Election coverage 2019: The Zionist litmus test goes nuclear

In a surprise development, popular television actress Rotem Sela, a political outsider, was the first to call out the nationalist-conservative spell that seems to have us all mesmerized.

April 3, 2019 21:46
4 minute read.
Rotem Sela (L) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R)

Rotem Sela (L) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R). (photo credit: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS & MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

The question of the Arab citizens’ place and status in Israeli society, especially politically, has become a central issue in the current election campaign. Last time around, Netanyahu waited till the 11th hour to trot out his “droves of Arabs” boogeyman to prod his complacent base to the polls on election day. This time, as he contends for votes with ultra-security heavyweight Benny Gantz, the anti-Arab incitement went nuclear at the outset of the election campaign.

This dramatic temporal shift should have launched a serious public discussion about Arab citizens’ role in Israeli society, and about that society’s future leadership. Instead, public debate hovers between the delegitimization to the demonization of Arab citizens by the political right wing, while the centrist parties ignore whole subject or shrug it off with gratuitous “Zoabi” slurs in the Yair Lapid style. Long before the 2013 election, the right-wing political establishment along with its media spokesmen and its civil society pundits had gone nuclear with “Who is a (loyal) Zionist” as the ultimate test of Israeli political legitimacy. The only difference this time around, apart from the earlier start, is the even nastier tone that poses yet more daunting risks in the rush to thoroughly disqualify one-fifth of the citizenry from participation in the decision making that affects them.

In a surprise development, popular television actress Rotem Sela, a political outsider, was the first to call out the nationalist-conservative spell that seems to have us all mesmerized. As the emperor marched along with his “new clothes” and the band played the same old tune, only louder, Sela was the only public figure brave enough to pose the question that the generals with hopes of replacing Netanyahu are afraid to address: What’s wrong about equal rights for Arab citizens and according them partnership in leading the country – and why is it taboo even just to ask the question?

Sela’s minor storm, and the impassioned responses to it, temporarily evoked somewhat more “normal” media coverage of Arab citizens – a big departure from the menacing, security-based frames to which we are accustomed. But it turns out that even in this unusual moment – when the issue of Arab citizens’ political legitimacy is finally high on the public agenda – most media didn’t bother to talk with any actual Arab citizens about it. The Representation Index (a partnership of Sikkuy and the Seventh Eye) found that Arab interviewees appeared in only 12% of 93 items published in the mainstream media about Sela’s statement and Netanyahu’s reply. And in the coverage of the primaries and the party lists during the previous month, only 3% of media items were devoted to Arab candidates and Arab lists, and even those did not address the substance of campaign contents or platforms. These dire findings portray a failure of the media in Israel to provide fair representation for the voices of Arab citizens, even regarding issues that directly affect them.

Now, today, when one side of the political map turns segregation into its central message, a self-respecting media outlet should open its panels, talk shows and opinion columns to men and women representing the Arab minority and engage with them in substantive debate about their role in leading the country and shaping its character and future. It’s time to go beyond the generals’ “road maps” and the Jewish parties’ political strategies and include the perspective of the Arabs who also live here – citizens, intellectuals, mayors, cultural figures, public leaders.

The right-wing parties’ strategy to position Arab citizens as a security threat with no national or collective rights, and to paint anyone who partners with them as illegitimate and unworthy of running the country, ought to provide an opportunity for the broadcast and print media in Israel to forge a new discourse. That includes the right-leaning conservative media that view themselves as diversifying the representation of Israel in the media. Rather than being sucked into this black hole of racist incitement and segregation along with the Jewish public, as actively promoted by the right and passively accepted by the center – all the media in its diverse incarnations should instead be countering this destructive discourse by portraying the broader reality that already exists here and is gaining strength all the time.

Understanding their crucial role in a democracy, especially around election time, the media must shoulder their responsibilities and stand up to the hysteria and the incitement right now, today. This is an unmissable opportunity to finally confront this perfect storm of inflammatory discourse by countering it with the reality of our daily lives in which the social integration of Arab citizens is what’s trending, en route to a resilient shared society for Jews and Arabs in Israel. Anyone who spends time with real people “out there” – in the hospitals, in large corporations, in commercial centers and on academic campuses – understands that the questions of Arab citizens’ participation and place in Israeli society is not in doubt anymore. Their substantive involvement in public leadership and decision-making at the national level is only a matter of time.

Long after Netanyahu has become a distant memory, Jews and Arabs will continue to live here together, alongside one another. Whether in an environment of ongoing conflict and hostility, or of equality and partnership – only we can decide.

The writer is co-director of the Shared Society Department for Sikkuy: the Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality.

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