One of Us

A new documentary portrays outgoing Knesset member Dov Khenin as a lone, heroic figure in a hopeless political landscape.

Mairav Zonszein
July 5, 2019
Dov Khenin. Video still from Comrade Dov, courtesy of Heymann Brothers Films.

IN THE RECENTLY RELEASED ISRAELI DOCUMENTARY COMRADE DOV, director Barak Heymann invites the audience to fall in love, as he has, with political activist and outgoing member of Israel’s Knesset Dov Khenin—or at least, as the case may be for many Israeli viewers, to fall out of disdain. The film opens with footage of Khenin riding down a busy Tel Aviv street on one of the city’s green public bikes, paired with audio soundbites of everyday Israelis speaking about him. One calls him a “radical”; another asserts that he has shaken hands with murderers; another describes him as “half an Arab”; another questions whether he is “one of us.”

As Israeli society continues to shift further to the right—with basic rallying cries like “equal rights” and “end the occupation” more marginalized than ever in mainstream discourse, and electoral polls maintaining their rightward trend ahead of the September election—the film serves not just as a tribute to Khenin and his work, but also as a call for Israelis on the left not to give up. Comrade Dov is compelling because Khenin himself is: a figure who refuses to give up hope, however hopeless the situation. “All the activists I know are depressed,” Heymann tells the audience at the film’s outset. “But Dov always seems to be optimistic, which is why I love being with him.”

A lawyer with a PhD in political science, Khenin, age 61, served in the Knesset from 2006 until April of this year. A member of Hadash, the Arab-Jewish socialist party, he is one of the most outspoken Jewish politicians on Palestinian rights ever to serve in the Knesset. He’s also one of its most effective legislators; he helped to pass more than 100 laws during his tenure. Khenin’s parents were members of Israel’s Communist Party, and he was raised in an environment where Palestinians regularly visited his home, where it was natural to hang out in the West Bank and to have Palestinian friends—a rarity for most Jewish Israelis. In mainstream Israeli discourse, he’s notorious for being the only Jewish member of the Joint List (a united slate of the four parties representing the Palestinian population) in the previous Knesset. Every left-wing Israeli activist—Jewish and Palestinian alike—knows Khenin because he appears so frequently at progressive protests of every sort, from those in support of workers’ and animal rights, to those against home demolitions, the occupation, and the siege on Gaza. Central to Khenin’s politics is the idea that no protest is too small to be of value. In fact, as Khenin explains in the film: “The most important protests are the small ones. Ten people go out to the streets because something really pains them. They don’t think they have a chance. That is a demonstration you must attend.”

Heymann’s fawning portrait of Khenin makes its case by showing him operating in the two playing fields he has mastered: the Knesset and the streets. Condensing 470 hours of raw footage shot over a decade into just an hour and fifteen minutes, Heymann presents Khenin as a passionate advocate for the underprivileged with a clear command of politics, someone able to connect with people of all walks of life. As Heymann shows, Khenin has even earned the respect of some religious and right-wing Israeli politicians and journalists, who appear in amicable exchanges with him. 

Comrade Dov also begrudgingly makes room for the criticism Khenin gets from the left. Heymann includes critics on the Palestinian left who see Khenin as appeasing Jewish citizens by pushing for a more inclusive democracy—rhetoric they perceive as insufficiently revolutionary and simply inaccurate, since they don’t recognize Israel as a democracy in the first place. Viewers also hear from Orly Noy, a Mizrahi political activist with the Palestinian nationalist Balad Party, who acknowledges that Khenin is “one of the best people in Knesset,” but criticizes him for presenting himself as the face of change despite the fact that he occupies the top stratum of Israeli society as a white Ashkenazi Jewish man. “You enjoy the privileges that racist Israeli society has given you,” she says in the film. “To acknowledge that means taking a step back.” In that sense, despite his central role within the Israeli left, Khenin is in some ways very much isolated. 

Indeed, the film portrays him as a lone hero fighting against the establishment’s injustices and anti-democratic forces, vacillating between Israeli nationalism and Palestinian nationalism, without fitting squarely into the framework of either ideology. In Comrade Dov, Khenin says that he defines himself as a “Jewish national,” underscoring his point by adding, “I’m not a cosmopolitan Jew.” Yet he does not align with the nationalism of the Israeli mainstream because he’s a staunch believer in full equal rights, while his commitment to rhetoric of “coexistence,” however well-meaning, alienates some Palestinians in Israel, given all of the ways in which Israeli society is structured to exclude them outright.

In one memorable scene, Khenin speaks at a cultural event in Tel Aviv attended by public officials, right after the government’s 2015 evictions of Jewish citizens from their homes in the impoverished northern Tel Aviv neighborhood Givat Amal, to make way for more prime real estate. Khenin uses his time at the podium to mention this injustice. At the end of the event, he’s seen standing next to President Reuven Rivlin as everyone recites Hatikvah—everyone except Khenin, who stands silent and stoic. Asked by Heymann about his issue with the anthem, he responds: “I want my Arab friends to be able to sing it as well . . . There are citizens just like you who can’t sing this song even if they want to, because they don’t have the Jewish soul that’s in the song.” Later in the film, he attends a Land Day rally in the Palestinian village Deir Hana, and again, while everyone around him sings the Palestinian national anthem, he keeps mum, staring into the distance. 

Heymann told me that the film is a “political act” in line with Khenin’s own political goals: In the same way that Khenin transitions between Jewish and Palestinian spaces, reaching out to Israelis who don’t share his worldview in an effort to persuade them of the validity of his positions, Heymann—anticipating a primarily Jewish audience—takes the viewer first through the socioeconomic struggles of Jewish citizens, and then to the eviction of Bedouin residents in Umm al Hiran to make way for a Jewish town. His goal is to draw parallels between Jewish and Palestinian realities. This is Khenin’s own strategy as well. In the film, while speaking to a group of high school students who live in West Bank settlements, he manages to discuss the Palestinian refugee issue without coming across as combative. He addresses the students’ concern that no matter what Israel does, it will never be enough by bringing up the Arab Peace Initiative. “If you really want this agreement,” he says, “all of the problems can be solved with creativity, imagination, and good will. If you don’t want this agreement, even the smallest problem can become an obstacle.”

The film’s climax features footage of the horrifying police violence that took place in the Bedouin village of Umm al Hiran in 2017, in which MK Ayman Odeh was shot in the forehead by police, and which left both a Bedouin resident and a police officer dead. (The Bedouin man killed by police was immediately labeled a terrorist by the Israeli government, but his death since been proven to be the result of excessive police force.) After that incident, Khenin is filmed at the podium of the Knesset plenum, reading out the names of the 51 Palestinian citizens of Israel who have been killed by Israeli authorities since October 2000 to a practically empty auditorium, bringing home the point that the Palestinian national minority continues to be the elephant in the room of Israeli politics.

The film ends with Khenin’s bittersweet and anticlimactic exit from Knesset earlier this year. “The Knesset is very important,” he tells his fellow Hadash party members, “but the struggle for real change does not begin or end in the Knesset.” While he and Heymann sit together looking at a flock of birds hovering over a pond, Khenin explains that despite many isolated achievements, he feels there have been significant failures: “I look at the general direction that Israeli society is heading in, OK, so we did raise the minimum wage, did reduce inequality, but society is in a terrible state. I sometimes look from the side and it seems like everyone is going mad. It’s very dangerous.” Khenin believes he can have a greater impact by leaving the Knesset and taking part in mobilizing a grassroots movement for change, but the audience is left wondering whether even a dedicated, articulate, and well-respected politician like Khenin can actually have a significant impact on Israeli society. In this sense, the documentary is an excellent portrait of the state of left-wing politics in Israel today: impassioned, decent, and unable to take flight.

Mairav Zonszein is an Israeli American journalist and commentator who has covered Israeli politics and US foreign policy for over a decade. She is a founding editor of +972 Magazine, and her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, The Columbia Journalism Review, and more. She is currently senior analyst on Israel/Palestine with the International Crisis Group.