Posted on July 11, 1994 in Washington Watch

Tawfiq Zayyad, Mayor of Nazareth since 1975 and member of the Israeli Knesset since 1976, was one of my heroes. He was also my friend.

Though his tragic accidental death may have been overshadowed by news of Yasir Arafat’s visit to Jericho, the loss of this great leader cannot be underestimated.

My doctoral dissertation, “Arabs in the Promised Land,” was inspired by Tawfiq’s poetry and his political work. The struggle of the Palestinians who remained in Israel after 1948 is one of the most courageous and compelling facets of the history of that proud and stalwart people.

They were stripped of most of their leadership, 80% of their population, the majority of their villages – over 400 of which were destroyed and erased from the map – and their land, over 1.25 million acres of which were confiscated by the new Jewish state.

They were denied access to their history and culture by the educational system of a state which relegated them to second-class status. They were victims of the same harsh military rule that has been imposed on Gaza and the West Bank for the past 27 years. They were denied the right to fully participate in politics, and of their right to full economic and social development. Since 1948 they have endured expulsions, curfews, administrative detention, land confiscation, torture and massacres.

And, perhaps most tragically of all, they were largely forgotten and sometimes even snubbed by most of the Arab world.

Yet they nonetheless remained in their homes and towns and villages. In fact, they not only remained but have been stalwart in their struggle for full equality and civil rights, and for recognition of their national identity as Palestinian Arabs in Israel.

And they have produced heroic literature – poets like Tawfiq Zayyad who inspired the rest of the Arab nation. They have produced heroic leaders – like Tawfiq Zayyad, who rose above all odds to lead their struggle for full rights.

I first met Tawfiq Zayyad in 1976 when I was asked to organize a national tour for him by an Arab American academic association (the Association of Arab American University Graduates). The grueling schedule I had organized for him took him to every major city for speeches, forums and meetings with the Arab American community.

Even by that time Tawfiq had emerged as a highly respected leader. His election as Mayor of Nazareth had come at a great price. The Israeli government felt so threatened by the prospect of this “radical” becoming Mayor that it had warned the residents of Nazareth that, should they elect Zayyad, they would lose all government assistance to their community. Tawfiq proved sufficiently popular and well-respected to overcome that threat and win the election.

When the government did in fact suspend its assistance, Tawfiq responded by creating a summer work camp in Nazareth that has, to this day, annually brought thousands of young people from around the world to perform community service and implement public works projects for the city.

Tawfiq also played a leading role in the great “Land Day” general strike of May 30, 1976, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel demonstrated their opposition to Israeli government plans to confiscate more land in a crude effort to further “Judaize” the Galilee region of the country.

Yet, what intrigued me most about Tawfiq Zayyad during the tour (and the two subsequent tours I organized for him during the years I ran the Palestine Human Rights Campaign) was how he was able to struggle on so many fronts simultaneously.

He not only confronted the racist anti-Arab policies that sought to deny Arabs their full rights as citizens of Israel, he also stood against Arab and Arab American attitudes that he understood as running counter to any effort to achieve a just and lasting peace to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Long a defender of the right of Palestinians to establish an independent state in the territories occupied by Israel in 1967, he vigorously defended a two-state solution that would also insure Israeli nationality as well. He was a realist who saw the need for both peoples, the Israelis and the Palestinians, to accept the reality of each other’s existence.

He was an ardent foe of the use of violence against Israeli civilians. I vividly recall an incident when Tawfiq was challenged by a Palestinian American who chided the Mayor’s call for a peaceful settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The speaker demanded to know whether or not Tawfiq supported the “Palestinians’ right to armed struggle.”

Tawfiq responded, “It is true that Palestinians have the right to armed struggle to resist occupation – the UN even passed a resolution confirming that right. But when you have a history of using that right as badly and as inhumanly as you have, then you forfeit that right.”

On one other occasion, I was with the Mayor at a performance by a Palestinian dance troupe. The group was composed of young children from refugee camps in Syria. They performed in military khakis and carried tiny wooden guns. What troubled the Mayor most was the announcer’s assertion before a U.S. audience that the children were performing a “traditional Palestinian dance.”

Clearly saddened, he leaned over to me and said, “This is not our tradition. We have always been a peaceful and joyful people. They are bastardizing our tradition and our culture.”

Tawfiq was a strong man who held strong opinions, and he fought for them.

His political party reminded the “outside Arabs” that a strong Palestinian community remained firmly planted in the Arab towns and villages in what became Israel after 1948. He also never stopped reminding the Israelis of the Arabs they uprooted in 1948, and he upbraided them for the villages they demolished but could not erase.

And Tawfiq never let his Arab constituents forget the refugees of 1948. In his poetry, and then by constructing a monument in Nazareth to those who were expelled or had fled, he sought to create a permanent reminder that the rights of those Palestinians must also be recognized and remembered.

I last saw Tawfiq Zayyad in January in Jerusalem. He would come to see me at the end of his sessions in the Knesset. Each night I was there he would, over dinner, recreate that night’s Knesset debates with all the vigor and drama that he had put into the debate itself. He was a joy to be with.

Those who would gather around to listen (he was a marvelous storyteller – a magnet who could draw people to him) would laugh and argue and, at times, ask him to recite one of his poems. Though a Mayor and a Knesset member, Tawfiq remained first a poet and an entertainer.

I learned of Tawfiq’s tragic death from a phone call. My son, Joseph, who is working in Jerusalem this summer as a legal intern, called me as soon as he heard the news.

My children loved the man – even though they had only known him as children. They remembered him from the times he had stayed as a guest in our home. They would call him “the man who used to bounce us in the air.”

When Joseph was going to Jerusalem, I made certain that he would call Tawfiq upon his arrival. I wanted him to get to know Tawfiq the man. I also wanted Tawfiq to know my son as a man.

What impressed Joseph the most after their first meeting, in addition to Tawfiq’s insights and his political analysis, was how he was loved by ordinary people – the waiters, the drivers, the cleaning staff. They all responded to his warmth and his joy. He was a real man of the people.

On the day he called to tell me of Tawfiq’s death, Joseph said, “I’m so glad I had a chance to meet him, Dad. It was an incredible experience. He was unforgettable.”

That he was.

Through his courageous political struggle, through his poetry, and through his joy for life and his love of people, Tawfiq Zayyad will never be forgotten.

For comments or information, contact

comments powered by Disqus