Every Israeli election needs a Palestinian woman as a villain

Attempts to bar Balad MK Heba Yazbak from the election shows how Palestinian women are constantly demonized as embodiments of Israeli fears.

Heba Yazbak of the Balad party speaks in the Israeli parliament on May 13, 2019, during a Plenary Hall session. (Noam Revkin Fenton / Flash90)
Heba Yazbak of the Balad party speaks in the Israeli parliament on May 13, 2019, during a Plenary Hall session. (Noam Revkin Fenton / Flash90)

There are few things easier in Israel today than turning a Palestinian politician into the enemy of the people, particularly if that politician is a woman. And there are fewer things that can provide Israeli politicians with such instant political capital. Once again, we are seeing it happen before our eyes. This time, the crosshairs are fixed on Joint List MK Heba Yazbak, from the Balad party.

The pre-election ritual is the same: Israel’s right-wing parliamentarians use the farce of the Knesset’s Central Elections Committee to try and bar Palestinian parties and candidates from running, all while politically profiting off the atmosphere of incitement that reigns in Israel.

The right’s constant attacks on Balad have posed a perpetual catch-22. On the face of it, the right has tried to disqualify Balad (and the entire Joint List) from running in the election according to Article 7A of the Basic Law: The Knesset, which anchors Israel’s character as a Jewish and democratic state. And yet, Israel’s Supreme Court has repeatedly blocked the CEC from banning Balad outright, which is why the right goes after individual MKs instead.

So, what happens when Balad approaches the upcoming elections with three brand-new candidates with hardly any public statements or actions that can be weaponized? The right begins trawling posts published years ago on the candidates’ personal Facebook pages.

In Israel, one can always find a pretext to incriminate, defame, incite against, or delegitimize a Palestinian. The attacks on Yazbek, which are clearly motivated by misogyny, began after it was revealed that she dubbed Samir Kuntar – a militant affiliated with the Palestine Liberation Front and Hezbollah in Lebanon – a “shahid” (Arabic for “martyr”) in a Facebook post published five years ago following his assassination.

Arab Knesset member Haneen Zoabi speaks with press at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem where she appealed a decision by the Central Election Committee to disqualify her from running in the Israeli elections, February 17, 2015. (Hadas Parush / FLASH90)
Arab Knesset member Haneen Zoabi speaks with press at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem where she appealed a decision by the Central Election Committee to disqualify her from running in the Israeli elections, February 17, 2015. (Hadas Parush / FLASH90)

The Israeli discourse makes it very difficult to explain the meaning of the term shahid in the context of decades of war and oppression that has resulted in the deaths of Palestinians as well as Jews. In this context, even someone like Kuntar, who brutally murdered four Israelis during a raid in northern Israel from Lebanon in 1979, and who was assassinated in Syria in 2005, is the victim of the conflict and its violence.

Using the term “shahid” to describe Kuntar does not mean support for his deeds. Yazbak, like the rest of the Joint List, has repeatedly expressed her belief that civilians must not be targeted. The moment he was assassinated, the space to maneuver within the confines of Israeli discourse makes it extremely difficult to express a more complex position around the person, especially when Israel’s Jewish majority constantly demands condemnation. This is the same public that worships the Israeli military and its leaders, many of whom have done their fair share of blood-letting.

Yes, calling Kuntar a shahid makes many of us Jewish Israelis uncomfortable. But that discomfort is no greater than that felt by every Palestinian who must travel on roads or visit institutions named after people like Rehavam Ze’evi, Ariel Sharon, or even Yitzhak Rabin — each of which has even more blood on their hands than Kuntar. We are not aware of this discomfort; it is entirely transparent to us.

More dangerous than Ayelet Shaked?

But the question before us is not whether Yazbak’s post, published long before she was in the public sphere, was appropriate. The question is whether the post renders her unfit to be a public servant today.

Labor party leader Amir Peretz speaks during a meeting of the Labor-Gesher and Meretz parties list in Tel Aviv, January 20, 2020. (Flash90)
Labor party leader Amir Peretz speaks during a meeting of the Labor-Gesher and Meretz parties list in Tel Aviv, January 20, 2020. (Flash90)

Does Labor leader Amir Peretz, who joined the populist and shameful attacks on Yazbak, along with the Blue and White Party, really think Yazbak is so dangerous that she should be removed from the corridors of the Knesset? Is her post truly more dangerous than one published in July 2014 by Ayelet Shaked, in which she quoted Israeli writer Uri Elizur calling Palestinian children “little snakes,” and appeared to justify mass punishment of Palestinians? Shaked was not only allowed to remain a Knesset member (not a single party demanded her disqualification), less than a year later she was serving as Justice Minister.

I truly believe that Peretz understands that the attacks on Yazbak are baseless. But in a reality in which 82 percent of Israelis support disqualifying her, even someone with more of a moral compass like Peretz cannot help but go along with the herd.

The last thing I intend to do is apologize in Yazbak’s name, but since her chances of being treated fairly by the Israeli mainstream are zero, it is important that she be heard. As the sixth-place candidate on the Balad list in the last two elections, I had the opportunity to speak alongside Yazbak in several election events to both Arab and Jewish audiences. Anyone who bothered to listen to her — whether in Hebrew or Arabic — would have heard a public servant dedicated to equality and justice.

It is frightening to see how such a principled member of Knesset is now undergoing the same demonization that her predecessor, Haneen Zoabi, went through. And like with Zoabi, no one will care about Yazbak’s political, social, or feminist worldview. Israeli society always needs a new Zoabi — a Palestinian woman who will embody all of our fears, enmity, and darkest desires. The ultimate voodoo doll.

Should Yazbak succeed and be allowed to run, she can expect years of threats, attacks, demonization, and public persecution. Should she be disqualified, it is only a matter of time until Israel finds itself another Haneen Zoabi.