Why This Female Arab Lawmaker Scares Israelis So Much

For years, Israelis reserved a special scorn for Balad's Haneen Zoabi. Now that she's gone, they have wasted no time in finding her replacement: Heba Yazbak

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Arab lawmaker Heba Yazbak speaks at the Knesset, Jerusalem.
Arab lawmaker Heba Yazbak speaks at the Knesset, Jerusalem. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Tsafi Saar
Tsafi Saar

The public always needs a witch to burn. For years, then-lawmaker Haneen Zoabi had that dubious honor. But now she’s retired Israel has quickly found a replacement: Heba Yazbak, who, like Zoabi, is a woman and a member of the Arab nationalist Balad Party. Like the former Knesset member, Yazbak has been hit with a petition to disqualify her from running in the next election on March 2. The request to the Central Elections Committee has won widespread support: Everyone from the right wing to the slightly-to-the-left-of-the-right wing (what is, unsarcastically, referred to as “the left wing”) has joined forces against Yazbak.

There’s little doubt that Yazbak’s social media posts – the basis for the campaign against her – are unpleasant to Jewish-Israeli ears.

According to the petition filed against her by Likud lawmaker Ofir Katz on Monday, a Facebook post she shared in 2015 referred to Hezbollah’s Samir Kuntar – who had carried out a deadly attack in Nahariya in 1979 – as a “warrior martyr” after his assassination by Israel. At the same time, Israelis unhesitatingly eulogized the recently deceased Geula Cohen, whose long career as a politician began with a stint in the Lehi terror group – or “national liberation organization,” depending on who you’re asking.

Representing the Palestinian narrative, Yazbak – like Zoabi before her – doesn’t heed Jewish expectations to make it more palatable. Yazbak’s challenge to the Israeli discourse is amplified by her style: vexingly, she doesn’t give a damn. Conversely, Joint List leader Ayman Odeh manages to elicit sympathy from some Jewish Israelis – precious few, admittedly, but still a far cry from his predecessors – while veteran Arab lawmaker Ahmad Tibi garners begrudging respect. Neither Odeh nor Tibi are untouched by vitriol, but criticism of them never strays off their politics to target their looks or marital status. Though their “Palestinian-ness” is no less vexing, they’re still card-carrying members of the boys’ club of Israeli politics, while Yazbak – an awful shrew who won’t play by their rules – is turned away at the door.

MK Heba Yazbak. Credit: Abdallah Shama

The Israeli insecurity the Yazbak affair implies is stupefying: What is it about a novice politician’s Facebook posts, questionable as they might be, that makes our generals and right-wingers quake in their boots? Is Israeli democracy that fragile? Or is Israel, the “Jewish and democratic state,” more Jewish than democratic?

The answer is in the question: Look no further than the seasonal mass hysteria raised by the specter of a governing coalition that involves the Arab parties – in other words, the demonization of any partnership with the elected representatives of a fifth of Israel’s population.

Unlike Yazbak, many Israeli politicians play an active role in the decision-making process that leads to civilian deaths – although calls for their disqualification are yet to be heard. In a country that elected Ariel Sharon – the defense minister during the 1982 Sabra and Chatila massacre – as prime minister; killed hundreds, including entire families, in military operations in Gaza; and picked ex-terrorists (Jews, naturally) to head key state offices, can anyone honestly say that Heba Yazbak shouldn’t be allowed to run in March? You don’t have to side with Yazbak’s ideology to worry about the ramifications for free speech that her disqualification would entail.

Sniffing an opportunity to score easy political points, right-wing politicians have picked up the cause against Yazbak to demonstrate their patriotism and unerring commitment to fight evildoers – especially female ones. By jumping on the bandwagon, Kahol Lavan inadvertently provided a silver lining: If there had been any doubt before, the idea that Benny Gantz’s party offers an alternative to right-wing rule is surely now exposed as farcical thinking. As for those members of the Labor-Gesher-Meretz alliance who have shown their true colors and joined the call to ban Hazbak, there’s little more to say.

Former lawmaker Haneen Zoabi. Credit: Oren Ben Hakun

Somehow, it’s always a relatively young woman who gets thrown on the fire: Zoabi was 40 when she was first elected to the Knesset, and Yazbak is only 34. Both dared to express opinions that, while unacceptable to the large majority of Israel’s Jews, are shared by many of its Palestinian citizens. True, male Balad lawmakers get clobbered as well, but the role of Mephistopheles is always reserved for a woman: It used to be Zoabi; now it is Yazbak.

It’s worth asking if the left has its own “witch”: a right-wing woman who serves as a funnel for all its fear, rage and hatred. The prime minister’s wife, Sara Netanyahu, Yamina’s Ayelet Shaked and Likud’s Miri Regev are all possible candidates. While criticism of their actions and remarks is just as legitimate as in Yazbak’s case, there’s no doubt that the animus they activate is tainted with misogyny.

A witch – a woman who doesn’t fall in line with the male orthodoxy – poses a grave threat to the status quo, and to the men who form and dominate it. Who can say what Yazbak is really up to and what arcane powers she commands: That is the misogynistic root of the deep-seated fear she evokes. Already suspect as a member of the “enemy people,” Yazbak – a young woman who dares express disagreeable opinions – becomes the ultimate adversary. Faced with this single politician, mighty Israel is possessed by an irrational, atavistic fear – as if the entire Knesset edifice would crumble should Yazbak take a seat in the parliament.

It seems that Israeli Jews’ biggest enemies aren’t the Arabs – the favored target of politicians keen on their own political survival – but the Arab woman who dares let her voice be heard.

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