Asma Agbaria-Zahalka / Ruth Eglash for USA TODAY
TEL AVIV ‚?? Asma Agbaria-Zahalka blends well into the ultra-trendy Tel Aviv office crowd in her tailored black pants and crisp, white shirt.
Talking into her smartphone as she crosses the square in front of the city's hip Cinematheque, one gets a sense of why this young Arab-Israeli woman is energizing liberals in a country where left-wing politics have little support these days.
"Sorry I'm late; I just finished an interview with Ynet (the largest online Hebrew news outlet). Now I only have six more to go today," she says with a wide smile.
A variety of right-wing parties are expected to take most of the seats up for grabs in parliamentary elections on Tuesday, and apathy among left-wing and Arab-Israeli voters is high, according to media polls.
But Agbaria-Zahalka is generating enthusiasm for her Da'am Workers Party - even though she has yet to claim a single seat in the Knesset - by spurning intolerance in her own Arab community and calling for a single, unified front against the right.
"Yesterday I was at a parlor meeting, and suddenly Jews of (European) Ashkenazi descent and (Eastern) Sephardim descent started fighting each other. I had to break it up, I said, 'Friends, we need to look at what brings people together and not what separates us!' "
Leftist candidates have been in the minority for years and in this election are fragmented into several parties that compete for the same voters. Agbaria-Zahalka, 39, says the left must stand united behind its core values to win.
She trumpets her party's dedicated Communist ideology, which had been considered pass√© but is getting a second look following protests over the high cost of housing and stagnant wages. She demands more worker rights and social benefits, and lambastes pretty much all of Israel's mainstream parties from right-wing to left-wing and even those from her own Arab community.
And unlike most other Arab-Israeli politicians, she does not make attacking the State of Israel her singular issue. She says Israel is ill-serving the underprivileged among both Arabs and Jews.
Yet it is her outspoken statements on Islam that have garnered much attention.
Agbaria-Zahalka once embraced Islam but now says she rejects it because of its restrictions against women and elements of sharia, or Islamic law, which she says has hijacked the "Arab Spring" revolutions in countries bordering Israel. Oppression is the same if it is from capitalism or Islamic law, she says.
"I was born into my nationality, and there is nothing I can do about it. I can't stop being an Arab but can control my political views, and that is where I can make a change," she says.
"I have nothing against Arab nationalism or nationalism in general, but I do have a problem with nationalism on an extremist level," she says, lashing out at the silence among Arab leaders in Israel over the genocide of the Arab regime in Syria against Sunni Muslims.
Addressing a crowd of mostly young Israeli Jews and speaking in rapid-fire Hebrew, she drew applause for alternately criticizing patriarchal societies, the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas and racism in Jewish-Israeli society.
Didi Remez, a Jewish-Israeli veteran activist from Jaffa, says that Da'am, headed by Agbaria-Zahalka, offers a "grass-roots, bottom-up, political culture" that is very different from the other parties on the political landscape.
"I marched with Asma in my neighborhood during the social justice protests two summers ago, and she is very charismatic," he says, adding "I believe that Jewish-Arab unity is the single most important issue for the future of this country."
On the question of Palestinian independence, Agbaria-Zahalka says focusing only on the issue of borders and Israeli claims to parts of the West Bank are leaving their own people weak and in poverty.
"I always say, 'How can we help the Palestinians if we are all the time worrying about how to pay the bills or buy food?' " she says. "Change will only come here when both Jews and Arabs are in a stronger position."
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Read the original story: Arab-Israeli woman a rising voice in the wind