Samya Nasser: Alternative leadership
November 10 is the date for municipal elections in Israel. In the Galilean village of Majd al-Krum (population: 8500), all the slates but one represent kinship clans. The exception is headed by Samya Nasser. Founder of the Baqa center in the village and an executive member of the Organization for Democratic Action (ODA), Nasser is the only woman heading a slate in the Arab sector. Hadas Lahav interviewed her three weeks before the elections.
- What is the platform of the Baqa electoral slate? Who are the candidates and what do they stand for? How do you differ from the other lists running for the Majd al-Krum Council?
Our platform focuses on three main issues: education, land and work. We come with five years of work behind us. In education, we founded the Mothers' School, in which, so far, more than 120 women have learned how to tutor their children with schoolwork. On the issue of land: Every year we conduct an "Olive Day for Galilee", a day of voluntary work on the village lands. We also help farmers rent heavy equipment for preparing new plots. We collect contributions in order to aid them in buying and planting olive nurslings. We have established a project for marketing olive oil at a price that can assure farmers a fair return. On labor issues, we've established the Workers' Advice Center (WAC). Dozens of workers from the village are using it today. So you see, we approach the electorate with a record of real accomplishments. All the other parties mouth slogans, but they cannot back them with deeds. We are running for office in order to increase our influence. It's one thing to work in the framework of a center. It's quite another to sit on the Village Council, one of eleven members, where you represent at least four hundred people who have given you their trust. Our list has seven candidates. These are activists from the Baqa Center, and like myself they are also members of the ODA. Four are women. We came to know two of them through the Mothers' School. There are also workers on the slate whom we met through the WAC; they think our approach can make a significant change in the village. All the candidates work as volunteers, sell Al-Sabar, our newspaper, go from house to house, sit with the villagers and explain our program, persuade them, and invite them to take part in our projects. You won't find people like ours on any other slate.
- In the past, the national parties put up slates according to their political programs. Today, however, each of the other fourteen lists in the village represents a separate kinship clan. How do you explain this regression to a family-based politics?
After the Arab parties supported Oslo, the whole "national line" collapsed (The term refers to the Arab stand against assimilation into a Zionist state. - H.L). We have reached a point – imagine! – where a member of Hadash (the Communist party) shamelessly walks arm in arm with the well-known collaborators in the village! This could not have happened before Oslo. By setting such an example, the one-time nationalist teaches people that if they need something, they can simply turn to the local collaborator and he'll arrange it. Village politics today is all wheeling and dealing, based on the connections you have in the upper ranks of the Israeli establishment. When you have principles, you have the possibility of uniting people around them. When there are no principles, each family looks to its own private interest.
Ever since 1992, when the Arab parties supported the Zionist Labor party, they lost their loyalty to the true cause of the Palestinian people. The Arab parties in the village today don't do a thing, and people have no more faith in them. So now that they realize victory isn't certain, they go back to betting on the old "clan" horse. People see that these once respected "nationalists" and "progressives" have returned to the family bosom, and they think, "Apparently there's no other choice." This year's election campaign contains no political debate whatever. Everything begins and ends in the family circle. Here's an indication of what we've come to: there are many in the village who would like to vote for us, but they don't dare say so in public, because their afraid. There are people whose families made them swear on the Koran, or do other idolatrous things, to force them to vote for the family candidate. This is not a healthy political situation.
- Can you describe how you work? Who does the work, whom do you turn to? How do you persuade people to vote for you?
In June we began visiting people's homes. We wanted to take the pulse. Only after we felt that there was support did we decide to go ahead. People relate to our campaign differently than they do to the usual electioneering, because they know that behind it is a lot of sweat and hard work, given without any external reward. We also visit people who don't know us and explain who we are and what we're doing. So here we are, trying to persuade and argue at a time when no one else in the village still believes that it's possible to persuade anyone of anything, at a time when everyone tells us there's no one to talk to. Our activists are known as people who speak out and have something to say. Anyone who's looking for a non-family slate comes to us.
- You are not running for Chairperson of the Village Council but only for membership. On the other hand, you don't support any of the candidates for the Chair. Why?
We regard these elections as a test for us. Before we attempt to win the top spot, we want to see how much power we really have. Yet we also have ambitions beyond this. We know that politically and organizationally we could stand up against any of the candidates for the Council Chair. We are doers with a political program, unlike all the others, who merely represent clans. No one in the village today believes that any of the candidates running for the Chair is proposing change. Not one of them is ready to go into the real issues, like land confiscation, the absence of a master plan, the low level of schooling, and so on. This is why we can't support any of them. We are calling for unity on a political basis – on the basis of our future as Palestinians – and for the sake of the general good. Everyone knows we're the cleanest slate. True, we would get more votes if we supported a candidate for the Chair, but we cannot allow ourselves to soil our hands.
- Is leading a list any harder for you because you're a woman?
There are indeed people who say, "What is a woman doing running for the Council? That's man's work." There are also those who can't understand why the candidate in the second slot, Kheir Salame, would be willing to run behind a woman. But these are a minority. Most of the village wants a change but is held back by the current political reality. The four female candidates on our list are the only women running in Majd al Krum. I am the only woman heading a slate in the entire Arab sector. The fact that I dare to stand at the top of a party list has caused many people to change their attitude toward me, in a positive sense. I say to everyone, nevertheless, that I do not represent only women and women's issues, but rather a principle that applies to men and women alike. What gave me the courage and strength to stand at the head of a list was the faith that my party and the people I work with put in me. On the other hand, I also feel that many village women are watching to see how far I get. If I succeed, this will give them hope.
- Nationwide there are about ten Arab women running in the next municipal elections. Some of them have even tried to make contact with you, and you refused. Why?
Most of these women are close to the Labor Party or other Zionist parties. They are being used as an electoral gimmick in order to create an impression of change and progress. The fact is, the authorities are backing them financially all the way. Our party is different. It is a revolutionary party, calling for a revolutionary change in existing conditions. Our lives are totally different from the lives of those women. They swim with the current, we, against it. The connection between us, if you can call it that, consists of political rivalry right down the line.
- You come from a Communist family. During your university studies you were active in a nationalist movement called the "Sons of the Village". Then you worked as a schoolteacher, but you decided to leave in favor of politics. Today you are a leader in the ODA. Why did you decide to choose this political direction?
Indeed, I come from a family of political activists. At home we were always discussing political issues, and I always saw myself as part of the Palestinian people and its fate. So when the members of the ODA asked me, five years ago, to take responsibility for the Al-Baqa Center, I did not hesitate for a moment. I thought that in this way I would be able to serve the cause of my people better, rather than continuing to teach 30 children in a school which forbids me to say what I think. When the Oslo agreement was signed, and all the Arab parties here welcomed it, I made my position clear. Everyone, even friends and family, looked at me as if I were someone from another planet. Not that they didn't see the flaws in Oslo, but they were astonished that at a time when everything was collapsing, here I was talking politics and trying to revoke what to them seemed etched in stone. The family wasn't at all happy with what I was doing. They claimed that the social traditions of the village would not accept a woman with a political consciousness. I told my father, "Wasn't it you who taught me about my people? About the discrimination against us? And now you don't want me to step forward and act?" We fought about everything, every step I took had to be argued endlessly. Finally, when they saw I was sticking to my guns, they had to accept me as I am. My brothers, for instance, were always putting me down. But when they saw me in this election fight, and how I was winning support, they changed their opinion. Today they too are campaigning for the success of the slate.
- In 1995 you took part in the Women's Conference at Beijing. You were then at the beginning of your political activism. What influence did that convention have on you?
The meeting with the Palestinian faction was one of the things that influenced me most on my political course. It included women from Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan – women whose families had been exiled from their homeland. I saw what suffering they had gone through and the price they'd been forced to pay because we Palestinians don't have a state of our own. I heard outrageous accounts from women who had gone through the hell of the massacre at Sabra and Shatila and the civil war Lebanon. That strengthened my determination to continue the struggle, not only for the Palestinian people, but for all the peoples that are suffering in this world.
- Do you think your victory is assured? What will happen if you don't manage to get in? How will that affect the continuation of your work?
I do believe we shall win, although until it's over I won't take anything for granted. In the meantime we are doing all we can to win. We are fighting for each and every vote. We need 400 votes but, if in the worst case we don't get the required number of votes, it still makes a difference how far short we fall. By one hundred votes? By three hundred? If we lose only by a few dozen, we'll keep on working and wait for the next time. But, at this point, I don't even want to consider a major failure.