The Joan of Arc of the Knesset

It was a strikingly ugly act, an act of  public bullying, that made the soul cringe.

It was excruciating to watch.

This is incendiary and divisive stuff, in a country that has trouble managing minority-majority relations.

Even writing about this group ganging-up against one individual human being causes revulsion.

Haneen Zoabi, elected member of the Israeli Knesset for the Arab/Palestinian National Democratic Assembly [a/k/a the Balad Party and as Tajamua] , stood in the Knesset  last week to face her public punishment  for having participated in the Freedom Flotilla sailing towards Gaza that was stopped by an Israeli naval assault on 31 May in which 8 Turkish men and one American-born high-school student were shot and killed.

Fewer than half of the 120-member Knesset plenary participated in the 34 to 16 vote (total vote = 50, out of 120) to withdraw several parliamentary privileges, including Zoabi’s diplomatic passport, her right to leave the country, and her right to reimbursement for any legal defense. Not even all the 65 Knesset members who are counted as “far-right” participated in this vote.

But very few did anything to try to stop the continuing verbal assault, and public humiliation: though Knesset speaker Reuven Rivlin did express his personal regret, he abstained in the vote (as Haaretz noted in an editorial. And mondoweiss blog now mentions that Uri Avnery reported noticing some “half-hearted protest” made by Haim Oron of Meretz).

Zoabi was told she had caused shame and disgrace to her family and to the Knesset.   In earlier raucus Knesset hearings, the 41-year-old politician from Nazareth (apparently, her Muslim parents sent her to a Catholic school) was called a traitor, and in the next breath was blamed for not being married.  One other female Knesset member (Anastasia Michaeli, born in Russia) had to be physically prevented from attacking her on 2 June, and harassed Zoabi by holding up an oversize replica of an Iranian passport with Zoabi’s photo and name on it.  Death threats have been made.

It is impossible to imagine that the scenario would have been the same if Zoabi had been a man, or if she had been Jewish.

A Haaretz editorial stated that the Knesset action was “cause for concern”.

Haaretz noted that “there were few participants present, and the extremists – led by MK Michael Ben Ari of National Union – managed to push it through unimpeded.  It seems elected officials no longer understand the meaning of freedom of expression.  If  they believe Zuabi broke the law, the Knesset’s legal adviser is supposed to handle the matter.  If this is not the case, even if her opinions are considered offensive, her colleagues must resolutely support her right to have them heard”.

But, as it seems that the situation is hopelessly polarized here, and everybody is constantly outraged at everyone else, the Haaretz article madeg a great and very probably unjustified leap of assumption to say that Zoabi, “like other Arab MKs, is enthusiastically participating in acts of extreme provocation. It could even be assumed that she profits to some degree from being marked as an enemy of the people”.

With this expression of what it must have believed is “balance”, the Haaretz editorial concluded that ” All of these developments symbolize the moral weakness of the 18th Knesset, the damage it is inflicting on freedom of speech and the danger it poses to democracy in Israel”. This editorial is published here.

And that’s not all. Israel’s Interior Minister Eli Yishai has written to the country’s Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein for authorization to revoke Zoabi’s Israeli citizenship. A Facebook group was created to incite hatred against her.

Zoabi told writer Jonathan Cook, soon after her election to the Knesset in February 2009, that “The Jewish public don’t like self-confident, unapologetic Arabs … But actually I think there is a base of support even among Jews for reforming Israel into a proper democracy, maybe as much as 30 per cent”.

However, she said, “It is frustrating and exhausting having always to be on the defensive about why I identify as a Palestinian, why I am not a Zionist, why the Jewish state is not democratic and cannot represent me, why I am entitled to citizenship”.

And, she noted, “The struggle solely for equality treats me as a number, it reduces me to part of a mathematical formula. It ignores my history, identity and narrative as a Palestinian. I want to be a full Israeli citizen, but it must not come at the expense of my people’s collective rights to an identity and a past.” This article is published here.

Intolerance of the kind that was on display in the Knesset last week cannot help solve anything.

[The Geneva-based Interparliamentary Union asked the Knesset speaker for clarification of the Knesset committee recommendation in June, and expressed concerns about the death threats to Zoabi and about the pending censure, but did not seem to have anything to say after the plenary vote this week.]

Here is a brief visual record:

(1) On 2 June 2010: Haneen Zoabi responds to her critics in the Knesset on 2 June – She says “The siege is illegal, inhuman, illegitimate.  Every politician who has a moral stance opposes the siege”.   Knesset members call her a terrorist, and a traitor, and try to silence her; one woman MK tries to attack her physically.  A male MK suggested  Zoabi be searched to see if she had a knife on her .  She is accused of hiding behind her immunity.  She is told to “Go to Gaza”.  Fellow MK Jamal Zahalka defends her:

(2) On 9 June – Haneen Zoabi comments after Knesset Parliamentary Committee recommends that Knesset should move to vote to strip her of her privileges:

(3) On 13 July – Knesset sanctions are imposed against Zoabi by a vote of 34-16 (or, by 50 out of 120 Knesset members — not even a majority vote for an act with such dangerous potential ramifications):

12 thoughts on “The Joan of Arc of the Knesset”

  1. I would like to emphasise two substantial errors in your report.

    1) You wrote Zoabi was deprived the right to leave the country.
    That’s not true: she was deprived the privilege of fleeing Israel if she commits a felony or has debts in Israel.
    2) From your report any can understend that there were death threats have been made by other MK towards Zoabi. In real, Zoabi itself reported to mass media that she got anonymous death treats by phone. That is completely different situation.

  2. Thanks.

    As to your first point, do you mean that a MK would be allowed [as nobody else could do] to escape prosecution by leaving or fleeing the country if he/she owes debts and/or has committed a felony?

    On the second point, there is also the Facebook page which called for her “execution”, signed by thousands of people.

    It was not clear if there were explicit threats made in the Knesset or not — some of the conversations were off-mike — but the physical menace to her was evident. However, because there are apparently so many sources, I did not actually say where the death threats originated, and I did not say they came from within the Knesset.

    Terrible threats have also been made against others, such as MK Ahmad Tibi… though, again, the sources are multiple.

  3. A Knesset Member has immunities relating to searches, detention, criminal hearings and legal proceedings which are not connected with his work as a Member of Knesset, and only the Knesset itself has the right to lift his immunity in these spheres. In Israel, the parliamentary immunity is extremely broad, and on occasion there have been proposals to limit it.

  4. If anyone hasn’t prevented by Court to travel from Israel, the only case you need special permission from Minister of the Interior is travel to “enemy states”.
    The MK can not be stoped by border police even if Court decided explicitly,except he is deprived of immunity by Knesset decision or if he is suspected in spying against the state.
    Zoabi now can be prevented from egress by Court decision “only”.
    This not seriouse impact to her rights as MK, it’s more symbolic one.
    Also, right to reimbursement for legal defense: it restricted only to possible case that connected to her participation in Flotilla, and not to “any” case.

    So, the “real” privilege she was deprived, is her diplomatic passport: she will stand in lines at Ben-Gurion airport as everyone Israely citizen- this is indeed hurt 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *