Standing Up to Likud’s Voter Suppression

Raluca Ganea discusses the role of grassroots activism in Israel’s flailing democracy.

Libby Lenkinski
September 12, 2019
Raluca Ganea. Photo: Yehezkel Raz

Two days before the last Israeli election in April, Israel’s ruling Likud Party petitioned the Central Elections Committee to shut down a get out the vote operation by an Israeli campaigning organization called Zazim—an organization that Online Progressive Engagement Network (OPEN) and I co-founded with activist Raluca Ganea four years ago, which functions very much like an Israeli version of The government’s efforts were unsuccessful, and Zazim’s campaign went ahead as planned, bringing thousands of Arab Bedouin voters from unrecognized villages in southern Israel to their polling places.  

Last week, the Likud Party once again petitioned the Central Elections Committee to prevent Zazim from helping citizens exercise their right to vote. Today, Israel’s Attorney General confirmed that Zazim’s activity is fully legal. Zazim’s organizers plan to help some 15,000 Arab voters cast their ballots next Tuesday.

Raluca has been leading the organization as its executive director ever since we founded it. Over many years and many hours sitting at Raluca’s local café in a quiet alley in Jaffa, the two of us have developed an ongoing strategic conversation about organizing and mobilization. I interviewed Raluca this week to understand what is happening around the upcoming Israeli elections, and how she is positioning this rapidly growing grassroots movement to make change where it matters. 

Libby Lenkinski: I want to start by talking about this week’s election. What is happening in terms of voter suppression in Israel? 

Raluca Ganea: This first became a real public issue in Israel in 2015. Netanyahu went onto YouTube on the eve of elections and said that the Arabs were running out to the polls and that leftist organizations were driving them in buses to vote, like it was a crisis. It was a direct call from the prime minister to suppress the Arab vote. Practically, this probably didn’t have a huge impact on the election the next day, but it was part of an ongoing process to undermine this group of people—as citizens, as voters, as elected officials. Another step in this process was when the Likud Party placed so-called hidden cameras in polling stations in Arab towns during the April elections. Even though they were referred to as “hidden cameras,” it was very clear that Likud wanted them to be discovered early on Election Day in order to sow fear and chaos—to say, “You have no idea how many cameras there are and where else they might be, where else you might be under surveillance.” This is a basic definition of terror. 

There was a report last week about a Likud initiative to have Jewish inspectors in Arab towns searching Arab women under their veils. I don’t know if there are actually monitors available to do that, but just having these rumors circulating is enough to keep Arab women at home because they’re afraid of that humiliation.

LL: The other thing that’s going on this week is that Zazim has been defending itself against legal attacks from the prime minister and his party. 

RG: They are trying to shut down our entire organization until Election Day because of our bussing initiative, which directly relates to Arab voting. It’s the second time we’re running this campaign, the seed of which was actually planted by Netanyahu in 2015, when he made that inciting statement about Arabs being bussed out in droves to vote. I thought that the best solidarity action with Arab citizens would be to turn this statement around, to change the framing into something positive, into a mobilizing moment. So during the April elections, at the last minute, we ran a crowdfunding campaign to send 50 minibuses to the Negev to drive all day between the unrecognized Bedouin villages and the nearest polling places.  

Back then, Likud also tried to shut us down. We had to let our members know that there was a possibility that we wouldn’t be able to do the action they had contributed to. Likud’s appeal would eventually be denied. But before we found that out, we got hundreds of messages from our members saying: “They can’t do that. This just isn’t right. It’s immoral.” 

We live in such a crazy world, and it’s very hard to get this kind of clarity in chaotic moments. It’s so precious because it gives our movement a compass, it helps us determine how to move forward. Knowing that you’re on the right side of history and that you will be able to tell your children that you did the right thing in these dark times—it’s very precious and very powerful.

LL: I know your children are a great motivation for you now. How did you come into this work? 

RG: Look, my name is Raluca; it’s not an Israeli name. I was born in Romania and came to Israel when I was three. One day, I came back from daycare in Romania, and I told my mother that she’s not my real mother because Helena, the wife of Ceausescu [the leader of the Romanian Communist Party], is the mother of all Romanians. My parents decided they needed to get out as soon as possible. 

My parents gave up their lives and their careers to offer me and my sister a better future in a democratic country. So I feel like if Israeli democracy is going to collapse, then my parents’ life project will have turned out to be a mistake. I cannot allow that to happen. For me, being an immigrant actually makes it hard to imagine moving away. I really feel that I don’t have anywhere else to go. I don’t have another country. So I spend every minute trying to ensure that we will have a democratic country that offers rights to everyone. I don’t have another option.

LL: What does it mean to be “progressive” in Israel today, and how are you and Zazim speaking to that?

RG: You can’t call yourself “progressive” in Israel today if you don’t talk about the occupation. The fact that Israel is denying rights to millions of Palestinians for so many years now is a moral stain on our democracy. And that’s exactly where we have a kind of a vacuum in the public discussion in Israel. Since Rabin’s assassination in 1995, there hasn’t been any serious attempt to mobilize Israeli citizens to promote peaceful solutions to the conflict or to end the occupation. There are many important human rights organizations that do amazing work, but that’s something else. There hasn’t been a public movement to mobilize the people. This is the vacuum that Zazim steps into. 

The other defining issue is equal rights for Palestinian citizens of Israel. Of course, these two issues are connected, and the government knows it. If you don’t have that 20% of the population represented in government, and they don’t have equal rights, then there’s no way we’ll be able to end the occupation, because there won’t be a political majority pushing for it. So the people who are promoting policies like the annexation [of the West Bank] need to take the Arab population out of the political picture. It’s very clear.

LL: Who are Zazim’s members, and what does it look like for them to work on an issue?

RG: First of all, we work in Hebrew and Arabic. Everything we do goes out in Hebrew and Arabic. It’s important to say this because it’s not a given today. It’s meaningful symbolically, but it’s also practical. We’re building a movement of Jews and Arabs in partnership because that’s the only way to build an equal future. So when we tackle issues, it’s this shared movement that tackles them. 

What we’re trying to do is train people to drive through their own red lights. What I mean by that is, as democracy itself is in question here, it’s not a given that people feel safe even putting their name on a petition for fear of being targeted. Especially well-known figures—they have to be careful. Many academics, artists, and celebrities are members of Zazim. But these days, it’s very hard to get people who are not already well-known leftists to take a stand. So, one campaign at a time, one action at the time, we’re trying to build a movement that can support people taking actions that they would not take without the backing of this movement.

Age is a factor in this. The older generation is used to taking a stand; they remember a different political environment. Right now, the largest age group that participates in Zazim actions is people between 35 and 50, and we are trying to reach younger people. But we definitely have a very strong contingent who are over 50. Of course, it’s often women. Just this past Saturday, we organized an encounter where people who volunteered to drive Bedouin citizens to their polling places on Election Day went down to the Negev to meet the people they would be driving. All of those who joined us were women over 50. Women of a certain age are the best and most committed change agents that we have, and we’re naming and embracing that.

We currently have over 140,000 members, which is close to 2% of the population. 65% of them are women. They come from all parts of Israel, not just Tel Aviv. We’re proud of our growth over the years, but our goals are not infinite. If we could reach a quarter of a million people in a country of nine million, to us that is a critical mass. With that, you can change the power balance. I actually don’t want 10% of the population to be Zazim members, because if we’re in that position, it means we don’t need Zazim anymore. It means we’ve either lost our edge or that things are going so well that we’re obsolete. 

LL: What would this critical mass do to shift the power balance?

RG: Here’s an example: When African people seeking asylum in Israel faced deportation last year, our first campaign was for our members to ask the pilots and air crews in Israel to refuse to fly these deportation trips, to refuse to fly these refugees to their deaths in Africa. Pilots in Israel represent the elite and they carry a specific weight in the Israeli narrative. Pilots refusing to do their job also carries the subtle connotation of conscientious objection from the army. The frame is one of civil disobedience. 

We managed to get over a hundred pilots and air crew members to publish a full-spread ad in the newspaper saying that they would refuse to take part in the government’s plan to deport asylum seekers. From there, the action just spread in a million directions, not all of them connected to us. There was this evolving sense that we, the people, are going to take responsibility for what is happening. We’re just not going to let this happen. People were declaring that they were willing to hide asylum seekers in their homes. People were willing to risk their professional reputation, their livelihood, by signing petitions and appeals to the government. It was a moment of collective moral clarity: A lot of people who had never taken action before were willing to take risks in order to stop something they saw as evil.

The first time Netanyahu threatened to shut us down because of the bussing campaign, I got a lot of calls from members saying that if he succeeded, they would just get in their cars and go to the Negev anyway. I imagine that if we get shut down this time, hundreds of volunteers will do that. We wouldn’t be coordinating them. We wouldn’t be pushing them to do it. They will just go there and do it. I don’t want them to shut us down because this action will be far more efficient if Zazim is coordinating it. But if we did get shut down and people just did the action on their own, for me that would be the ultimate proof of the power of our movement and what we’ve managed to build in three and a half years. 

LL: This grassroots power is so important, especially in this political moment. So many of our avenues depend on a functioning democracy, like petitioning the Supreme Court, for instance. But that space is shifting toward something other than democracy. Governments are shutting down those formal avenues. With the kind of civil disobedience movement you’re talking about, what can the government do? Shut down all the people?

RG: Absolutely. The world is changing, and our movements need to change to reflect that. That’s ultimately what we’re doing.

Libby Lenkinski is vice president of public engagement at the New Israel Fund and has been working at the intersection of progressive Israeli and American social change for more than 15 years.