Zehava Gal-On, how does it feel to be a has-been ?
But Gal-On, today a doctoral candidate in gender studies at Bar-Ilan University, and television co-host with Hagai Segal of "Head to Head" on the Knesset channel, has definitely not retired.
Tomorrow the High Court of Justice will consider petitions to invalidate a proposed amendment to the Citizenship Law.
The amendment, initiated by Interior Minister Eli Yishai (Shas), is aimed at preventing Arab citizens of Israel from marrying residents of the Palestinian territories and then living with them inside the boundaries of Israel. The amendment is meant to grant Israeli Arabs and Palestinians a stature diametrically opposed to that bestowed on Jews anywhere in the world by the Law of Return.
Gal-On, who was presented the Mahatma Gandhi Award by South Africa for her many years of work for peace, equality and civil rights, cannot sit quietly by in the face of this racist amendment. In 2007, while she was still a Meretz MK, she petitioned the High Court along with the Adalah Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and the Hamoked Center for the Defense of the Individual. The High Court itself named the case to be discussed tomorrow the "Zehava Gal-On et al petition." Rumors of Gal-On's retirement from public life are premature and exaggerated.
How does it feel to be your old self again?
What can I say to that? I must tell you that I'm not occupied with this. I'm very concerned about the public agenda and sometimes I blow a gasket completely when I watch Knesset sessions. The racism there has really crossed the line.
Have your old friends from Meretz approached you to join the petition?
No. I petitioned the High Court while I was still a member of the Knesset in 2007, and even then I was working on my own, represented all these years by attorney Dafna Holz-Lechner, who does great work.
Has the human rights situation in Israel improved or deteriorated in recent years?
The situation is going downhill, and one of the factors in this [trend], and in the damage to human rights in Israel, is the Knesset. Members of the Knesset stand up for human rights only when it suits their political outlook; they are willing to trample and sacrifice human rights when these values serve their enemies. We can see this in a series of racist bills introduced mainly in the current Knesset, which in a torrent of legislative activism passes discriminatory, racist laws that express, for the most part, the tyranny of the majority in Israeli democracy. What is happening is that members of the Knesset - not only on the right but also in Kadima - conceive of human rights as something leftist and political, only for 'bleeding hearts'. They view the struggle for human rights as an unforgivable blow to Israel security, and I of course think the opposite. We've seen the campaign against Naomi Hazan and the New Israel Fund. I simply could not believe my ears.
Despite all the talk that the Knesset is not a role model, people still look at it, and what happens there influences the general mood of Israeli society. It turns into a bon ton. I'm going crazy that there's no opposition and no head of the opposition who will struggle for minority rights. She [Kadima head and opposition leader Tzipi Livni] should have, in her position, explained that the defense of minority rights is put to the test at those moments when the security situation is bad. The opposition is a partner to the delegitimization campaign against Palestinian society, instead of also representing the minority.
What about racism is so attractive to Knesset members?
I think that people are comfortable in the warm lap of the consensus. It is very unpopular to defend the rights of minority groups, whether they are Palestinians or Israeli Arab citizens, and when we are talking about a time of violence and terror, it enables and justifies legislation that would never be considered in peace time. I always say that it's no big deal to defend human rights when there's peace, but to think about it when your blood boils: Not to think with your gut, but with your mind. Populism is a lot easier - it attracts votes and it is easier to legislate racist laws than expose one's racist fears and primitive beliefs. People don't understand that as [former Supreme Court Justice] Aaron Barak said, in a proper democracy, even the struggle against terror is waged with one hand tied behind your back. But what wild incitement Palestinians and Arabs. The problem is that today the world has changed. The prime minister, the head of the opposition and the government ministers, instead of adapting themselves to the universalization of human rights, do the opposite. Instead of understanding that human rights is the new religion, and instead of adapting themselves to it, they do the opposite.
I read today in the paper that "apartheid week" is beginning at universities around the world, and the apartheid state they are aiming at is Israel. It is shocking, and I ask myself how we got here. If the Knesset legislates racist laws and seeks to authorize roads for Jews only, then we have become an apartheid state. And so the High Court of Justice is the only and final recourse for the defense of minority rights. The last thing I want is for us to be seen as an apartheid state, but in practice we enable and legitimize this idea, and to my sorrow hardly anyone is prepared to man the barricades - only the human rights organizations are. And these the Knesset would like to destroy with transparency laws.
I've been active in politics for 25 years and after so long I thank God that I don't belong to those who have given up; on the contrary, I continue to fight though not in the parliamentary arena, and I think it is possible to uproot racism. I was in the Knesset for 10 years, nine of them in the opposition, where it wasn't popular to be, but it was very important. So I would like us not to be detested and isolated in the eyes of the world, and I would prefer that when Goldstone published the report, even if we think it was distorted, we appoint a governmental investigatory committee. If we continue in this situation where the army investigates itself, and other bodies come up with different information, then this isn't a proper and decent state.
What if the amendment to the Citizenship Law is not rejected by the court?
If it goes through, it means that the High Court is legitimizing the racist norm, allowing it to be ensconced in Israeli law. Just recently I heard the prime minister say that there is no longer a threat to security due to efficient intelligence, roadblocks and checkpoints, and the separation fence. If the security threat is not great, why do we use it as a cover for something else? For example, the demographic excuse.
Israel's interior ministers, and Eli Yishai was the first, are in effect trying to limit the married life of Arab citizens so they won't give birth to Arab children who will live here. The state comes and says: We are imposing a sweeping prohibition. Every Palestinian man and woman married to Arab Israeli citizens are terrorists.
I think that if we want to talk about a decent state, we have to test the results if such a law were applied to Jews. But this law is diametrically opposed to the Law of Return. A special law for Arabs has been invented. This is not merely racism but open and public racism. The government and the Knesset are saying on an open platform that we don't want Arabs here.