Attacking democracy from within: Israel

20100705 NIF Israel

I was troubled to read The Economist article on Hanin Zoabi, an Arab member of Israel’s parliament, being attacked inside the Knesset by another female parliamentarian, Anastassia Michaeli. Not Israel’s finest hour for parliamentary democracy:

After Michaeli was physically removed, Zoabi was allowed to continue. She was to speak for only one minute, but because of the constant heckling and subsequent interruptions by the Knesset speaker, Reuven Rivlin, the episode lasted nearly ten minutes:

My favourite remark by the speaker to the audience was, “All she is looking for is that you heckle her.” Here, Zoabi succeeded in spades.

But I was more disturbed to learn of attacks on a charity, the New Israel Fund, whose mission includes:

“We believe that Israel can live up to its founders’ vision of a state that ensures complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants, without regard to religion, race or gender.”

Recently its chairman, Naomi Chazan, has been vilified in local cartoons:

20100705 NIF ChazanSource with story: Dimi’s Notes

I had the privilege of meeting Naomi Chazan, a former Deputy Speaker of the Knesset, when she spoke at Tufts University in April 2009:

The motivation for the personal attack was an accusation that NIF supported NGOs that gave evidence to the UN inquiry into Israel’s assault on Gaza in January 2009.

This accusation manifested itself in a smear campaign by right-wing movement Im Tirzu. One of its advertisements appeared in Israeli newspapers, such as Jerusalem Post:

Source with story: Promised Land

In response, NIF issued a press statement, calling on Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to strengthen a democratic and pluralistic Israel:

“Recently a vicious attack was leveled against New Israel Fund and NIF President Naomi Chazan. Unfortunately, that attack was only the tip of the iceberg. Activists have been detained for advocating for women’s rights at the Western Wall and against forced home evacuations in East Jerusalem, and weekly peaceful demonstrations in Bil’in outlawed. Right-wing members of the Knesset have pushed legislation that would limit the rights of many progressive NGOs in Israel, categorizing them as ‘political’ in the manner of Russia, China and Iran. Women are literally being forced to sit in the back of public buses by the transportation ministry’s kowtowing to the ultra-Orthodox. And, proposed legislation would diminish religious freedom in Israel by backtracking on acceptance of Reform and Conservative conversions.”

NIF has created an online petition, which includes the statement, “As a democracy, the rights of all its citizens must be upheld and safeguarded, and freedom of speech, conscience and belief respected by the government and private citizens alike.”

This situation reminded me of a recent postgraduate seminar I attended at Queen’s University, where a presentation by student Katie Taylor examined the liberal democratic credentials of Israel. I tried to persuade her to explore how theories of citizenship are applied (or not) in the Israeli state.

Back to the parliaments, I am glad our Northern Ireland Assembly members have hitherto adhered to the demands of successive speakers, whatever the outburst or breach of parliamentary procedures. I am stupefied on how Knesset members could not see how they were handing Ms Zoabi MK a propaganda victory.

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