Haneen Zoabi
Balad MK Haneen Zoabi in the Knesset. Photo by Knesset Channel
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MK Haneen Zoabi (Balad) is the mirror reflecting the racist face of Israel and its intolerance toward the state’s Arab minority. In the five years since she was elected to the Knesset, Zoabi has tested the boundaries of political correctness and freedom of expression, and the results should worry everyone who fears for the future of liberal democracy in Israel.

The abduction of the teens in Gush Etzion was the pretext for the current round of provocation by Zoabi, which began when she said in a local radio interview that the perpetrators of the kidnapping were not terrorists.

She later told Haaretz reporter Jonathan Lis that she wanted the teens freed, just as she wanted the Palestinian prisoners incarcerated in Israel freed. She told Iranian television that Israel was “the greatest hothouse of terror in the region.”

Zoabi’s remarks on the radio elicited the usual reactions from right-wing politicians who, following a predictable script, variously called for her to be questioned on suspicion of incitement, deported to the Gaza Strip, expelled from the Knesset, stripped of her Israeli citizenship and treated “like the kidnappers.” Threats by telephone and other means led the Knesset to assign her a bodyguard.

One may — must even — argue with Zoabi over whether the kidnappers of the three, unarmed teens are terrorists or, as she claims, victims of the occupation. But democracy rests on the right to annoy, to voice unexpected opinions, to arouse opposition and disagreement — even in times of emergency .

In seeking to strip Zoabi of this right, the Israeli right-wing has done nothing new. Fear of external enemies, real or imaginary, has led to limitations on freedom of expression in totalitarian regimes (such as the Soviet Union) and democratic ones (the United States in the McCarthy era) alike. But what do Avigdor Lieberman, Uri Ariel, Miri Regev and Limor Livnat fear? That Zoabi will sap the motivation of the Israeli soldiers who are searching for the kidnappers? Or perhaps they seek only to win support through their hatred of Arabs, hatred that they believe unites voters on the right.

No less disturbing are the “racism lite” reactions, according to which Zoabi “harms the interests of Israel’s Arabs.” Or, in less euphemistic words, one-fifth of the population can only be considered Israeli if they either adopt the majority position or shut up. All it takes is a few words spoken over the radio to expose the racism and arrogance hiding behind a thin mask of tolerance. Instead of arguing with Zoabi’s position and questioning whether she represents Israel’s Arab community, the right prefers to sacrifice civil liberties. And none of the politicians, from the president and the prime minister on down, has stood up to defend her right of free expression.