Hanin Zoabi is probably one of the most hated public figures in Israel today. This Arab Member of the Knesset (MK) from Nazareth has succeeded in infuriating Jewish-Israelis with her outrageous statements, the last of which almost sparked a fist-fight in the Israeli parliament.
In 2010, Zoabi was on the deck of the Turkish ship Navi Marmara, which had tried to break the Israeli security blockade on Gaza. Speaking in the Knesset recently, she called the Israeli Navy fighters who had stormed the ship “murderers.” The Knesset ushers had to physically protect her from her fellow Jewish parliamentarians who had charged the podium angrily.
Why this mayhem? Isn’t everyone entitled to express their opinions freely? What happened to the familiar sentence attributed to Voltaire, “I wholly disapprove of what you say and will defend to the death your right to say it”?
The problem is that unlike the United States, where freedom of speech is protected by the First Amendment, Israel doesn’t have a constitution. The United Kingdom also doesn’t have a constitution, but the Brits (at least until they lost their senses over Brexit) have been known for their political moderation and for something so typically British: the notion of “it’s not done.” In Israel, the lack of constitution together with cut-throat politics might put Israeli democracy on a slippery slope.
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Zoabi was reprimanded for her offensive remarks by the Knesset Ethics Committee. Some MKs stepped out the next time she spoke. These are reasonable steps. More alarming, though, was the passing of a law on Tuesday that would give a majority of 90 Knesset members (out of 120) the legal right to suspend a fellow MK on the charge of negating the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, incitement to racism, incitement to violence, or support of terrorism.
ACRI, the Association of Civil Rights in Israel (the Israeli version of ACLU), denounced the motion, claiming that these had already been criminal offenses under Israeli law, and that if an MK would have been found guilty on these charges, he or she would have been suspended anyway. ACRI saw behind it a tyrannical majority plotting to silence a minority.
ACRI warned that in this case, the special protection given by law to freedom of expression would be overridden by a political procedure.
As always, it will be the task of the Israeli Supreme Court to intervene when freedom of speech is challenged, and I can hardly believe that the court will allow an infringement of this cherished right. Already in a groundbreaking case in 1953, the Supreme Court ruled that the closure by the Minister of Interior of two Communist newspapers for harshly criticizing government policy was illegal. “The principle of freedom of expression is closely bound up with the democratic process,” wrote Chief Justice Shimon Agranat, adding that “a very important part of the tasks of democracy is to make it possible for (criticisms) to come out into the open and be solved in a legal way fixed in advance.”
In another important case, in 1987, then-Justice (later Chief Justice) Aharon Barak — himself a Holocaust survivor — said that the comparison of Israeli soldiers at checkpoints in the West Bank and Gaza to Nazis in Yitzhak Laor’s play “Ephraim Goes to the Army” had burned his heart. Nevertheless, he voided the Film and Theater Censorship Board’s decision to ban the play, explaining: “We live in a democratic society, in which the burning of the heart (resulting from offensive speech) is the heart of democracy. Its power is not in the recognition that I have the right to listen to pleasantries. Its power lies in recognizing that the other has the right to express opinions that are unpleasant and hurtful.”
Israeli Members of the Knesset and their voters should go back and look at these glorious pages of our history book before hasty legislative proposals endanger the core of our already fragile democracy: the freedom of speech.
By the way, last week, there were primaries in Zoabi’s party, Balad, and guess what: She failed miserably, and thus might be out of the next Knesset — not by the decision of fellow MKs, who loath her utterances, but rather by that of her own constituents, who probably feel that she has become a liability. That’s the way things should be done.