Israel claims to be the only democracy in the Middle East, but sometimes it doesn’t really act like it. A case in point is the growing animosity in Israel toward Haneen Zoabi, an Arab member of Knesset from Balad who insists on testing Israel’s democracy.
Zoabi was among those on the Mavi Marmara – part of the flotilla which attempted to break the Gaza blockade in May. She is resolute in speaking about what she calls discriminatory policies against Arab citizens. I caught up with Zoabi during one of her stops in a tour of the US where she made the case that Israel talks the talk when it comes to democracy but fails to walk the walk.
“I am not afraid of what the Israelis are trying to do to me,” Zoabi told me at a Chicago convention of Palestinian Americans.
“The attacks by right-wing members of Knesset and politicians do not bother me. I am not afraid to stand up to them. I am strong.”
Zoabi is defiant, and her views can’t easily be brushed aside.
The first woman elected on an Arab slate to the Knesset in March 2009, and the third Arab woman elected to the Knesset altogether, Zoabi comes from a long line of Arab Israelis from Nazareth who have engaged in politics.
She is related to Seif el-Din e- Zoubi, a former mayor of Nazareth who served in the Knesset between 1949 and 1959, and from 1965 until 1979, and to Abed el-Aziz el-Zoubi, a deputy health minister and the first Arab member of an Israeli government.
But none of her relatives faced the anger and hostility that has been
directed against her over the past year. Her support for the flotilla
ignited a wave of harsh criticism. Jewish Knesset members have called
for her to be prosecuted and stripped of the immunity that Knesset
Zoabi brushed aside the rising criticism as “a reflection of the new
realities in Israel” that have pushed the Jewish state from the center
to the extreme Right.
“Actually, this bothers the [Jewish] Israelis more than it bothers me.
The criticism and anti-Arab hatred has become more severe, growing in
intensity since the second intifada. It escalated even more after the
Lebanon war,” Zoabi said.
She said the backlash against Arabs citizens challenging Israeli
policies started with Azmi Bishara, a Knesset member who was very
critical. Following the Second Lebanon War in 2006, Bishara was accused
of high treason and charges were brought against him following
allegations that he aided the enemy during wartime, was in contact with a
foreign agent and involved in money-laundering activities. After being
stripped of his immunity, Bishara fled Israel and resigned from the
Knesset in 2007 via the Israeli Embassy in Cairo.
“The deterioration between Jewish Israelis and Arab Israelis began with
Bishara,” Zoabi said. “But it has reached a tipping point.”
CRITICISM IS a hallmark of true democracies.
The more Israel tries to silence Arab critics, the more it exposes the limits of its democracy.
“Israelis have always been racist against Arab citizens. It is growing,”
Zoabi argued. “But I don’t see that as a threat to me as a Palestinian.
It is a threat to the normalcy of life of the Israelis themselves. At
one time, the racism was rational, a part of the Jewish character of the
state. Today, that racism is more and more irrational.”
The only satisfaction that Israelis might get from all this is that Arabs in America are politically dysfunctional.
Although they can draw large crowds to conferences marked by angry
speeches, like the one held in a suburb of Chicago this past weekend,
the events get little or no coverage in the mainstream media. Americans
are not hearing Palestinian complaints. Yet.
Palestinians in America do most of their talking to themselves. But one
day that will change and Americans will look more closely at Israel’s
policies toward its Arab citizens. Zoabi symbolizes a crack that
continues to grow in the wall of Israel’s claim to the “only democracy
in the Middle East.”
The writer is an award-winning columnist and Chicago radio talk show host.