Who is Joint List MK Ofer Cassif behind the harsh criticism (to put it mildly) that he expresses toward the Jewish state? What brought him to the political positions he openly and unabashedly expresses – his anti-Zionism, his view of the Jewish residents of Judea and Samaria as his enemy, his rage toward the IDF? A member of the communist party, Hadash, is there anything other than taking down the Zionist entity as a Zionist entity that interests him in his job as a member of the Knesset in the government that he wants to change from A to Z?
I talked with Cassif, 57, in a coffee shop of his choosing in his hometown of Rehovot seeking answers to these questions. Early on he told me: “It was very difficult for me to pass the Rubicon in the sense of leaving the Zionist ideas behind and becoming anti-Zionist explicitly and publicly and even before my own self.”
His parents supported Mapai, the party started by Ben Gurion and recognized as a democratic socialist party until its merger with the Labor Party in 1968.
In our meeting, he told me that his grandparents came to Israel from Poland in 1934 for Zionist reasons but his grandfather, who passed away about 8 years ago at the age of 100, grew frustrated and hurt by how things had turned out in Israel and would say that if he was younger, he would have left the country.
His father was active in Mapai before Cassif was born and was close to Moshe Dayan. His parents became Meretz supporters in the mid-1990s and the last two elections, they voted for the Joint List.
Cassif says he was always interested in public affairs. At age 13, he was elected to the student council at his school. And by 14, he says he “began to feel, and I emphasize feel and not think, kind of an intuition, not more than that, perhaps even instinct, that the socialist idea is the just one. And then I joined Hashomer Hatzair at 16 and was very active.”
But life was not always about activism. In elementary school (that at that time went to eighth grade), he was class clown and “I always had a big mouth,” he says. In school plays, he played the lead role. In high school, Cassif admits, “I was quite a mess. I didn’t want to study, went to the beach during school time, spent more time in Hashomer than in school. Later I had to do mechina [a year-long preparation program for students who did not qualify for direct acceptance to university] because I really didn’t study; it was boring.”
Cassif served in the Nahal Paratrooper Brigade, something he now regrets. At that time, he was very dedicated to forming a new kibbutz. “We were the establishing garin [core group] of Shomria, that no longer exists as a kibbutz.”
During his army service and kibbutz life, he moved farther left. “I was always the leftist of the garin, me and another two. The one who invited me to join the Mapam party [one of the precursors to Meretz] and is responsible for me being politically active was the late Ilan Gilon.”
“There were two incidents that caused me to think that I am not in the right place. One was when I refused to serve in the reserves in the Palestinian occupied territories. Mapam was against this. They didn’t support it. It’s not the mere fact that they objected to what I did but their explanations why they opposed my move...what was the basis of their opposition.”
And what was that, I asked. “Zionism and militarism,” he responded.
So you were already considering yourself an anti-Zionist at that point?
“Not consciously. In retrospect, I think I was but I couldn’t define it clearly to myself for some time.”
At that time, Cassif was a student of philosophy at the Hebrew University. The first to refuse to serve in the territories and Gaza, he said that he was supported by “university students on the far left, including the communists. This had an influence on me.”
“Another thing that was important and maybe more important than my own personal issue, actually it was the first meeting that I attended of Mapam – there was a debate with regard to Kibbutz Beit Alfa.... whether or not to expel the kibbutz from the National Kibbutz Movement (Hakibbutz Ha’artzi) because they sold instruments against demonstrations to apartheid South Africa. Once I heard the supporters of Beit Alfa talking, and eventually, they won the vote, I said, ‘what the heck am I doing here?’ This can’t be my home.”
“All in all, I found myself at home in the Communist Party and very fast I became the parliamentary assistant of Meir Vilner.” Cassif was in his early 20s and still unclear about the direction his career would develop. “I wasn’t sure what I wanted. I was quite young, you know.”
His professors at Hebrew University encouraged him to continue his academic studies given his success in the undergraduate program. “There was one specific one, actually a right-wing professor, and he urged me, after a paper I wrote.” The professor was historian Shlomo Aronson and the paper was called: ‘Lenin: Between Ideology and Realpolitik.’
He completed his Ph.D. at the London School of Economics and Political Science in 2006. Entitled ‘On Nationalism and Democracy: A Marxist Examination,’ it asks if nationalism and democracy are mutually exclusive or reconcilable, “taking nationalism as it is and democracy as it may be.” For him, nationalism-as-it-is refers to ethnic nationalism. And this, he says, cannot be reconciled with democracy.
“What is urgently needed,” he wrote, “is a form of democracy that could transcend the contradictions latent in modern capitalism and deliver a solution to identity crisis and alienation without subverting the values of individual equality and liberty. Such a democracy, it is concluded, must be a socialist one in which the means of identity production are collectively owned.”
Since he divides society by class rather than ethnicities, he does not see the conflict here as being between Arabs and Jews but, rather, between those who dominate the means of production and the media versus the poorer classes of all ethnicities that make up the Israeli and Palestinian populations. In his words, “the powerful versus the powerless, the exploiters versus the exploited.” And ethnicity is irrelevant to him.
I agreed with Cassif that these are important topics with which Israelis (and Palestinians if they so choose) need to grapple. Related issues concerning collective and individual identities still challenge Israeli societal health and merit debate and deep reflection. But I told him that I do not see how his compassionate views allow for seeing the settlers as his enemy, for example, something that seems to fly in the face of caring about others. As we discussed the issue, it became clear that it is the settlement movement he regards as his enemy and not individual settlers.
“I don’t have friends among settlers and will never have. But each encounter is individual. There are differences in each and every one of us,” he agrees. And then he says that his best friend in the Knesset is a right-winger.” I did not ask who that is but I understood it is a female, so don’t go imagining that Cassif and Ben Gvir are best friends!
In his short time in the Knesset, since 2019, he has submitted two bills, both of which are consistent with his worldview. In one, he seeks to see the establishment of a national authority to deal with worker safety given the high number of work-related accidents in Israel. There are currently two bodies that are supposed to deal with the problem, but, Cassif says, “one doesn’t know what the other is doing.”
The other bill, called the Abu Kabir Compensation Law, requests adequate compensation for the families being evicted from their homes -- on what has become choice real estate -- in order to make way for land development projects that will not benefit them at all.
At the end of our conversation, Cassif talked about his frustration given the “potential for a good life for all of us, perhaps greater potential here than anywhere else in the Middle East.”