Jerusalem Post Editorial: Difficult freedoms

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has polarized the political climate inside Israel. There are few issues on which Jews and Arabs of Israel reach consensus.

MK Haneen Zoabi and PM Benjamin Netanyahu (photo credit: screenshot)
MK Haneen Zoabi and PM Benjamin Netanyahu
(photo credit: screenshot)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s push to pass a law that would allow the Knesset to suspend lawmakers for “inappropriate behavior” is driven more by populism than by reason.
Netanyahu’s initiative came after three MKs from Balad, a party representing the Arab minority, paid a visit to the families of slain terrorists in east Jerusalem.
The express purpose of the visit, as articulated by the three lawmakers – Jamal Zahalka, Basel Ghattas and Haneen Zoabi – was to expedite the release of the bodies of the terrorists to their families so that they can be buried. Israel is delaying the release of the bodies of the terrorists, who were killed while carrying out attacks, out of concern the funerals will become a focus of violent demonstrations.
The three MKs went beyond just calling for the release of the bodies. They seemed to show solidarity with the criminals by standing with the families for a moment of silence to honor the “martyrs.”
Netanyahu said in response that people “who go to comfort the families of terrorists who murdered Israelis do not deserve to be in the Israeli Knesset.”
The Arab MKs claim that standing for the moment of silence was performed perfunctorily and that they oppose the use of violence to advance political goals.
Most Jewish Israelis don’t buy it. They probably sympathize with Netanyahu’s anger. After all, how can three Arab MKs, who enjoy the rights afforded them by Israel’s democracy, express solidarity with the father of a Palestinian who on October 13 boarded a bus in Jerusalem and began shooting and stabbing passengers? Israelis’ gut reaction is to ban these parliamentarians from the Knesset. And that is completely understandable.
If, however, the prime minister moves ahead with legislation that would suspend the three MKs, he might gain in popularity, but he would be striking a blow to a fundamental right – particularly when exercised by a democratically elected politician – the freedom of expression.
Whether Jewish Israelis like or not, the three politicians were representing many Arab citizens who believe Israel should allow the burial of terrorists out of respect for the families who may or may not have supported their heinous acts.
A majority of Jewish Israelis find the three MKs’ behavior offensive. So do we. If the legislation passes, Netanyahu would probably have little trouble mustering the requisite 90 MKs to suspend the trio. Lawmakers from opposition parties such as Yisrael Beytenu and even the Zionist Union would support it.
Tyranny of the majority must not be confused with democracy, however. Truly democratic states uphold fundamental rights such as the freedom of political expression even when a majority is opposed. It is precisely when the majority despises a particularly viewpoint that defense of that viewpoint is all the more essential. As the socialist firebrand Rosa Luxemburg noted, freedom of speech is meaningless unless it means the freedom of the person who thinks differently.
If no restraints are placed on expression, how, many will ask, can Israel protect itself from subversive elements who would exploit freedoms to usher in a regime whose first order of business would be to revoke those freedoms? The State of Israel already has in place laws that allow prosecution of people who engage in terrorist or subversive activities and endanger the welfare of Israel as a democratic state. If it could be proved that by visiting the families of terrorists and by standing for a moment of silence the three MKs engaged in terrorist activities or incitement to violence, they should have their parliamentary immunity removed and be tried. But it cannot be proved, so they won’t be tried. If can be proved that Balad is a terrorist organization, it should be banned. Once again, it can’t so it won’t.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has polarized the political climate inside Israel. There are few issues on which Jews and Arabs of Israel reach consensus.
Maintaining a robust democracy that protects basic freedoms regardless of one’s views can provide a basis for such consensus.