It''s worth pondering the difference between Israel''s relationships with four especially provocative parliamentarians.
All have been accused of breaking the rules. Ahmad Tibi and Haneen Zoabi attract considerable criticism but have escaped serious sanctions. The late Meir Kahane was banned from politics after violating a law against racism enacted specifically to deal with him. Azmi Bishara has been wandering among Muslim countries for seven years rather than face criminal charges for treason and espionage.
All have been associated with activities and expressions on or over the border of incitement and violation of democratic norms, and provide insights into Israel''s not always smooth efforts to maintain those norms in the face of much blather that is more demagogic than democratic.
MK Tibi is a gynecologist with an MD from the Hebrew University. He served formally as an adviser to Yassir Arafat and representative of the Palestine National Authority in international conferences until he won election to the Knesset, and continued a close relationship, identification as a Palestinian, and unofficial spokesman for the Palestinian cause as a Knesset Member. He presses for "equal rights" and greater opportunities for Israeli Arabs, opposes Israel''s designation as a "Jewish state" and favors a "state of all its citizens." He has challenged the Law of Return that favors Jews, as well as the religious symbols on the national flag and the content of the national anthem. Right of center Knesset Members have demanded his exclusion from the Knesset, and carried by a close vote a proposal in the Elections Committee to ban him from subsequent elections, but the Supreme Court overturned that action. Tibi appears frequently on main line Israeli media. He is articulate in Hebrew, with a sharp tongue, but is capable of delivering his barbs with a smile and occasionally humor.
MK Zoabi is arguably more extreme and more likely to be shrill than Tibi. If she has a sense of humor, it is not apparent. She is a teacher by profession, with degrees from Haifa University and the Hebrew University. She asserts that the designation of Israel as a Jewish state is racist, and has described Lieberman, Livni, and Netanyahu as a "bunch of fascists" She identifies herself as a Palestinian, rejects Zionism, has walked out of Knesset during the singing of Hatikvah, claims that the IDF is a greater danger than the possibility of Iranian nuclear weapons. She participated in the flotilla to Gaza on the ship Marmara, and considers the IDF attack on the ship as a "pirate military operation" without provocation. The Knesset has voted to strip her of parliamentary privileges for limited periods; the Attorney General did not pursue a case against her with respect to assertions of treason, and the Supreme Court overturned an Elections Committee vote to ban her candidacy.
Most recently, Zoabi has denied that Palestinians kidnapping Israeli civilians are terrorists, and asserts that such actions are their only alternative to suffering fro occupation. The Attorney General is considering charges for incitement, while Zoabi claims that she is doing her job as a Member of Knesset, and has parliamentary immunity for prosecution due to her comments.
Zoabi ran in the 2013 municipal elections for the position of mayor in her home town of Nazareth, but came in third with only 10 percent of the vote. It is not clear whether this failure reflected her problematic status as an unmarried Arab woman, or her challenge of politics in a city tightly organized by extended families and political party.
The late Rabbi Meir Kahane had a checkered past with name changes, alleged service as an FBI informant, and a record of arrests both in the US and Israel. He gained fame in New York City for creating the Jewish Defense League, moved to Israel and created a party with the label of Kach. The name is itself defiant "That''s it," implying "take it or go." He promoted the migration to Israel of Russian and American Jews, proposed removing Israeli citizenship from non-Jews and expelling Arabs from the country. The Supreme Court overturned one Elections Committee decision to ban him from politics, but accepted a later decision after the Knesset had enacted a law against racism designed specifically to deal with Kahane.
Kahane''s more severe treatment than that meted out to Tibi and Zoabi has led to charges that Israelis are more severe against right wing Jews than left wing Arabs. However, the inclusion of Azmi Bishara points to a more balanced treatment of extremism.
Former MK Azmi Bishara studied at the University of Haifa and Hebrew University, and earned a PhD in philosophy at Humboldt University, then in East Berlin. He is a Christian Arab who belies the simple dichotomies between Christian-Muslim and moderate-extreme. There never was much doubt about Beshara''s Palestinian nationalism as student activist, teacher at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank, or in the Knesset. However, his style of speaking was closer to that of Tibi than the shrillness of Zoabi. Bishara also passed through a process of being disqualified by the Elections Committee for his extremism, and then having the decision overturned by the Supreme Court. However, he went too far during the Lebanon War of 2006, when he traveled to Lebanon and is alleged to have provided targeting guidance for Hezbollah. Rather than face charges of treason, he left Israel, and has traveled as a media commentator throughout the Arab world, currently with a base in Qatar.
Israeli toleration of provocative Arabs may contribute to the country''s humanity. Along with Jewish leftists still within the tent (e.g., Peace Now, Meretz, B''tselem, but not supporters of BDS), they help to keep us honest. They should also win recognition of Israel''s place among the democracies with a decent record of civil rights, as judged by those willing to ignore the more hateful antagonists.
Israelis who charge Arab/Palestinian citizens of dual loyalties are weakened by the many thousands of Israeli Jews who are also citizens of the United States, Germany, France, Poland and other countries of their own birth or that of parents or grandparents. Many of these Israelis vote in Israeli elections, and as absentees in their other country. They also travel back and forth, feel who knows what attachments to Israel and elsewhere, and in numerous cases return "home" when tired of Israel.
Israelis are fair to question Zoabi''s suitability, most recently in light of her justification of kidnapping that may actually involve murder, and to reject outright acts of aiding the enemy in wartime such as those alleged against Bishara.
How much do the likes of Tibi and Zoabi hurt Israel? Probably not very much. Remember that sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me. Their screeds may provide more reasons for those already inclined to hate, but also inflame those inclined to support, and to distrust Arabs.
No doubt that Tibi and Zoabi annoy, and even infuriate many Israelis, but it is also likely that their activities hurt their own communities. As implacable critics who shun cooperation with ruling parties, they get what they deserve, and their constituencies get little.
It is fair to exclude Tibi, Zoabi, and the whole of the Arab party delegations in the Knesset from the distribution of policy goodies. Politics does not involve charity. Individuals and parties wanting something for their voters must cooperate with those who hold power. Persistent criticism does not gain benefits, and helps to explain the less than equitable distribution of resources between Israel''s Jewish and Arab communities.
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