Israel’s national scapegoat

Since members of Israel’s parliament can’t take out their anger about the Turkey reconciliation deal on Netanyahu, they go for the easiest target around — Haneen Zoabi.

Balad MK Haneen Zoabi, Febuary 8, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Balad MK Haneen Zoabi, Febuary 8, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

For all nine years of my childhood in Iran, I never personally encountered anti-Semitism. We lived in a mixed neighborhood, I studied at a Jewish high school along with non-Jews, and I cannot remember even a single instance where I was insulted or attacked for being Jewish.

From time to time I would hear stories from older family members about quarrels with the neighborhood hooligans who would harass them for being Jewish. The motif almost always repeated itself: the thugs would always demand the Jews apologize. “Ask for forgiveness, Jude,” they demanded, blocking the path until the Jew apologized for his or her existence. Only then would they be able to pass. Or not. Either way, it could have easily resulted in blows.

I recalled these stories as I watched a group of Knesset members attacking Haneen Zoabi as she spoke in Israel’s parliament about the Turkey reconciliation agreement on Thursday, demanding she apologize. The leader of the pack was MK Hamad Amar, the deputy speaker of the Knesset and a member of Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman‘s Yisrael Beiteinu party.

Amar repeatedly demanded that Zoabi apologize for calling the IDF soldiers who killed nine unarmed civilians on the Mavi Marmara “murderers.” When she refused, the deputy speaker had Zoabi removed from the plenum. Dozens of soldiers and officers who were visiting the Knesset as guests looked on from the gallery. Amar was particularly worried about upholding their honor. Let the Arab apologize.

It is clear that Netanyahu’s reconciliation agreement with Turkey put members of Knesset, particularly those on the right, in an embarrassing position: on the one hand, it is clear that by apologizing for killing Turkish citizens aboard the Mavi Marmara and agreeing to compensate the families, Israel is admitting that their deaths were unwarranted. And what does one call the unwarranted killing of unarmed people if not murder? On the other hand, they cannot take out their anger on Netanyahu. So they take it out on Haneen Zoabi, of course.

What was really terrifying wasn’t the violence directed at Zoabi, although as I watched the live broadcast of her speech there were moments when I truly feared for her physical safety. What was really terrifying came after Zoabi’s removal: MK after MK got up and competed with one another over who could spew the most poisonous, violent invective.

“Terrorist” and “neo-fascist” were only some of the terms they used. Minister of Science, Technology and Space Ofir Akunis, who spoke on behalf of the coalition, said that the Knesset should pass a law to expel her from the legislature as soon as possible, “so that we no longer have to see this terrorist’s disgusting face.” Erel Margalit, the Zionist Union’s new big-man, published a photo of Zoabi on his Facebook page with the caption “Go to Gaza, dammit.”

MK Avi Dichter, who heads the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, said: “Haneen Zoabi is not a circus, she isn’t even worthy of being used as lion food.” And all this less than a day after the Knesset passed the first reading of a bill that would raise the fine for desecrating state symbols to NIS 58,400 ($15,000), instead of the 300 liras (the old, defunct Israeli currency).

Every time we see our elected officials at their worse, which happens quite often, we need to remember they people are not just a product of the public atmosphere — they create it. This kind of violence does not grow in a vacuum; it is the product of continuous demonizing and delegitimization of the Palestinian public in Israel’s elected representatives, specifically against the Balad party and Haneen Zoabi — with a mix of nationalism, fascism, chauvinism, and racism.

When it is publicly acceptable for Yair Lapid to use her last name to denigrate an entire public (“Zoabis”), Ofir Akunis’ comments are only a matter of time. When a primetime news anchor says on-air that Balad MKs simply hate the fact that there are Jews in Israel and nobody speaks out, Erel Margalit’s remarks are only a matter of time. When Balad MKs are suspended from parliamentary activity for weeks because they tried to bring about an end to the policy of holding onto dead Palestinians as bargaining chips, legislating Zoabi’s expulsion from the Knesset is only a matter of time.

At the annual Balad party conference earlier this month, I spoke in the name of group of Jewish activists who recently submitted an official request to become full members of the party. Among other things I tried to explain why it is in the interest of Israeli Jews to let go of their privilege and join the oppressed group in its demand for equality and justice. When I saw the insanity at the Knesset on Wednesday, it became ever clearer to me: belonging to the oppressor group, which is represented by these members of Knesset, disgraces me as a human being. Because the Akunises and Lapids are rapidly spreading. Because if we do not stand firmly alongside Haneen Zoabi today, one day we will look in the mirror and discover we have become Ofir Akunis himself.

This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.

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