Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has set up a committee to work out how to stop racism, following months of protests by Ethiopian Jews who complain of institutionalised discrimination in the country. Many black Israelis, however, believe the move is “too little, too late” and that a committee will change little.
By NIKKI HODGSON and MIKAELA LEVIN
Since she was sanctioned for her participation in the first Freedom Flotilla to Gaza, Knesset Member Hanin Zoabi (National Democratic Assembly) spends most days inside her office in the Knesset. Her desk is overflowing with papers, the small coffee table on the side is occupied with used tea mugs and some treats; in one corner, facing her desk, a television is broadcasting live the debate on the Knesset floor.
As of Monday 18 July, MK Zoabi is unable to participate in Knesset general debates or even speak in parliamentary committees until the end of this year’s parliamentary sessions, at the end of July. “I can just vote”, explains the Palestinian politician, with a half smile of open resignation. Throughout the entire interview with the Alternative Information Center (AIC), Zoabi will not take her eyes off the screen for more than a minute; she doesn’t want to miss the chance to exercise her last remaining right as a democratic elected MK: expressing her minority vote.
- Do you think you can still promote change from within the Knesset?
Promote change…mmmm, yeah! (She laughs). Definitely. The event of the Flotilla proved how crucial our presence in the Knesset is. It is ironic. The fact that they restrict our movements and incite against us indicates that we are really challenging their policies. Because if you don’t challenge their policies, if you don’t make a difference, if our existence as the National Democratic Assembly was insignificant to them, they could simply marginalise us, let us do whatever we want. The fact that they are so racist against us, the fact that they are doing everything in order to incite against, is proof that we are bothering them; we are not making their life easy.
Zoabi refuses to yield to pessimism. It’s been more than a year since she gained global fame with her participation in the Freedom Flotilla on board the Mavi Marmara, the Turkish ship on which nine activists died and dozens were injured after it was attacked by an elite Israeli naval force. Since then Zoabi has become accustomed to the insults and aggressive comebacks of her fellow MKs, both from the right and the centre. As she said, “when it comes to the rights of Palestinians in Israel, there is no difference between opposition and coalition”. “When I could still participate in Knesset committees, every time I used to speak, someone would say ‘yeah, you are in the Flotilla so go to the Flotilla and go to Gaza’. I talked about kindergartens and about children and they would say ‘you can go to Gaza’. I spoke of the confiscation of lands and they would say ‘it is better to go to Gaza’, she recalled, laughing carelessly.
A month after the first Flotilla was attacked and their passengers detained and deported, MK Zoabi received the first sanction from her colleagues. She was stripped of three of her parliamentary privileges: her diplomatic passport, funds for any legal counseling and the right to visit countries with which Israel doesn’t have diplomatic relations. “It’s just hatred,” Zoabi explained. In this Knesset irrational racism exists. Maybe in the previous Knesset there was a more rational racism, a more sophisticated racism; but now it’s very basic, very direct”.
This “irrational racism” is part of the new ruling consensus in Israel, Zoabi continues. “A lot of people now think that Jewish values are more important than democratic values. This obsession with judaising everything…the children in schools have no idea what democracy means, or equality. When you obsessively teach them Zionist values, they will grow up with the conclusion that there are no Palestinians citizens here. It’s a psychological ethnic cleansing. They teach them to recognize the Palestinian as an enemy, but not to recognize him in daily life, as a citizen, as a partner in this home land,” warns Zoabi, losing her relaxed manner for a moment.
For Zoabi, the sole Palestinian woman in the Knesset, the main difference between the current government and the previous ones is not racism (“Israel has been a Jewish state since 1948, that is not something new””, but the criminalisation of everything outside of this consensus. The recently approved anti-boycott law if proof of that. “The settlements are part of Israel and that is not negotiable. This way of thinking is delegitimising politics as such, because now everything is part of a consensus and whatever is outside this consensus is criminalised. This is the dramatic effect of this government”, Zoabi asserts, before turning her eyes for a last time to the TV. The last speech is about to finish; she can finally take her seat on the floor of the Knesset and vote against the creation of an investigative committee on the funding sources of Israeli human rights organizations.