The Most Hated Woman in Israel

Haneen Zoabi has made her career speaking up for Israel's Arab minority. In Benjamin Netanyahu's Israel, that's becoming harder each day.

Fora do Eixo/Flickr
Fora do Eixo/Flickr

JEDEIDA-MAKKER, Israel — Sitting in a barren, slightly mildewy campaign office in this Arab village, I asked Haneen Zoabi, an Arab member of the Israeli Knesset, what it was like being the country’s most hated politician. "It doesn’t bother me at all," she said.

It’s easy to believe. Zoabi’s style is to head for the eye of the Arab-Jewish political storm — the result being that while she is the Jewish majority’s most hated politician, she may well be the Arab minority’s most beloved.

Zoabi is running for reelection in Israel’s Jan. 22 parliamentary election, but it was a struggle to even reach this point. Right-wing Knesset members moved to have her disqualified, saying she had "undermined the state of Israel" and "openly incited" against the government. Only a decision by the Israeli Supreme Court in late December overturned the ban. A poll published in Haaretz indicated that her legal victory stood to gain her small, virtually all-Arab party an additional Knesset seat.

Zoabi, 43, petite and pretty in black jacket, slacks, and pointed heels — a modern, single woman in a conservative, patriarchal Arab subculture — had just exhorted some 50 local residents to "use all the democratic tools at our disposal to carry on the struggle." She urged them not to be what she derided as "good Arabs," those who "thank Israel every day for not expelling them in 1948, who think they are not equal to Jewish citizens."

She had held the audience’s attention for nearly two hours. In the front row sat middle-aged Arab women in Islamic headscarves next to high school girls in jeans. Afterward, amid the stream of well-wishers, the girls came up and exchanged phone numbers with her. "She’s the only Arab woman who speaks for us, who gives us the courage to stand up to the racism," said one.

Zoabi, who hails from one of the most prominent families in Israeli Arab society, has not pulled her punches against the Israeli government. Israel has visited systematic injustice on its Arab minority — not to mention the Palestinians — but her views still seem excessively one-sided. Asked once by an Israeli TV interviewer whether she could say anything good about Israel, she laughed lightly and replied, "No, I can’t."

But she is also far from the sinister threat to Israel’s existence that her enemies make her out to be. She is not an advocate of terrorism or of throwing the Jews out of the country. Zoabi represents a minority of second-class citizens who, with very rare exceptions, are politically nonviolent. She rejects Israel as a country founded on the "ethnic cleansing" of Palestinians, advocates the right of return to Israel for the millions of Palestinian refugees and their descendants, and wants to transform the country from an explicitly "Jewish state," with all its official and unofficial discrimination against non-Jews, into a fully egalitarian "state of all its citizens." It sounds appealing — until you try to imagine Arabs being drafted alongside Jews to fight for this country, if called upon, against Arab enemies.

It’s not just Zoabi who has come under fire. Israeli Arabs, who make up 21 percent of Israel’s 8 million people, have become increasingly feared, distrusted, and shunned by mainstream Jewish society. The rightward drift of the Israeli public since the watershed 2000 Palestinian Intifada and, especially during the four years of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, has taken its toll on coexistence within Israel. Fully 67 percent of Israeli Jews won’t even drive into an Israeli Arab town or village, Haifa University Prof. Sammy Smooha, the country’s leading pollster of Jewish-Arab attitudes, found last year.

It’s a foregone conclusion that voters this month will give Netanyahu an even more nationalistic government than he’s got now. The Likud Party — in whose ranks Netanyahu is now a relative liberal — is running on a joint ticket with Yisrael Beiteinu, the party of ex-Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, a one-time member of the racist Kach movement who has said he hoped his Arab colleagues would one day be executed. Meanwhile, the rising star of the campaign is Naftali Bennett, who advocates annexing most of the West Bank to Israel and weakening the Supreme Court’s ability to rein in the government and army.

Zoabi is a lightning rod for this antagonistic spirit in the country, and a barometer of it. She became Israel’s Public Enemy No. 1 on May 31, 2010, as an Israel Arab activist aboard the Mavi Marmara, a ship chartered by a Turkish Muslim aid organization to lead the flotilla challenging Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip. After unarmed Israeli naval commandos rappelled onto the ship and were attacked with wooden clubs and metal rods, armed Israeli soldiers stormed the ship and shot nine Turkish activists to death. A U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC) panel interviewed more than 100 activists from the ship and concluded, "a number of passengers were injured or killed whilst trying to take refuge … or assisting others to do so," and that the commandos "continued shooting at passengers who had already been wounded."

Israel brushed the report off as typical UNHRC bias, and by that time the nation had been convinced that the commandos acted in self-defense against a murderous mob of jihadists. The Israeli army, which confiscated hours of footage of the incident, released a single, brief segment showing the crowd attacking the first unarmed commandos and throwing one over a railing to the deck below. This is the one image Israelis have of the Mavi Marmara incident — and it shaped the political climate to which Zoabi, who says she stayed below decks during the confrontation, returned home.

"For about a year and a half I was getting letters, e-mails, and telephone calls from people saying, ‘You are a terrorist, a traitor, a piece of shit, we will get you, you and all the traitors,’" she said.

The blowback reached her in the Knesset, where her privileges as an elected representative of the Israeli people were taken away from her. She was stripped of her diplomatic passport, her right to participate in Knesset discussions, and her right to vote in committee debates. Once, while Zoabi was speaking from the Knesset podium amidst catcalls, Anastassia Michaeli of Lieberman’s extreme right-wing party advanced on her, screaming, and had to be restrained by guards, who then hustled Zoabi out of the chamber.

The assaults continued. When she went to the Supreme Court with supporters Dec. 26 to file her appeal against being disqualified from the campaign, she again had to be protected by police as right-wing radicals shouted "terrorist" as she passed. "Sometimes, not always, when I go to [a mixed Jewish-Arab suburb of Nazareth], or to the airport, or Jerusalem, people say these sorts of things to me. In the supermarket I’ve heard people tell the cashier not to serve me," she said.

On Dec. 30, the day Zoabi won her Supreme Court appeal, another Israeli Arab Knesset member, Ahmed Tibi, was leaving a university lecture hall after an angry debate with a far-right Knesset member when a teenage girl came up and spat on him, calling him a "child-murderer." Tibi blamed it on anti-Arab "incitement" emanating from the political arena.

He had a point: The Israeli political arena is becoming more inhospitable to the country’s Arab minority. In the last couple of years, Israel has witnessed arson attacks by Jewish settlers on mosques and churches; a law barring Arab municipalities and other state-funded institutions from memorializing the 1948 "Nakba" — Arabs’ term for the "catastrophe" of their exile and destruction during Israel’s War of Independence — and a raft of other anti-Arab legislation, including a bill that would have barred mosques from using loudspeakers in their calls to prayer. Netanyahu initially supported the bill, saying, "We don’t need to be more liberal than Europe," but his more temperate colleagues eventually convinced him to change his mind, dooming the legislation.

As Israel gears up for the Jan. 22 vote, Zoabi says she sees a rise in "Arab national pride" in this campaign. But as for the campaign going on among the country’s Jewish majority, she sees the situation going from bad to worse. "This has been a more racist campaign than others," she said. "And politically, none of the strong [Zionist parties] are presenting a real alternative to Netanyahu."

Smooha said fewer and fewer Israeli Arabs are voting in national elections because they’re growing increasingly alienated from the state. No surprise there: It’s not just Haneen Zoabi — the Arab minority in general gets a cold reception in this country. And with the right-wing parties growing more extreme and more popular, it’s likely to get even colder.

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