MK Nadia Hilo addresses a gathering of Na’amat activists.The offices of the freshman members of the Knesset are situated in a windowless corridor on the bottom floor of the historic building. But Nadia Hilo doesn’t seem to mind the less-than elegant location.
The only female Israeli Arab MK’s small, but stately office is bustling with activity, with two aides in the reception area talking on cell phones and gathering data online. At the same time, a visitor who had just finished speaking to the Knesset Status of Women Committee is stealing a few private minutes of time with Hilo.
Bidding farewell to the guest, the Labor Party MK asks for one more minute as she writes some notes down in longhand Arabic. Then she straightens out the papers on her desk, and leans back to talk about the journey that brought her from a childhood in Jaffa to the halls of power in Jerusalem.
“I was born and raised in Jaffa,” Hilo told ISRAEL21c in deliberate yet flowing English which sometimes shifted to fluent Hebrew when there was a word or phrase which didn’t come easy to her.
“As you know, Jaffa is a mixed city, and we grew up there in an environment of coexistence and partnership between the Arabs and Jews who lived there. We had very good relations with our neighbors, and many of the friends I had as a child growing up there have remained my friends and neighbors today.”
That sense of continuity whereby the mother of four grown daughters and three-time grandmother still lives in the same neighborhood where she was born is all part of the deep roots she feels for Israel, and her yearning to see it achieve full equality for minorities, whether they be Arabs, women, or children.
“I made my decision to devote myself to societal issues very early after I finished high school in Jaffa. I wanted to learn how to help society, and decided to study something that would achieve those goals. At that time, I didn’t even know how to get to Tel Aviv University where I enrolled. My father had to come with me the first day,” she recalled.
During her studies, Hilo began to get involved with social programs in Jaffa – where large segments of the population live under the poverty line. But as time went one, she realized that it was incumbent upon her to spread her wings beyond her own city. So she began a thirty year journey that brought her into national associations and social organizations for Arabs, children, and women, culminating in her becoming the Vice-President of Na’amat, the largest women’s advocacy organization in the country,
“It wasn’t one big step, but it was one small step after another that led me forward,” she said.
That gradual process is also what led her to a decision to launch a political career.
“At some point, I came to the conclusion that if I wanted to have more influence and change the situation on a number of social fronts, I had to be in a decision-making position. When the peace process under Yitzhak Rabin was launched, I took that decision to get more involved, not only on social issues, but also quality of life and diplomatic issues. That’s when I decided to enter politics,” she said.
Hilo joined the Labor party and ran for the first time for the Knesset in 1996. But instead of running through on a regional list as all Israeli Arabs had done before her, she ran on the national list in the open primaries with both Jewish and Arab voters – and won a slot, albeit the 36th position on the Labor list – too low to qualify her for a seat. There was another run and a placement in an relatively low position, but in the 2006 elections she finally succeeded in her run on the Labor national list, placing 15th and being elected to the Knesset. Hilo is only the second Arab woman to serve in the Knesset. The first was Hussniya Jabara, who served as a member of the Meretz party from 1999 to 2003.
“I think the message I put forth [by running on the national list] was that Arab citizens need to be responsible for issues that don’t belong only to Arab society, but to society at large. Generally when an Israeli Arab advances, his or her responsibilities are related to the Arab sector, not general issues. For me that wasn’t the case,” she said.
“If I have the professional capabilities to advance decisions, then there’s no reason no to. It’s the first step towards equality for a minority, to be responsible for issues that affect everyone – and to be elected nationally, not just by regional Arab voters.”
Hilo added that her election gave her a wider legitimacy and while she intended to focus on women’s and Arab sector needs, she didn’t plan to focus only on that. And her workload has shown that to be true. Hilo serves on the Women’s Status Committee, the Social and Health Committee, the Quality of Children’s Life Committee and the Knesset Committee.
“And when the Education Committee or the Interior Committee has a discussion on the social or Arab front, then I take part in those as well,” she added.
“I work very hard as a Knesset member. I don’t want to brag, but I really do. It’s not enough to be a good speaker and make lots of speeches, you have to learn how to be a parliamentarian. And I’ve done that. I’ve already presented 20 motions for bills in the Knesset. I’m really enjoying it, it’s very satisfying.”
Hilo had not been in the Knesset for long, when one of her most challenging – and one of the country’s most trying periods emerged: this past summer’s war with Hizbullah, which devastated parts of the northern Israel.
“I had been in the Knesset less then two months, but when the war began, I immediately made a decision that I had to be involved on the local scene – in the field. I’m not a military person, and I didn’t understand that language, but my social work background enabled me to be useful in many ways,” she said.
Those ways included traveling on weekend to Jewish and Arab communities that had suffered katyusha attacks and bringing toys and games for children.
“I gathered toys up to the roof of my car and drove around to places where there had been attacks, and handed them out to the children. That was the real crisis of the war – there was no safe place for the children,” she said.
Hilo emphasized that she concentrated on Arab communities, because they were suffering more due to insufficient protection against attack. During the war, she told JTA “for years, the mayors of Arab villages have asked the government to build shelters. I know that some private houses in Arab towns have been built with shelters, but this is also a question of responsibility of the Israeli government as well as local authorities.”
The lack of equality is the number one priority on Hilo’s agenda, but she’s hopeful that the gap can be bridges with more awareness and determination on the parts of legislators and the public.
“We can’t say we closed the gap in equality. There’s still discrimination against Arabs in every sphere – in education, health, on the local scene and in the national scene. We have to work harder to close the gap which hasn’t resulted overnight, but for the last 55 years,” she said.
She added that the situation for Arab women is even worse, but also cited the internal Arab society as holding back many efforts to bring about equality for the sexes
“The number of Arab women going on to higher education is rapidly rising, and I see it as a badge of honor for society, it’s something very important for us.
But in the workplace, Arab women are still far behind. I’m the only Arab woman in the Knesset, and even if you look at local municipalities there’s probably only two or three Arab women for every 200 Jewish woman.”
“But it’s also stemming from a problem within Arab society. We need to change the values that have put woman in the back for so long ? We have to fight the idea of the patriarchal family. I like to say that Arab women in Israel are discriminated against triply – as a minority, as a woman and also within their own society.”
For those reasons, Hilo is proud if Arab women look upon her as a role model, and she hopes to use her newfound power to enact societal changes that will result in more opportunity for Arab women throughout Israeli society.
“You could say that I was the first woman to break down barriers. But my hope is to see Arab women not only in the Knesset – I want to see more equality and more integration everywhere.”
After even before her latest visitor leaves her office, Hilo has returned to her notes and continues writing down more ideas along the journey to achieve her goals.