothers. My biological mother is Palestine, and my adoptive mother is the State of Israel. I live between these two worlds. When I come closer to my biological mother, the adoptive one says, Be careful, you've become a fifth column. When I approach the adoptive parent, the biological one shouts at me, You have forgotten me, you are a traitor. This is a thorny conflict, therefore the solution is a bridge between the two mothers. Peace, to the Palestinian minority in Israel, is an existential necessity. It is more important to us than to the Jews because we are situated between a rock and a hard place, therefore it is our first objective, but of course not at the expense of the other interests of the Arab public in Israel. We must know what is our place, where we are going, for example where we will be if there will be peace between Israel and Palestine tomorrow. Therefore the flag I intend to wave will be the flag of Meretz. That is the flag of peace and equality, the flag of two states for two nations, the flag of the end of the occupation, social justice, equality for all and the struggle against racism." 

You have been elected during a difficult period in which the clash between Israel and Hamas has moved up a notch; rocket fire from the Gaza Strip is continuous and Israel is on the verge of a military action.

"Every country is required to protect its citizens – Jews and Arabs. The state is obliged to afford protection to everyone. Nevertheless, I expect that it will do so wisely and not stupidly. Another round of war will not beget a solution. A solution can only be achieved around the discussion table with Hamas. Israel achieved a cease-fire with Hezbollah, therefore the Northern border is quiet. If Israel succeeded in reaching understandings with Hezbollah, why shouldn't they reach similar understandings with Hamas? I propose to conduct negotiations immediately, and simultaneously renew negotiations with the elected representative of the Palestinian nation, Abu Mazen."

As a native of Kfar Kassam, Freij carries painful, harsh memories of the massacre in the village during the 1950s. Nevertheless, he prefers to look forward and not backward. "My grandfather's brother was murdered and my uncle was injured in the massacre," he says. "It is a wound that never heals, but I do not want to occupy myself with it. It is precisely the past that gives me tremendous strength to take action, because I believe in our common destiny and in co-existence of the two nations. We must put hatred aside, we have no choice. We must join hands and work together, with love."

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