“The definition of democracy is ‘Shut up, shut up! The majority rules,’” Education Minister Naftali Bennett (played as a teacher by actor Eran Zarhovitz) tells a class of schoolkids on Channel 2 TV’s current affairs satire “Eretz Nehederet” (“A Wonderful Country”). When a student in the class says the definition is wrong, since democracy is supposed to protect the rights of minorities, the class tells him, “Shut up, shut up!” Bennett takes pride in how quickly the children have learned the lesson.
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How far is the concept of democracy in Israel – as well as in the Knesset – from the idea of Bennett and the right-wing as evinced in “A Wonderful Country”? The recent verbal assaults by political parties across the spectrum on three Balad MKs who met with the families of Palestinian terrorists shows that the distance is not far enough.
If we expand the answer of the rebellious student in the skit, who challenged the definition of Bennett, then beyond the question of the majority and the minority, a democratic regime must see to it that rights themselves are protected and that all groups in the population share them – in life as in death.
In Israel, of course, there is a problem with the definition of the population, since not everyone who lives in the area under Israel’s control is defined as a citizen. This differentiation makes it possible for Israel to impose one regime – on the formal level as well – on those who have Israeli citizenship, and another on those who do not (leaving aside for the moment the discrimination between citizens of Israel).
Under these circumstances, Israeli society and the Knesset – which represents it and dictates the boundaries of its political thought – does not have the tools to understand the ideas of the members of the Balad faction with regard to the meaning of democracy and civil rights, as well as human rights.
How can Balad MKs care more for a person who committed a crime, the Israeli thinking goes, and for the rights of his family? How can they insist that the family be allowed to bury its dead in the manner they see fit, and be given custody of the body beforehand?
The Zionist enterprise long ago stopped making do with control over the lives of Palestinians. Why do so when their deaths can be organized according to the will of the Israeli state, too? When the controlling power assumes the rights to a person’s remains, when it takes away the rights of the family and their deceased from them, these families should rightly receive the support of those who support democracy. There should be those for whom the arsenal of Israel’s security-related excuses – which time and again restrict rights and expand obligations – are not paramount, because in a democracy, caring for civil and human rights must be the top priority.
Following the wall-to-wall condemnation of the Balad MKs, clearly there is only one party that truly understands what democracy is (and which is light years away from the definition given by Bennett in the “Wonderful Country” skit). That party is the Joint Arab List – that Knesset alliance of Arab parties that few believed could last, considering the different positions of the factions that came together to form it.
In light of the Joint Arab List’s condemnation of the criticism of MKs Haneen Zoabi, Jamal Zahalka and Basel Ghattas, and the unbridled incitement against them, and the lack of such condemnation by the rest of the Knesset, it is quite clear that the threat to democracy in Israel comes not only from the more extreme or less extreme right. The threat to democracy in Israel, from 1948 to the present, is rooted in Zionism. And until this fact is recognized, there is probably no point in the various parties trying to persuade us they are in deep disagreement on diplomatic issues.
Until then, the Knesset can pride itself on having only one democratic party in its midst. It is a party so radical that it really has internalized the demand of a democratic regime not to differentiate between human beings, not to condition rights on obligations, not to impose collective punishment. It is this belief that leads only one party to care for the mother whose nights have no peace until her son is buried according to her faith.