The Optimist
A Social Biography of Tawfiq Zayyad
Tamir Sorek


Contents and Abstracts
chapter abstract

The chapter presents the theoretical perspective of the book, considering Zayyad as a firm believer in Marxism, which for him was a quasi-religious messianic ideology that promised a history oriented toward progress and the realization of a utopian vision. This ideology was the source of Zayyad's optimism. While Zayyad was a secularized and secularizing leader, the chapter suggests viewing secularism through Bloch's theory of secularization as a dialectical process between the sacred and the profane. The prologue also discusses the positionality of the author as a Jewish Israeli sociologist who writes about a Palestinian national icon. Finally, the chapter discusses the methodology and sources used in the book.

1 Communism and Anticolonialism
chapter abstract

The chapter follows Zayyad's childhood and adolescence in Palestine under British rule. It provides a broader context for his political socialization, highly informed by the struggle against British authorities, emerging communist activism in his city of Nazareth, and secularization processes. Information about Zayyad's childhood is based mostly on testimonies collected from childhood friends and classmates published in a memorial book shortly after Zayyad's death in 1994. With Israeli occupation of Nazareth and following the Nakba, Zayyad became an Israeli citizen and member of the Israeli Communist Party.

2 Steadfastness
chapter abstract

Under the military government (1948–1966) and the dire postwar economic conditions, Zayyad was highly involved in labor activism. In 1954 he was elected as a local council member, and in this capacity, he galvanized a determined opposition to the government-backed local rule in Nazareth. During those years, he was arrested and imprisoned several times, and in one of these episodes, he was severely tortured. He also started to gain recognition as a poet who used his poetry to mobilize his audience for political action. The protest following the Kafr Qasim massacre in 1956 and the 1958 First of May demonstration were key moments of political mobilization in which Zayyad played a central role. By the end of the 1950s, Zayyad had emerged as a prominent leader whose charisma, poetry, and police record made him popular far beyond Nazareth and marked him as a promising future party leader.

3 Badges of Modernity
chapter abstract

From the mid-1950s, Palestinians pinned their hope for liberating Palestine on the pan-Arabist momentum, led by Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser. When Nasser adopted an anticommunist policy, Zayyad sided with his fellow communists—against the Palestinian popular sentiments. This was an indication of the depth of Zayyad's conviction in Marxist ideology. The chapter focuses on the major elements in his vision of modernity: the brotherhood of peoples, communism, and secularism. The last two elements are especially evident in Zayyad's writing during his studies in Moscow (1962–1964). After his return, Zayyad was married in a civil ceremony in a cross-confessional marriage that shook the foundations of the local communist branch in Nazareth.

4 In the Crossfire
chapter abstract

5 Municipal Struggles
chapter abstract

The chapter narrates Zayyad's path to being elected mayor of Nazareth. It was an uphill battle against a hostile government that considered communist rule in Nazareth a major threat. It had many twists and turns, culminating in a memorable victory on a December night in 1975. A common thread in Zayyad's municipal leadership was his consistent reluctance to separate the local needs of Nazareth from the collective national goals of Palestinians. Indeed, the antiestablishment victory in Nazareth was the first in a series of successes at the local level that cumulatively extended the political power of Palestinian citizens. For several years, the Israeli government implemented a failed punitive policy toward Nazareth, hoping to topple the communist rule in the city.

6 National Leadership
chapter abstract

Zayyad's election as mayor increased his visibility and legitimized his claim for national leadership. This was most evident in the events surrounding Land Day, the day of strike and protest on March 30, 1976, when Israeli police killed six Palestinians. Zayyad played a decisive role in his party's decision to support the general strike and was a central actor in turning the event into a mobilizing political myth. Land Day broadened Zayyad's popularity in the Palestinian sphere and intensified the tendency of the Hebrew media to demonize him. In 1977, he played a central role in the establishment of the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality as an alliance of communists, the Black Panthers, and other groups.

7 Children in the Battlefield
chapter abstract

The major events of the 1980s sharpened the tension between Zayyad's drive to resist Israel's colonial policy and the pragmatism required in order to manage this fight from within Israeli politics. The chapter follows his efforts to navigate between the two as the war in Lebanon (1982–1985) progressed and was followed by growing unrest on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, which led to the first intifada (1987–1993). Zayyad's personal life was also affected in 1990 when policemen injured and disabled his daughter, 'Ubur. Regional developments in the 1980s propelled a new challenge to communist dominance among the Arab citizens with the emergence of the Progressive List for Peace, and Zayyad was leading a harsh line against that emerging party. Between 1990 and 1992, Zayyad was not a Knesset member and at the same time renewed his poetry writing after a sixteen-year hiatus.

8 A Secular Holy Warrior
chapter abstract

Following the emergence of political Islam as an important regional and local power in the early 1980s, and especially after the Islamic movement in Israel took over five municipalities in 1989 and undermined communist dominance, Zayyad became vocal in confronting some of the central demands of the Islamists. The main confrontations occurred around the demands of the Islamic Movement to separate men and women in political rallies and to introduce religious studies in the curricula of public schools in Nazareth. The chapter presents both the way Zayyad was seen by Islamist activists as well as his own reactions to their empowerment.

9 A Spoke in the Wheel of History
chapter abstract

From the late 1980s, Zayyad's Marxist faith was challenged by perestroika, the reforms in the Soviet Union. The threat intensified with the collapse of the socialist regimes in Eastern Europe in 1989, as well as the ultimate demise of the Soviet Union itself in 1991. These developments tore apart the communist party in Israel. Zayyad's enthusiasm to protect his Marxist utopian vision, as well as his desperate attempts to advocate for the Soviet Union as the realization of this vision, were in the background of a bitter conflict that emerged between him and his close friend, Emile Habibi. Indirectly, perestroika led to a democratization in the party, which allowed Zayyad to become the party leader in the Knesset.

10 Oslo: The Sky Is the Limit
chapter abstract

In the early 1990s, the first intifada and the sentiment of urgency to end the occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip led to rapprochement between the communists and the Zionist Left parties. Consequently, following the 1992 elections, Zayyad and his party supported the Labor-led coalition. This support was solidified by the agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, signed in September 1993 and known as the Oslo Accords. Recognizing the difficulties and shortcomings of the process, Zayyad was still highly optimistic, believing that it would ultimately lead to a two-state solution and a partial restoration of Palestinian rights. Zayyad even witnessed the return of Yasser Arafat to Palestine and met him in Gaza, two days before his death in a traffic accident.