Ra’am, what you need to know about the Islamic political party in the Knesset

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Mansour Abbas, head of Ra'am political party, voting on Israeli elections, Sept. 17, 2019. (Photo: Facebook)

The third largest party this past election is the Joint List with 13 Knesset members. They are a union of four parties that represent the Arab minority in Israel. One of those four parties is the Islamic party Ra’am, with three of the 13 Knesset members.

The other parties, Hadash, Balad and Ta’al, are all secular Arab parties with different ideologies. Ra’am is the only Islamic party.

The Joint List was established in 2015, when the electoral threshold was raised to 3.25% and they realized that some of them would not make it into the Knesset unless they created a joint bloc. While they all represent the Arab minority, between themselves they have significant differences.

The Ra’am party was founded in 1996 by the southern branch of the Islamic movement in Israel, following a split between the southern and northern branch. The southern branch is considered to be more moderate, as they accept Israel’s democratic system and participate in elections. The northern branch is more radical and was eventually banned by Israel in 2015 after it was proved that they had transferred funds to Hamas. The leader of the northern branch has been in and out of prison the past few years.

Before the split, the Islamic movement participated in municipal elections in local Arab cities in Israel. As an organization, it has an ideology similar to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and other Islamic movements in various countries. They participate in charitable work within Muslim communities, as well as providing religious services and education. For example, they renovate abandoned mosques and organize Islamic activities for children. They also try to limit Western influence among the Muslim population.

In the 1990s they initiated the building of a controversial mosque right next to the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth, which caused an outcry in the Christian world. The plan was to have the Islamic crescent put higher up than the cross of the Basilica. Both local Arab Christians and even the Pope asked Israel to prohibit the building of the mosque. Israel confirmed in 2002 that they would prohibit it, and in 2003 the parts that were built illegally were bulldozered.

The man who founded the Islamic movement in 1971, Sheikh Abdullah Nimar Darwish, also established a failed terror organization in 1979. It did some vandalism and stored illegal weapons, but was quickly exposed by Israel. In 1981 Darwish was convicted and served a prison sentence until 1985. From that moment he advocated for non-violence among Israeli Arabs (while still supporting Palestinian “struggle” against Israel), and after the split he remained as the spiritual head of the southern branch until his death in 2017. He claimed that unlike the Palestinians, they are citizens, not under occupation, and are therefore obliged to follow the law.

A previous leader of the Ra’am party, Sheikh Ibrahim Sarsur, was outspoken against Western culture, denouncing, for example, the Lebanese singer Nancy Ajram, calling for censorship of the internet, and during a Knesset discussion on the gay parade in Jerusalem, he claimed that the Arab community doesn’t have “that problem.” He also supported the Palestinian “struggle” against Israel, and sent consolations to a Hamas leader whose son was killed by Israeli fire.

Sarsur retired in 2015, and the Islamic party is now led by Mansour Abbas who was a disciple of Darwish, the founder. He promotes a moderate form of Islam, called Wasatiyyah, and is the first leader who calls for allowing women to join the Islamic party; a softer tone, it seems. However, when Mansour Abbas was asked whether he objects to terror attacks against Israeli soldiers in the West Bank he dodged the question, preferring not to answer. Officially, the party objects to Israel’s existence as a Jewish state by definition and instead strives to make it a state “for all its citizens.”

The Islamic movement in Israel has gone through many changes since its founding in the early seventies. The fact that since 1996 they have to swear allegiance to the State of Israel as Knesset members, and their readiness to be a part of the Joint List since 2015, despite the socialists and feminists in it, might be a sign that they are less extreme than they used to be.

The Arab parties, both the Islamic and the secular, have always served in the opposition, regardless the political leanings of the government. The bills they support are in general about education and social welfare for the Arab communities. Most Israelis are not very concerned about the presence of this “Islamist” party in the Israeli lawmaking body. Israeli democracy, so it shows, is strong enough to contain many opposing views.