Israeli Arab woman seeking political power for all

Until women have guaranteed seats in the Knesset, there will be equality for no one in Israel, according to a visiting Labor Party activist.

The activist, Nadia Hilou, is a Palestinian Christian who is determined to become the first Arab woman in the Knesset.

"After 50 years of Israel, it must happen," Hilou said in a recent interview in San Francisco.

"If [Arab] women have no political power, they cannot [effect] change. We aren't represented in the Knesset or in the Arab [political process]" she said in halting English.

Hilou's visit was part of a New Israel Fund program, "Yesterday's Dreams, Today's Challenges," a series of public lectures given by Hilou and two other Israeli commentators.

During her visit, Hilou talked about her work toward achieving political power for all women as well as enacting future laws to protect juveniles from being tried as adults.

The fortysomething advocate says she turns ears in most Israeli circles because of her influence in Jewish as well as Arab communities.

She advises both the Knesset and the Palestinian Authority on juvenile civil rights and other social issues. She is active in a number of Jewish-Arab peace and social action groups.

Hilou also leads a nongovernmental organization, Manara, which she founded to promote the development and advancement of Arab women in Israel.

Through Manara, she is working to establish a women's council in every Arab community that is dedicated to promoting female political candidates and tackling social problems.

Hilou ran for a seat in the Labor Party in the 1996 national elections. She received enough votes from Jewish and Arab voters across Israel to win the 37th seat on the list, the highest political status achieved by an Arab Israeli women.

Only the top 36 seats in the Labor Party have a vote in the Knesset. However, if a voting member of the party resigns or loses a seat before this fall's elections, Hilou said she will take over his or her seat in the Knesset.

Hilou doubts that will ever happen. It hasn't been easy to get as far as she has, she points out. As an Israeli Arab and a woman, she is a minority within a minority and suffers political injustice on all fronts.

"We are discriminated as a woman belonging to [an Arab] group, and we are discriminated [as women] from our own society" of Arabs.

During her 1996 bid for a Knesset seat, she decided against competing with Arab men who were vying for a seat in the Knesset's two Arab parties. She also avoided running for two designated Arab slots in the Labor Party for the same reason — a male candidate is usually preferable to a woman in the Arab community.

But the competition was just as keen to run on the national Labor Party list, a runoff that pitted her against Jewish candidates.

There was never a question in Hilou's mind to do it any other way — "The Labor Party is where to begin if we are to have a new Middle East with all our dreams and peace."

And a Palestinian state, a priority of the Labor Party agenda, is critical to equality for Israeli Arabs who plan to remain in Israel.

"We are citizens of Israel. We have land and see our places as our home. We are happy [to stay]."

Hilou believes a Palestinian state also would provide ammunition for Israeli Arabs to get assertive about civil rights and public spending in Israel.

She fears, however, that Arab hopes for a Palestinian state have grown weary and may be crushed before the peace process picks up steam.

In the meantime, Hilou said she will focus on her social work and political involvement. She also is campaigning for an affirmative action program that designates seats in the Knesset for women.

If she gets her way, every third or fourth seat in the government would be reserved for a woman even if the female candidate does not receive as many votes as the men vying for it.

"It is a question of changing values. It will not occur in one night or two days," she said.

The psychological incentive alone will have a dramatic effect on women, she maintains, "For the first time, there will be the possibility to believe that a woman can change and be represented and have the same position as a man."

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.