In Their Own Words: What Some Israeli Politicians Really Think About Arabs and LGBTs

With sharp homophobic quips and racist remarks about the country's Arab community, some Israeli parliamentarians and ministers have helped provide fertile ground for minority baiting. Here’s what they have said.

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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A vigil in Tel Aviv after the stabbing at the Jerusalem Pride event, on July 30, 2015. Several MKs have made homophobic remarks.
A vigil in Tel Aviv after the stabbing at the Jerusalem Pride event, on July 30, 2015. Several MKs have made homophobic remarks.Credit: Reuters
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

Many will say the handwriting was on the wall. The ultra-Orthodox man who murdered a 16-year-old girl at the Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade last Thursday and the Jewish terrorists, still at large, who less than 12 hours later burned alive a Palestinian toddler, did not operate in a vacuum. There are those who will say there was a green light from above.

How much, if at all, do Israel’s democratically elected leaders – its parliamentary representatives and cabinet ministers – bear responsibility for acts of racism and homophobia? And what did they say to fan the flames?

Here, in their own words, is what politicians from different parties have had to say about Arabs and gays in Israel. While none has expressly advocated outright violence (except perhaps in one isolated case), there are those who have, through their utterances, provided what may be seen as fertile ground for minority baiting.

* It was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself who may have helped set the tone with his famous anti-Arab remarks on Election Day last March. Fearful that his Likud party might not garner enough votes to remain in power, Netanyahu resorted to Arab-baiting a few hours before the polls closed. In his now-famous remarks, which caused an international backlash, the prime minister said the following in a widely circulated video message: “The Arabs are coming out in droves to vote – bused in by the left ...” He eventually apologized.

* The right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party may sit on the opposition benches these days along with the new Joint Arab List, but that hasn’t made its representatives any more friendly toward Israel’s Arab minority. Just two weeks ago, MK Robert Ilatov had this to say after being named a member of the Judicial Appointments Committee: “In my view, a judge who is not willing to sing ‘Hatikva’ [the Jewish-themed national anthem] cannot be a judge in Israel.” With that, from his point of view at least, he effectively ruled out the possibility of any new Arab appointees to the bench.

* Last month, Deputy Interior Minister Yaron Mazuz of Likud called on Arab members of the Knesset to return their Israeli identification cards, accusing them of engaging in acts of terror and mentioning participation in the 2010 Turkish flotilla incident. That followed a demand by the Joint Arab List to lift a ban that prevents Palestinians married to Israeli citizens from living in Israel. Turning to MK Haneen Zouabi, Mazuz said: “You are the first who ought to return your ID. We are doing you people a favor by even allowing you to be seated here – terrorists won’t be allowed to sit here.”

* Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who is also chairman of the right-wing, religious Habayit Hayehudi party, caused a storm in February when, while addressing a group of high-school students, he insinuated that Arabs and Bedouin are thieves. Bennett has categorically denied this was his intent in what has since come to be known as the “thieves’ speech.” Here’s a quote from it: “Anyone who has toured the Negev in recent years knows that they cannot leave their car near the small Ramon Crater or one of the riverbeds, as it most certainly will be broken into and stolen.” The Negev is a major center for the Bedouin, and so for many in the audience, it seemed clear that the reference was to them.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett at a Knesset faction meeting, July 20, 2015.Credit: Michal Fattal

* A few months before the last election, Likud's Miri Regev, who now serves as minister of culture and sport, delivered a scathing attack of Zuhair Bahloul, a distinguished Arab sportscaster who was running on the Labor Party list (and now serves in the Knesset), in a radio interview. Referring to Bahloul’s run for parliament, she said: “I want Arabs who won’t be Trojan horses.”

* At the height of the last election campaign, Avigdor Lieberman, chairman of the Yisrael Beiteinu party and then foreign minister, came as close as any Israeli leader to advocating physical violence against the country’s Arab minority. “Those who are against us, there’s nothing to be done – we need to pick up an ax and cut off his head,” Lieberman said at a conference at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya in March. “Otherwise we won’t survive here.” He went on to say that there is no reason the Arab town of Umm al-Fahm should remain in Israel, noting that “citizens of the State of Israel who raise a black flag on Nakba Day [referring to the Palestinians' observance of the anniversary of the creation of the State of Israel – from my perspective, they can leave, and I’m very happily willing to donate them to [Palestinian Authority President] Abu Mazen.”

* A year ago, just before the outbreak of the war in the Gaza Strip – when tensions in the country were already flaring – Lieberman added extra fuel to the fire when he called on Israeli Jews to boycott Arab-owned businesses, writing on his Facebook page: “I call upon everyone not to shop anymore at the stores and businesses of those among the Arab sector who are participating today in the general strike that was declared by the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee as a sign of empathy for Gaza residents and against Operation Protective Edge.”

* With barely five months under his belt in the Knesset, Bezalel Smotrich, a member of Habayit Hayehudi, holds the dubious distinction of being the most openly homophobic lawmaker in Israel. Long before launching his parliamentary career, Smotrich famously organized an anti-gay parade known as the “March of the Beasts.” He has since voiced regrets, but, at a debate before the last election, Smotrich still referred to members of the LGBT community as “abnormal.” “Every person has the right to be abnormal at home,” he said, “but he can’t ask of me as a state to see the idea as normal.” A day after the stabbings at last week's Pride parade in Jerusalem, Smotrich had no qualms about referring to the event as the “abomination march.” In a Facebook post, he wrote: “So here I say it again fearlessly: I object vehemently to violence, and promise to object no less vehemently to the recognition of same-sex couples in the Jewish state. I promise to fight violence, and no less than that, I will fight any attempt to besmirch traditional Jewish family values.”

* Three years ago, MK Uri Ariel, who represents Habayit Hayehudi and now serves as agriculture minister, urged the Israel Defense Forces not to recruit homosexuals. “If I were the decision maker, I wouldn’t enlist homosexuals into the IDF, because some things interfere with the military’s ability to fight,” he told the Knesset Channel. “We must conduct ourselves in accordance with Jewish law. The Torah forbids homosexuality and demands that those who behave in such a manner be punished,” he added.

* Shlomo Benizri, a former government minister and member of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, once drew a link back in between earthquakes and homosexuality. During a Knesset debate on earthquake preparedness back in 2008, he said: “I suggest that the Knesset inquire into how it can prevent sodomy and thus save us a lot of earthquakes.”

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