Turning Possibility into Power

Former Israeli Knesset member Dov Khenin discusses how to build political power and pass radical legislation in a right-wing climate.

Libby Lenkinski
December 3, 2019
Image courtesy of Dov Khenin

Israel is stuck in parliamentary muck. After two elections in the span of six months, it’s now staring down the barrel of a third. This month marks a full year since the country has had a functioning government, while its prime minister-in-name-only—who was indicted on charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust—is hanging on by a thread. In the midst of this political turmoil, I reached out to former parliamentarian and social activist Dov Khenin to discuss the past and future of the progressive movement in Israel.

After serving in the now-deeply-dysfunctional Knesset for a dozen years as a member of Hadash (Israel’s joint Arab-Jewish Communist Party), Dov chose not to seek re-election last January. In his time there, he made his legislative mark, passing over 100 pieces of legislation, including sweeping environmental protection legislation and increases in the minimum wage. He was also the sole Jewish member of the Joint List, the alliance of the four Arab-majority political parties.

Like many progressives who have lived in Tel Aviv in the last decade, I’ve been following Dov for years, with a particular interest in his intersectional approach to politics. I first sat down with Dov last summer when he was beginning to develop his new organization, Place for Change, which brings together activists and academics to cultivate new strategies for advancing progressive causes in Israel. Recently, as Dov prepared to return to the United States for the first time in 20 years for the premiere of Barak Heymann’s documentary film about Dov and his work, Comrade Dov, I reached out again. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Libby Lenkinski: I wanted to start by asking you about the last few weeks—the non-formation of a coalition, the indictments against Netanyahu. How do you see things moving forward?

Dov Khenin: Netanyahu will do anything to avoid ending his career in jail. Another round of elections would both buy him time and further erode public faith in the democratic system. If we go to another round of elections, Netanyahu will try to mobilize potential voters from the right by further radicalizing his politics in the direction of Kahanists. There is also the threat of a military escalation with Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, and even Iran. An escalation like this would have a further benefit to Netanyahu: on these matters, Blue and White and other centrist parties will follow his lead and won’t dare to create an alternative. 

So the current situation is both complicated and deeply worrying. But to acknowledge that is not to erase all the possibilities that exist in this moment. There is so much resentment in the popular strata, among the people, even if it doesn’t translate to real opposition right now. First we must understand that, unfortunately, the Israeli political arena is not currently capable of translating the existing possibilities into actual change. I think this is largely the failure of progressive and even center-left political parties to create the inter-group connections necessary for political change. 

Netanyahu understands the value of a coalition. He has based his political career on the historical bloc of, on the one hand, the ultra-orthodox, and on the other hand, the ultra-secularists coming from the former Soviet Union. This is a very strange alliance, but he is able to maintain and rely on it; this bloc has been the basis of right-wing dominance in Israeli politics for the last decade. Meanwhile, center and center-left parties have not created a bloc with Arab voters or parties. So there is this gap between the real possibilities that exist between people, and their translation into political and parliamentary power. This is the gap we must work to close.

LL: I’m curious how it is to be post-Knesset Dov in this moment.

DK: You know, my family may have thought that leaving the Knesset would get me into quiet times—the opposite is true. First of all, I’m still very engaged in the Knesset. I want these political possibilities to translate into actual policies, and that involves a lot of meetings with MKs [Members of the Knesset] from different parties, even though I’m not one anymore. There are a lot of new MKs now who want to meet me, to learn a little bit about how to pass legislation while being in the opposition. In the last three months, I’ve met with about 40 members of the Knesset—mainly from Blue and White, but even some new members of Likud. Once you’ve decided to work in politics, you must sit down with all kinds of people and figure out where interests align. One of my more recent meetings was actually with a Likud MK who reached out to get advice about a technical issue, and I ended up talking with them about a piece of environmental legislation that I initiated but didn’t manage to pass before leaving. I really want the right adoptive parents for these bills. So I went through the various players who are involved or could be involved, talked through the opposition to the bill, and how to possibly get around that. Basically, we made a work plan for how to take this bill forward. So these newer MKs learn things from these meetings, but I also get something. I want them to continue pushing for legislative efforts that I was not able to finish.

LL: I think that there’s a story about the last decade in Israel in the 100-plus pieces of legislation you were able to push through. What are those pieces and what is that story?

DK: During my years in the Knesset, I was able to pass major pieces of legislation related to all fields of life: on environmental issues—including the Clean Air Act—feminist laws, like an extension of maternity leave, and laws regarding human rights. One extremely important piece of progressive legislation dealt with the living conditions of prisoners in Israeli jails, including Palestinian prisoners. Another major achievement was a piece of legislation regarding the rights of the LGBT community that prohibits any kind of discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexual identity in all spheres of the education system, including religious schools.

I’ve met with members of Parliament from left-wing parties from all over the world. When I speak about legislation, people are amazed that in Israel it’s possible for someone from a small party which holds positions totally outside the so-called national consensus to pass many, many, many laws. There are many countries where, if you are part of the opposition, passing legislation is totally out of reach; you can debate in parliament, you can quarrel, you can put ideas out there or convene meetings, but you can’t really pass legislation. But here, during some Knesset sessions, I was the MK who was able to pass the largest number of laws—more than members of the coalition and opposition. 

The goal with any legislation is to get a majority in favor of your bill. And when you represent a tiny party, there is one key to unlocking that majority support: collaboration. For me this has always meant partnering with people who are very different from me in their political views and orientation. I don’t think that forming partnerships with Uri Ariel or Betzalel Smotrich [MKs known for their ultra-nationalist, pro-settlement views], which I did in the struggle against police violence, makes me any less of a leftist. I think it makes that struggle more effective. Actually, the more confident we are in our own values and views, the more we can open up space for broad and far-reaching partnerships—that’s really the only way to get things done. I want to see a huge change in Israel, and it’s precisely because that is a very long-term prospect that I am prepared to take a step forward with just about anyone who is willing to take that step with me. 

LL: How does the occupation fit into the picture for you, in your work as a legislator and as an activist? 

DK: Fighting against the occupation is very central to our political activity in Israel—it has been and still is the main issue for my movement, and for me personally. Not only because I care about the future of the Palestinians in Gaza and in the West Bank, which I do, but also because I care about the future of my own people. Everyone should realize that the only way Israel will live is if it finds some way to achieve peace with our neighbors. That is our only option. 

But I do not believe in the “stages” theory, which says that in Israel, for instance, you should first fight for peace, and then you should fight for social justice, and after that, the environment—if it still exists—and then, at last, for equality for women. You cannot really separate the issues. When I struggle for the environment, peace is always present as an issue. When I struggle for peace, the environment is always present as an issue. 

When I struggle for social issues, I’m also strengthening a peace force in Israel, because if the left does not speak about social issues, then people in Israeli society will disregard us as elitist. You cannot tell people who are suffering, “Your problems do not interest me, because I deal with other issues.” I think this approach represents a self-defeating politics for people who really want to end the occupation and further peace in our region.

LL: This makes me think of an essential moment in Comrade Dov. You’re leaving the protest tent in Givat Amal, a low-income Mizrahi neighborhood in Tel Aviv. It’s late at night, and you’re in the car with Barak, the filmmaker. Barak asks you whether you think they’ll vote for you in the next elections, and you smile and say, “That’s not why we take action. We take action because they are right.” 

I’ve been thinking about that scene in relation to work I’ve been developing around narrative change in this era of rising authoritarian, right-wing populism, which depends on a certain idea of an elite versus the rest of us. The left needs to have a better, truer version of that story. But the left has gotten in its own way by not defining who “the rest of us” are broadly enough or correctly, and also sometimes by allowing ourselves to be swept into the elite without a fight. I’m wondering whether you think, by engaging in real grassroots community organizing and broadening that coalition, there’s actually a chance to defeat right-wing populism, narratively and politically?

DK: One must realize that the reason right-wing populism is gaining strength is not because there are more bad people in the world. There are bad people, of course, but there are also many regular people who support right-wing populism not because they are racist, but because they are very, very angry. We should, first of all, try to see very clearly what this anger is about. What does democracy mean to a woman who is working in a textile factory in the Israeli periphery? If it doesn’t mean anything to her, that’s a big problem. That means democracy has become very partial, and therefore very weak. Because if this democracy has nothing to offer this woman from the textile factory in the periphery, she will not rise to defend it when it is threatened by anti-democratic, right-wing, populist forces.

If we want to resist Trump or Netanyahu, it’s not productive to rally around the existing establishment. Instead, we should always try to criticize the establishment and to provide a progressive populist vision against the right-wing populist vision that they offer. That is very simple. And I think it works.

I’ll give you an example: More than 10 years ago, I had a very interesting experience when I ran for mayor of Tel Aviv-Yaffo. Needless to say, I was not elected. But it was an interesting attempt. I ran against a very powerful mayor, Ron Huldai, who was big in the Israeli Labor Party and supported across the political spectrum. He had a lot of money, and I ran a campaign with no money at all. And we won 34% of the vote. We got the majority among young voters—a large majority. But also, it’s notable that we won a majority in the poor districts of Tel Aviv, who vote for right-wing and religious parties in national elections. For me, it was an important lesson that you can build new bridges to parts of the Israeli public that do not typically support the left if you persuade them that you are not some faraway elitist, but that you are really trying to find solutions to their problems.

Another example: In Israel, the Ethiopian community is engaged in an important long-term struggle against racism, but particularly against police violence. It’s similar to Black Lives Matter in the United States, except that the Ethiopian community in Israel is historically connected with right-wing politics. So for me, being engaged with that community is both interesting and challenging. But in every Ethiopian demonstration, you see not only Ethiopians, but also people like myself. This is how a real movement for social change should behave. If someone is engaged in a just struggle, it is not enough to say, “Good luck.” You must join alongside them in the struggle. This is what progressive politics should look like.

If you want to change the existing social and political order, you must understand the connections between different social and identity groups in your society, and then you should try to replace them with a different set of connections. In a way, this is what the whole field of progressive politics is about: changing the fabric of intersectional, inter-group, inter-identity connections.

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.