An Interview with Sawsan Zaher
Conducted by Mikayla Harris and Abhimanyu Chandra
Sawsan Zaher is the director of the Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights Unit at Adalah: The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel. She has worked with Adalah since 2005, acting as a leading voice for the rights of Palestinian Arab citizens in Israel. As a constitutional human rights lawyer, she specializes in social, economic, and women’s rights.
The Politic: Why did you apply to serve as a Yale World Fellow?
I am a Palestinian citizen of Israel. I have been working as a constitutional lawyer in Israel for more than eight years, working on the litigation of discriminatory cases in the Israeli Supreme Court on behalf of the Palestinian minority inside of Israel. I first of all needed a break, because the environment of working is very hectic and overwhelming, especially in the past two years when the political environment has become more and more right-wing. I felt that this break should be not any break, but involve intellectual enrichment and the ability to be away a little bit to think of the things that I have been doing, the strategies I have been adopting, and how I can move forward with the unit that I am directing at Adalah – and, most importantly, to meet interesting and challenging new people in many different fields. So the World Fellow Program at Yale, was a perfect program for me to fulfill what I wanted to do.
The network part is the most important aspect of this fellowship, because it really enables you to open doors to many issues and widen your perspectives and the thoughts you have in ways that maybe you haven’t thought before.
The Politic: What do you think of the program so far? How does it feel being back in school?
I love the program. It is giving me a lot, and I am trying as well to give back to the Yale community by providing talks and presentations to different student organizations. It’s a very interesting program. I am auditing classes, meeting with interesting people including faculty and students and getting exposed to diverse opportunities and ideas. My experience so far has been very fulfilling, enriching and challenging. The most challenging part was the shopping classes period where I was overwhelmed from the huge amount and diversity of classes here at Yale.
It is a very refreshing phase in my life.
The Politic: When you were an undergrad, what was your biggest dream? What was the one thing that you really wanted to do or become?
Back in law school, I loved the challenge part that the legal profession provides. I didn’t have any ambitions to work in the human rights field. Few years later, I had a breakdown in my marriage, where I decided to get divorced, which was a very difficult thing. The moment I got a divorce, I felt that I wanted to use my strength as a lawyer to help other Arab women. This is how I started my career as a feminist and human rights lawyer. I started researching how to get my Master’s Degree in International Legal Studies, Human Rights, and Gender, and I received a fellowship at American University in Washington, D.C. . I went back to Haifa and established the first legal department for Arab women’s rights because there were no legal departments that really gave legal aid or litigated on behalf of Arab women as such. So I think that the personal part of my life was the one that created an incentive for me to have a meaningful role as a lawyer.
Later on, however, I felt I could not only act as a litigator on behalf of Arab women because we don’t only live in an Arab society with strict social norms. We are Arab women living inside of Israel, and we are part of the Palestinian minority. I felt the need to merge between feminism and national activism. In 2005 I started to work with Adalah (Justice), which was the first human rights organization that was created to litigate on behalf of the Arab minority and have been working there since then. I have been working with impoverished and disadvantaged people, that are not able to pursue their rights. Today, I am the Director of the Social, Economic, and Cultural Rights Unit in Adalah.
The Politic: What has been the biggest challenge for you while working for Arab minority rights in Israel?
Litigating in the Israeli Supreme Court under a very difficult political right-wing atmosphere is a huge challenge. Whenever the politics in the region become more and more extreme, it puts even more challenges on me as a human rights lawyer. There is a huge relation between politics and law, so you cannot work only based on the rights that the law gives you and provides you, because sometimes it might conflict with the politics. When politics are involved in law, you don’t always get to result that you want to get to if politics were not involved. This is the biggest challenge.
The Politic: Do you think Secretary Kerry’s efforts towards a two-state solution are likely to reach fruition?
My personal perspective is that I do not talk anymore about a one-state solution or a two-state solution. I don’t think that these are the only options that should be examined. First of all, these options had been put on the table when the conflict was in a completely different shape, many years ago. Today, it looks very different. The establishment of settlements and the institutional strengthening of the settlements by Israel created new facts on the ground. The fact that you have this huge population living in the West Bank makes the situation very different.
I also don’t think that [either] of these solutions might be adequate because there are many factors that are not being taken under consideration. If you have a one-state solution, what would you do with the demography? You would have a huge population of Palestinians living in this one state, which would be called Israel. But then the definition of Israel as a Jewish state may have to be different because of the demography of the Palestinians. If you will still have a one-state solution and the Israelis will still want to call it a Jewish state, then the conflict will continue, because the mere fact of defining Israel as a Jewish state excludes all the other ethnicities and nationalities, namely the Palestinians. It can’t be a Jewish state. It should be a bi-national state, but of course the Israelis may not accept this definition.
If you go and discuss the two-state solution, another problem is what would happen to the Palestinian minority that is living inside of Israel, like myself. Because if the state would continue to have the definition as a Jewish state, then my status as a citizen of Israel would be even more problematic than it is now. The status of my citizenship would be more undermined than it is today.
So it is neither this nor that but rather a creative attitude of re-examining the type of regime that can be created while considering all the relevant factors and groups that haven’t been substantially included in the talk such as the Palestinian refugees and the Palestinian citizens of Israel.
The Politic: How did the events of the Arab Spring affect you and your work?
It didn’t actually affect my work as a constitutional lawyer, because we worked according to the Israeli law and the international law. But it gave a huge atmosphere of empowerment to many of the Palestinian young people creating hope for real change.
We reached a situation in which many of the young people believed there was no hope, and there was no bright light at the end of the tunnel. But the Arab Spring gave that hope. More young Palestinians inside of Israel going to the streets and demonstrating. They are expressing themselves more in the media, in newspapers, or in peacful demonstrations.
The Politic: What obstacles have you faced in your work due to your gender?
The main obstacle would be the conflict between feminism and nationalism. I am living in a conflict area where the main struggle is perceived to be the national struggle, where Palestinians are often portrayed as the enemy or as second-class citizens. But on the other hand, I am living in Arab society, where the majority – not all, of course – of social norms are strict. So the feminist struggle within society may sometimes be seen as conflicting with the national struggle. Sometimes, demanding a fulfillment of women’s rights from the Arab society is critiqued as putting the priority on feminist struggle rather than on national struggle.
The Politic: How have you had to adapt to varying societal norms within the Arab community?
You have to establish a good relationship with the grassroots, with women themselves and with the leadership level as well.
The Politic: Is there enough freedom of speech and/or expression in Israel for Palestinians?
Freedom of expression in Israel is a very strong constitutional right. There is an ability to have a clash of ideas generally. But when you get to the Palestinians, the enforcement of law differs and you view difference in treatment between Jews and Palestinian citizens. For example, the police treats Arab demonstrators more aggressivly. The number of arrests of peaceful demonstrators among Palestinians is higher than for Jewish demonstrators. Even when the arrestees are brought to trial, many more Palestinians are being indicted than Jewish arrestees. During October 2000 13 Palestinian citizens were killed by police officers during demonstrations against the Israeli occupation, and until today not one officer has been indicted.
Lately, we have been seeing a huge restraint on freedom of expression in new laws. The Nakba Law states that any institution that is state-funded may not commemorate the establishment of Israel as a mourning day, otherwise they will loose the State funding. Another law, which is called the boycott law enables to file a suit against a person who calls or participates in a campaign boycotting Israel because of its policies. The person or the institution as well cannot participate in public bids and will be prevented from getting any State funding. So freedom of expression is a constitutional law, but when it gets to the Palestinian citizens, it becomes more limited.
The Politic: Do you think young Palestinians and Israelis are peaceful and understanding towards each other, or are they more cynical and discriminatory?
There is a lot of racism towards the Palestinians from the Jews which makes it harder for youth to sit and talk. Racism is being strengthened towards Palestinian either by the new laws, or by politicians who do not condemn racist practices or properly enforce the law when racist acts are being committed against the Palestinians. for example, the Minister of Economy in Israel, Minister Bennett, is from a right-wing party in the ruling government. He made a public statement, saying in his life, he has killed a few Arabs, and when he sees an Arab now, it is okay for them to be killed. I ministers are making such statements, you cannot completely blame the younger generations. If it is not condemned on a higher level, people will never learn. This is the education that is being received from above.
There are many. One Hundred Years of Solitude was one of them. Anna Karenina by Tolstoy is another one of them. Crime and Punishment as well. It depends on what phase of your life you are in, so my favorite book 10 years ago is not my favorite book now.
The Politic: Is there a good Israeli author that you have really enjoyed? Or is there an Israeli author you would recommend for us as Yale students to read?
As a Palestinian I would recommend a Palestinian writer and author. So I would recommend, of course, Edward Said and all his literature. His books provide a genuine historical background on what the Palestinian question is about and thus will recommend The Question of Palestine. I would also recommend you to read Elias Khoury’s Bab al-Shams which talks about the events of the Nakba. I also recommend Emile Habibi who is a Palestinian nationalist writer.
The Politic: Do you have a single most important piece of advice that you would like to share with Yale students?
First of all, pick things according to your passion, not according to what you are expected to do. And always keep in mind that life is an educational process. You never get to a point when you learn enough. You should always try to put yourself in situations where you are listening to other people’s experiences and thoughts. I always try to learn more and to challenge myself more.