The Optimist
A Social Biography of Tawfiq Zayyad
Tamir Sorek



IN 1954, PALESTINIANS WHO REMAINED UNDER ISRAELI RULE WERE still recovering from the collective shock of the Nakba (catastrophe): the expulsion of approximately 750,000 Palestinians from the territory that became Israel in 1948 and the destruction of hundreds of villages and most of the Palestinian urban centers. Soon the status of those who remained violently changed from being part of a self-confident majority to a minority living under antagonistic military rule. People lost contact with their expelled family members, and the new rulers were treating them as unwanted intruders in their own homeland while drastically changing the landscape in front of their eyes. Many lost their land and were trying to adjust to their new social status. The new economy was structurally biased against them. Poverty and unemployment were common, and the future seemed uncertain. That same year, a young Palestinian communist activist published in his party literary bulletin’s al-Jadid a poem directly addressing these sentiments of colonial victimization and economic discrimination. His poem ended with a utopian revolutionary vision:

The years have taught us
That you want to change our land into tombs
And dance over its ruins.
But your wishes will not be fulfilled.
And the war monster
Will be crushed by the toilers’ fist,
And the Peoples1 will build a permanent peace, forever.
We would then get rid of our burdens,
And live for our children.
Songs would fill the horizon,
And the mothers’ hearts would find peace.2

This anticolonial Marxist rhetoric was compatible with the editorial line of al-Jadid and reflected the important role intellectuals affiliated with the Israeli Communist Party (ICP) played in articulating a vocabulary of resistance in those years.3 The optimistic fervor, though, was a trademark of the author of these lines, Tawfiq Zayyad, who would go on to play an important role in the struggle of the Palestinian citizens of Israel over four decades as a leader in the ICP, an admired poet, the mayor of Nazareth, and a member of the Knesset. Above all, Zayyad was a producer of hope: hope for justice for Palestinians, hope for a Palestinian-Israeli reconciliation, and hope for the creation of an egalitarian society based on human dignity and without exploitation. As naively quaint and uncritical the idea of hope might sound today, it was a fundamental aspect of Zayyad’s intellectual and political endeavor.

Zayyad’s hope was deeply embedded in his Marxist conviction, which in turn maintained a strong link to his struggle for Palestinian rights. His political consciousness and socialization as a communist took shape within the context of the Palestinian struggle against British rule and Zionism through the 1930s and 1940s. After the 1948 war and the expulsion of most of the Palestinians who lived in the territory that became the State of Israel, Zayyad became a member of a colonized ethnonational minority struggling for survival. Israeli citizenship was imposed on him, but his party, the ICP, immediately turned this citizenship into a tool in this struggle, challenging the authorities through parliamentary, judicial, municipal, and cultural channels.

Zayyad is the oldest of a generation of major Palestinian poets (Taha Muhammad ‘Ali, Samih al-Qasim, Mahmoud Darwish, Salim Jubran, Rashid Husayn) who reached adulthood in the early years of the State of Israel. Through their poetry, they played an important role in producing and disseminating political ideas and meanings. They came from working-class backgrounds and were deeply invested in improving the lives of the working class and peasants. In the words of the Italian leader and theorist Antonio Gramsci, they were “organic intellectuals.”4

These poet activists continued a tradition of political poetry with a left-leaning orientation that flourished before 1948, but following the Nakba, the range of potential formal political affiliations available to them was extremely narrow. Due to their anticolonial consciousness,5 most of them rejected being part of a Zionist political party,6 yet most forms of politics based on Palestinian solidarity or Arab nationalism were illegal. In the 1950s, the only non-Zionist party that actively and consistently confronted the colonial policy of the Israeli state locally and internationally was the ICP. In addition, the party provided some of the few opportunities for the publication of Arab literature and poetry. As a result, most of the leading poets of this generation were affiliated with the ICP.

As political activists and as poets, Zayyad’s generation took part in shaping Palestinian national identity. For Palestinians in Israel living under the military government, which was in effect until 1966, poetry became a major avenue for political expression and mobilization.7 Yet poetry and parliamentary politics remained divided in the particular and somewhat extreme circumstances of Palestinian politics in Israel.8 In her discussion of Arab Palestinian members of the ICP under the military government, Palestinian sociologist Honaida Ghanem distinguished between the politicians and the intellectuals, who were usually poets. Politicians worked to achieve equal rights for Arab citizens and integrate them into the state apparatus, and therefore they worked within the boundaries of Israel citizenship. Poets called for a more radical national liberation and presented the state as a colonialist oppressive creation, a temporary deviation from justice.9 This poetry was embedded in and even shaped the Arab and Palestinian national discourse. The ICP had to navigate carefully between the conflicting goals of Israeli politics and Palestinian poetry.

In this context, Zayyad is a particularly interesting figure. No other poet of his generation became so intensively involved in politics or developed such a long and successful political career as he did. Moreover, as his political commitments grew, politics took priority over his dedication to poetry. During the eighteen years he served as a member of the Knesset, he wrote no poetry. He explained that he lacked the time for writing, but it is also likely that being a member of the Israeli parliament required a state of mind that was incompatible with crafting revolutionary poetry.

Zayyad rose to fame as a revolutionary poet during the heyday of secularism in the Arab world, and many considered the poetry of his generation an emblem of this secularism. To be sure, religion and secularism are flexible categories, and the boundaries between them are the product of historical processes and social construction.10 While I reject any essentialist understanding of these categories, I do argue that Zayyad himself had a coherent and rather rigid idea about their meaning. In his writing and his political activism, he took part in shaping these categories as central elements in a particular vision of modernity. At the same time, a scholarly analysis of his worldview has to question the rigid distinction between secularism and religion, which is essential in the Marxist discourse of modernity. While God was absent from both Zayyad’s poetry and his political vision, his utopian imagination had undeniable messianic dimensions that were anchored in his Marxist faith.

The understanding of Marxism as a form of secularized messianic religion is part of a long tradition in philosophy and sociology;11 however, some prominent scholars, including Hannah Arendt, harshly criticized it.12 In this book, I do not examine communist institutions as functionally equivalent to religion and therefore do not engage in many aspects of this controversy. I do argue, though, that Zayyad’s subjective experience, as reflected in his rhetoric, leaves little doubt about the eschatological dimension of his utopian vision. This is a key element for understanding his tireless hope, as well as his ability to radiate this hope around him. Indeed, “where there is hope,” wrote the original Marxist German philosopher Ernst Bloch, “there is also religion.”13 While this statement both oversimplifies and essentializes religion, Bloch’s theory of secularization as a dialectical process between the sacred and the profane helps us conceptualize Zayyad’s secularization.14

For Bloch, dialectical materialism “hears and grasps the import of the mighty voice of tendency in this world, which it has made its own, has taken hold of the living soul of a dead religion.” Although the “fool’s paradise of the Other-world has been burnt away to ashes,” he wrote, “that remains as a call, signaling the way to the fulfilled This-world of a new earth.”15 In other words, a spiritual vocabulary is what enabled the articulation of Zayyad’s godless utopian vision and the mobilization of other believers.

Indeed, one important but underexplored aspect of Zayyad’s Marxism was his personal and political secularism. Before the 1980s, religion played a fairly minor political role among Palestinians in Israel, and if the secular politics of ICP was ever contested, it was by the state authorities who attempted to use religion and religious affiliations to undermine the communists. The appearance of the Islamic Movement in this decade and its explicit and assertive demand to use Islam as a political doctrine has made the secular-religious axis one of the most contested issues among Palestinians in Israel today. Zayyad consciously positioned himself as the vanguard of a secular struggle, and his exchanges with leaders of the Islamic Movement were venomous and violent. Adopting Bloch’s analysis, though, we can see this tension not as a struggle between the sacred and the profane but between two competing utopian visions. Both parties’ inability to compromise was partly rooted in their similarity.

This book follows Zayyad’s journey from his anticolonial and Marxist socialization under British rule to his struggle to lead resistance after 1948, his rise to fame as a revolutionary poet in the 1960s, his political career as the first communist city mayor16 in the Middle East and a long-time member of the Israeli Knesset, his predicament following the collapse of the socialist regimes in Eastern Europe, his conflict with the Islamic Movement, and his optimistic surge amid the Oslo process in the early 1990s, though he did not live to witness its collapse.


I never met Tawfiq Zayyad (1929–1994), and I have only some anecdotal memories, which I probably share with many of my generation, of his appearance in the Israeli media in the 1980s and the 1990s, and especially his turbulent confrontations with right-wing politicians. While carrying out studies of the political challenges of Palestinians in Israel, and especially my work on Palestinian collective memory and commemoration, I paid increasing attention to Zayyad.17 Interviews and media reports repeatedly highlighted his name, and I gradually developed a deep curiosity about the combination of revolutionary poetry, down-to-earth pragmatic politics, charisma, simple manners, and the talent for drama that made him an exceptional leader. I became galvanized by the potential for his biography to tell a broader story about Palestinians, the State of Israel, and hope in the age of the Nakba.

As I entered this field of study, I felt like an explorer in a foreign land or even a trespasser. I am a Jewish Israeli scholar studying a Palestinian leader, a fact that raises a series of dilemmas related to my position in the power/knowledge nexus and the hierarchy of power between our related groups. From my more than two decades of studying various issues related to Palestinians in Israel, I am aware of the sensitivity surrounding my relation to the field. Historically, with notable exceptions, most Jewish Israeli scholars who have studied Palestinians adopted an orientalist worldview of the Israeli establishment, identified with its political goals, and in many cases had strong formal or informal ties with the government agencies or the intelligence services. Consciously or unconsciously, the body of knowledge they created has been oriented toward or has served the goal of improving the techniques of subjugation.18

Even with a conscious effort to distance myself from that approach, my interactions with my interlocutors, their self-presentation in my presence, and the framing and vocabularies they chose to tell their story have inevitably been shaped in one way or another by the power equation. My past studies have been influenced by similar power dynamics. In addition, the reactions of my Palestinian audiences to my self-positioning as an authority to tell the story of the colonized group have ranged from satisfaction that I am providing a scholarly stage for the Palestinian predicament to overt hostility, questioning my right to do so, as well as implicit suspicion about my motivation.

The doubts, however, were also mine: How do I avoid the tropes of my positionality without losing my own voice? This tension is especially pronounced with this book since I am writing the first scholarly biography of Zayyad and therefore bear great responsibility for the way he will be remembered in the future, not to mention his role in the scholarship on Palestinian citizens in Israel. There is no easy way around this dilemma, so I warn readers that this book cannot pretend to be more than what it actually is: an empathic presentation of an iconic Palestinian political and cultural figure by a Jewish Israeli scholar. It is the product of my effort to engage seriously with Palestinian culture and politics by researching Zayyad’s life, explicating the context of his political work, and delving into the biographical and political meanings of his poetic oeuvre. It is shaped as well by the historical political moment of its writing, where all paths for justice in Palestine and peace for Palestinians and Israelis seem to be impassable and Zayyad’s optimism seems to belong to a distant past. In my previous books, which were partly based on ethnography, I reflected occasionally on my positionality and the way it shaped my interactions in the field. I have avoided that in this book, partly because the nature of biographies is less accommodating of this kind of interruption, but also because I wanted to leave the stage to Zayyad rather than inserting myself into his life story.

The second aspect of trespassing is disciplinary. I am a social scientist by training and my decision to write about a poet has raised some eyebrows among my colleagues in literary studies. Therefore, it is noteworthy that although Tawfiq Zayyad’s regional and international fame is related mainly to his poetry, poetry is not the main focus of this book; rather, I consider Zayyad first as a political leader. Furthermore, During the most dramatic and influential years of his political career (1974–1990), Zayyad did not write poetry. At the same time, his identity as a poet, and therefore the content of his poetry, are central for understanding his social and political status, as well as his life course.

I do not, however, undertake a close literary analysis of Zayyad’s poetry, a task that several generations of experts in literary studies have already undertaken (although the vast majority of this scholarship is still unavailable in English). These studies have paid close attention to Zayyad’s figurative language and to the kind of allegories and metaphors he used. They have analyzed his diction, meter, and rhythm, and they have also identified the literary legacies that shaped his writing.19 I do refer occasionally to these studies and their insights, but only to highlight broader biographical aspects, and I do not engage in theoretical debates in comparative literature. The books about Zayyad’s poetry usually open with a brief personal and political biography but these introductions are secondary to his poetry and are not based on primary research. As a sociologist, I reverse the order: I treat poetry first and foremost as a biographical document. I consider it as both a window to Zayyad’s subjective experience of personal and political events, and a tool that Zayyad used as a political leader.


The threads I used to weave the narrative of Zayyad’s life are made of diverse sources. I represent Zayyad’s childhood from fragments of memories he himself provided in several interviews starting in the mid-1970s, as well as the memories of childhood friends and acquaintances who were interviewed by the journalist Nazir Majali shortly after Zayyad’s death in 1994. As a result, for this period more than any other in his life, my raw materials are limited to mythologies already processed by Zayyad himself or by the guardians of his memory. Nevertheless, I tried to contextualize these stories in their broader historical, social, and political backgrounds.

For later periods, I rely heavily on interviews and conversations with family members, friends, and acquaintances, as well as with political partners and rivals. While human memory is always the result of selective attention and subjective interpretation, stories told after a long period of time are more likely to be shaped by the experience of the narrator since the event and by contemporary social and political circumstances. Under these conditions, it is very difficult to distinguish fact from fiction. Furthermore, given that Zayyad was a prominent and frequently controversial political leader, every contemporary reference to him is likely to be shaped at least partly by contemporary political agendas and rivalries.

The relative weight of dependence on information obtained from these interviews declines as I move forward in time when a variety of other sources become available. Among these, one major source is press coverage, mainly local Arabic press coverage but also, though to a lesser extent, the Hebrew and international media. Most of the materials from the Arabic press was based on the organ of the Israeli Communist Party, al-Ittihad, which until the early 1980s was the only non-Zionist Arabic newspaper in Israel. As the party’s main media outlet, it covered party activity most extensively, yet it rarely revealed internal disagreements in the party or anything that might have harmed the party’s image. In addition, the communist collectivist political culture discouraged a close look at the individual personalities of activists.

The Hebrew media, which provided a mirror image of al-Ittihad’s qualities, were important sources for learning about issues the ICP preferred not to discuss publicly. At the same time, it is noteworthy that some of the journalists in the Hebrew media who covered the ICP had close ties with the security establishment and frequently relied on anonymous sources in this establishment. For that reason, it is difficult to tell when a piece of information was accurate, based on some truth but filtered through the surveillance lens, or intentionally fabricated as part of a psychological warfare campaign. In most cases, I provided the story and juxtaposed it next to any competing version of the story from other sources, if available. The advantage of the Hebrew media was their greater interest in personality issues, a topic absent from al-Ittihad. After his election as Knesset member and mayor of Nazareth in the mid-1970s, Zayyad fascinated many Jewish Israeli journalists. While the common reference in these media to Zayyad was paternalistic or even racist, some of the reporters took seriously the journalistic task of providing an in-depth portrayal of him.

Diverse archival sources are also central to this project. I rely on letters, reports, and recorded interviews with Zayyad held at the Tawfiq Zayyad Institute, as well as the institute’s video collection that includes raw footage from public events or unpublished interviews. I turned to the Israel State Archive to understand state policy, and in the municipal library in Nazareth I found protocols of the Nazareth Municipal Council. The archive of the Israeli Communist Party at Yad Tabenkin and the Communist Party Archive at the National Library of Israel were valuable for understanding internal party dynamics. The Knesset Archive documents, and especially the Knesset Plenum minutes, allowed me to trace Zayyad’s parliamentary activity. Moreover, Tawfiq Zayyad’s brother Musbah provided me with an invaluable source: personal letters Zayyad wrote from Moscow while he was living there in the early 1960s.

Finally, I rely on Zayyad’s own written words. Zayyad did not leave much autobiographical material or explicitly self-reflective texts. Therefore, my verstehen, my interpretation of the meanings Zayyad gave to the events and processes in his own life, heavily relies on other texts he wrote: political speeches, sporadic political commentary, short stories, and, above all, his poetry. Fortunately for a biographer, Zayyad often overtly connected his poetry to concrete political developments, and at least one literary critic described his poetry as “more biographical than artistic.”20 It is noteworthy that Zayyad himself considered poetry to be embedded in biography, and biography to be inherently political. In a 1966 critique of Mahmoud Darwish’s poetry, he commented, “In order to understand Mahmoud Darwish as a poet, we have to know him as a person, as a political entity.”21 Even so, the reliance on poetry to tell a life story is a creative process, and not without risk. As the literary scholar and biographer Mutlu Blasing commented about the use of poetry for biographical purposes, “A biographer attempts, at her own peril, to unravel the complex fabric of the myth he [the poet] made of his life.”22

The sources I have listed do not represent an exhaustive list of possible sources about Zayyad; they are only those to which I had access. As a political activist who lived in three countries—Israel, the Soviet Union, and Czechoslovakia—Zayyad surely has a surveillance file in the archives of the secret security services in each of these countries. Among these, I was able to obtain only his file at the Czechoslovakian secret services (which turned out to be quite thin and without substantial information). The Israeli Security Service (Shabak) closely followed the activities of Arab activists, and the Soviet KGB surely took great interest in the activities of foreign nationals on Soviet soil. One day, when scholars gain access to Zayyad’s files at these agencies, we might learn even more about him.


1. The word sha‘b in Arabic (shu‘ub in plural) means a body of persons united by a common culture or tradition, such as the Palestinian people. Throughout this book, I have translated it as People (capitalized) to distinguish it from people in general.

2. Tawfiq Zayyad, “’Ila ayna yadhhab ma nadfa’?” [Where are our payments going?], al-Jadid 1, no. 11 (September 1954). Translation by Aida Bamia.

3. Maha Nassar, Brothers Apart: Palestinian Citizens of Israel and the Arab World (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2017), 58–64.

4. Ibid., 10.

5. Ibid.

6. In rare cases, some of them (most notably, Rashid Husayn) joined the socialist Zionist Mapam, but he was expelled from the party later.

7. See Khaled Furani, Silencing the Sea: Secular Rhythms in Palestinian Poetry (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012); Hanna Abu Hanna, Rihlat al-Bahthan al-Turath (Haifa: al-Wadi, 1994), and Adina Hoffman, My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness: A Poet’s Life in the Palestinian Century (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009).

8. Tamir Sorek, Palestinian Commemoration in Israel: Calendars, Monuments, and Martyrs (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015), 13–18.

9. Honaida Ghanem, Reinventing the Nation: Palestinians Intellectuals in Israel [in Hebrew] (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 2009), 70–71.

10. Talal Asad, Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity (Stanford: Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003.

11. See, for example, Jules Monnerot, Sociology and Psychology of Communism (Boston: Beacon Press, 1976); Walter Benjamin, Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, 1938–1940 (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003); Karl Löwith, Meaning in History: The Theological Implications of the Philosophy of History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957); Raymond Aron, In Defense of Decadent Europe (Chicago: Regnery/Gateway, 1979).

12. Hannah Arendt, “A Reply to Eric Voegelin,” in The Portable Hannah Arendt, ed. Peter Baehr (New York: Viking Press, 2000).

13. Ernst Bloch, Atheismus Im Chritentum: Zur Religion Des Exodus Und Des Reichs (Frankfurt: Springer-Verlag, 1968), 23.

14. Warren S. Goldstein, “Messianism and Marxism: Walter Benjamin and Ernst Bloch’s Dialectical Theories of Secularization,” Critical Sociology 27, no. 2 (2001).

15. Ernst Bloch, Atheism in Christianity: The Religion of the Exodus and the Kingdom (London: Verso, 2009), 224. Walter Benjamin suggests a similar, though less sociological, dialectic of secularization.

16. In 1973 the ICP already claimed control over the municipal council of Yafat al-Nasira (a town of 5,000 at the time), but Nazareth was the first city where a communist became mayor.

17. See Tamir Sorek, Arab Soccer in a Jewish State: The Integrative Enclave (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007); Sorek, Palestinian Commemoration in Israel.

18. For a discussion of Israeli orientalists, see Dan Rabinowitz, Antropologyah Ve-ha-Falastinim [in Hebrew] (Raʻananah: Ha-Merkaz le-ḥeker ha-hevrah ha-ʻArvit, 1998); Gil Eyal, The Disenchantment of the Orient: Expertise in Arab Affairs and the Israeli State (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006).

19. ‘Izz al-Din al-Manassira, “Muqadamma: Tawfiq Zayyad—al Sha‘ir, al-Sha‘b wal-Qadiya,” in Diwan Tawfiq Zayyad, ed. ‘Izz al-Din al-Manassira (Beirut: Dar al-‘Awda, 1970); Avraham Yinon, “Tawfiq Zayyad: ‘We Are the Majority Here,’” in The Arabs in Israel: Continuity and Change, ed. Aharon Layish (Jerusalem: Magness Press, 1981); Salim al-‘Atawna, Tawfiq Zayyad, Dirasa Tahliliya fi Intajihi al-Adabi (Beersheeba: Kaye Academic College of Education, 2017); Nu‘aima al-Ahmad, Tawfiq Zayyad—al-Shair al-Munadil (Haifa: Maktabat Kul Shee, 2018); Salma K. Jayyusi, Anthology of Modern Palestinian Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992); Jamil Kitani, Al-Lugha al-Tahridiyya lada Tawfiq Zayyad wa-Masail ’Ukhra fi Shirihi (Baqa al-Gharbiyya: Al-Qasemi College, 2011); Habib Bulus, Al-Watha’iq al-Harir (Nazareth: Tawfiq Zayyad Institute, 2000).

20. Sasson Somekh, quoted in Amos Karmel, “Politika ve-ha-Shira,” Yedi‘ot Aharonot, April 13, 1995.

21. Tawfiq Zayyad, “Diwan ‘Ashiq min Falastin li-Mahmud Darwish,” in Dirasat fi al-Adab al-Falstini al-Mahali, ed. Nabih al-Qasim (Acre: Dar al-Aswar, 1987), 142.

22. Mutlu K. Blasing, Nâzım Hikmet: The Life and Times of Turkey’s World Poet (New York: Persea Books, 2013).