Nabila Espanioly: advocating for Arab Israeli women

Nabila Espanioly, Rabbi Yael Splansky
Feminist and human rights activist Nabila Espanioly, left, is interviewed by Rabbi Yael Splansky at Holy Blossom Temple Sept 11. NEW ISRAEL FUND OF CANADA PHOTO

Clinical psychologist Nabila Espanioly is a feminist and activist from Nazareth. She is the founder of Al-Tafula Center, a women’s centre in Nazareth that aims to empower Arab women in Israel and advance the field of early childhood development using a feminist approach. For three decades, Espanioly has campaigned to protect the civil rights of Arabs in Israel, promote peace through a two-state solution and improve conditions for Arab women. Last month, Espanioly spoke in Toronto at the sixth annual Shira Herzog Symposium, an event hosted by the New Israel Fund of Canada (NIFC). The NIFC has funded a number of her Israeli-Arab coexistence initiatives.

What have your activities to protect the civil rights of Arabs in Israel looked like?

I’m director at Al-Tafula Center, through which we work to empower Palestinian women and promote strong early childhood education for Palestinian families. I’m also a peace activist, and over the years that has included political work, social campaigning, working to try to change laws in Israel and trying to make people aware of what’s happening in Palestinian communities inside Israel and about the importance of equality. At certain periods, I’ve been more involved in organizing on the ground, other times in organizing conferences and networking with other organizations, and other times I’ve been more involved in fundraising, writing and educating.

What’s the connection between Al-Tafula’s mandates of empowering Arab women and advancing the field of early childhood development?

Since 1984, we’ve been developing early childhood services like nurseries and services that advocate for Palestinian children’s rights. The purpose is to have places where children can be taken care of so that women can work, as well as to give women the training to open nurseries and work with children. These things are all helping to create empowerment for Palestinian women.

Have your activist activities through the years mostly focused on improved rights for Arab citizens within Israel or on ending Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, or both?

In the beginning, I was more involved in both. I was involved in the peace movement and looking at how to bring about a two-state solution. But today, the political situation in Israel has stagnated so much and there seems to be much less of a possibility of changing it, so I’m more concentrated on changing the status of Palestinian citizens in Israel, especially women and children. I’m more concentrated on the civil rights movement inside Israel and on trying to stop racist and undemocratic laws in Israel.

With the deterioration of political possibilities, I and other peace activists in Israel feel we can’t do this alone. We need pressure from outside, from the international community that cares about Israel and Palestine.

When you speak about stopping racist and undemocratic laws, do you mean laws affecting Arab Israelis specifically?

I am referring to them, but not just to them. When you have something like a law curtailing NGOs in Israel, a law that’s trying to prohibit the work of civil rights organizations in Israel and a prime minister who’s making a blacklist of NGOs, this is not just against the Arabs. Racism is racism. If the government is trying to control critical voices in Israel, it might begin by targeting the Arabs in Israel, but it then extends to affect everyone. I normally tell my Jewish friends, ‘If you want to see what the future for Jews in Israel will be like, come see what it’s like for the Palestinian citizens of Israel. What begins with the Arabs and the Palestinians defines the future for the whole state.’

To clarify, are you using the term “Arab Israelis” synonymously with “Palestinians in Israel?”

Palestinian Arabs in Israel belong to the Palestinian people, so we are Palestinian citizens of Israel. The state doesn’t relate to us as such. They relate to us as Christian, Muslim or Druze and call us “Arab Israelis.” But Arab Israelis come from Palestine, so they are Palestinian.

This tendency not to call us Palestinian is about trying to change history and ignore that the State of Israel used to be called Palestine. Of course, that is part of the political compromise the Palestinians already made and are willing to make to have a two-state solution. I think one of the obstacles to peace is not recognizing the history. I always say in my peace activism that there’s no co-existence without existence. You have to know who you are and take responsibility for that to build a future. Without recognizing what happened in 1948, we can’t build new identities or a future in Israel, one in which all citizens of Israel are equal.

In what ways do you feel Arab women bear the brunt of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and the Israeli government’s discriminatory policies against Arabs in Israel?

Take, for example, the issue of unemployment. The majority – 60 per cent – of families living in poverty in Israel are Palestinian. Of this 60 per cent, 70 per cent are living off of a single income. If we could create employment opportunities for women, many of these families would be able to come up from under the poverty line.

For years, the state was saying that Palestinian women don’t want to work. But when we did research and questionnaires, we found that the majority of Palestinian women want to work, but don’t have opportunities in their villages and towns because of discrimination.

The state controls the budget for development, and there aren’t industrial areas or work opportunities in Palestinian communities in Israel.

Before 1948, 90 per cent of the Palestinian communities were working on farms. Their land was confiscated, so the men went into cities and found work in building, services, etc. The women stayed in the villages, where there are no alternatives for employment, insufficient transportation from the villages to cities and insufficient services like nurseries to allow women to work outside the home.

What are the best methods for transforming these women’s lives for the better?

For Palestinian women to have any activity or contribution to society is good. To the Jewish community in Canada, I say it’s very important to make your voice heard. You can support the civil rights movement in Israel. You can send letters to politicians saying you’re not going to support Israel’s discriminatory government policies. You can call on the Israeli government to create more equal opportunities for Palestinians. You can speak out against the demolition of Palestinian houses and villages, because this impacts the whole life spectrum of these people. You can follow civil rights groups and activists online and express opposition to the inhumane conditions that Palestinians are living in in Israel. The New Israel Fund of Canada can connect you to organizations on the ground working for a better future.

I believe that many small actions done by many people can change the situation. People will connect to different issues – some will connect to children’s rights, some to education, some to employment. I’m in a situation where I don’t see hierarchies among these issues. Suffering is suffering. Oppression is oppression. If you connect to a particular issue, connect to it, and use your power to create change.

You were quoted in an online bio as saying, “Female Palestinians in Israel are subjected to three kinds of discrimination: as members of the Palestinian minority, as women in Israel and as women in conservative Palestinian society.” What does the interplay between these three types of discrimination look like?

Well, first, there’s the fact we are all living in a patriarchal society generally. When we as Palestinian women struggle against oppression in our own societies, it’s different from struggling against the oppression from the Israeli government. But these struggles are all connected.

For example, when Israeli police officers accept a statement from a sheikh [an elder or esteemed community leader] from a Palestinian village saying he will protect a woman from violence at the hands of male family members, and she then goes back to her family and is killed, you wonder if both the police and the sheikh sold [out] the woman to keep their powers. We witness a lot of co-operation between different patriarchal powers.

Another example is that 50 per cent of Palestinians and Bedouin in Israel live in unrecognized villages that don’t have schools. If a girl wanted to go to school, it might be a dangerous, eight-kilometre walk to a school in another community. The patriarchs in her community might say, “Don’t let her walk,” while the state won’t provide education in her community or a way for her to get to school safely.

So there are multiple circles of discrimination. Sometimes they are separate, sometimes they’re overlapping. That’s why we have to face all of these forms of discrimination together, to network and co-operate with different women’s and civil rights groups. n

This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity.