"Go back to Gaza, you traitor!"
-- MK Miri Regev (Likud), in Arabic, to MK Hanin Zoabi (Balad)
July 13th 2010, the day in which the Knesset revoked the parliamentary privileges of an elected member of parliament through a public humiliation spectacle, represents a black day for Israeli democracy. The stars of this anti-democracy fest, MKs Yariv Levin, Michael Ben Ari, and Anastasia Michaeli, believed that they were shaming MK Hanin Zoabi, that they might realize their wish of expelling her from the Knesset to Gaza or, even better, to Iran. But the actual victims of this public humiliation were the diminishing trappings of democracy in Israel. It was the Knesset itself, not Zoabi, which was shamed. It is not MK Zoabi who is being expelled, but rather the hope for full civil equality of all Israeli citizens under the accepted ground rules of democracy.
For starters, one has no choice but to restate what should have been self evident: In a democracy, MKs must not be punished for fulfilling their roles as representatives of the public -- even when their positions clash with the majority view. In a democracy we are supposed to argue -- especially in the Knesset. We are meant to argue and not to silence opposing voices. In a democracy, there is an overriding priority for preserving free political expression, especially on the part of publicly elected officials. MK Zoabi was elected to the Knesset by Israeli citizens with equal rights, independent opinions and full voting privileges. As long as she broke no laws, she has every right to continue expressing her positions, regardless of vocal objections or other expressions of public outrage.
The treatment received by MK Zoabi -- public humiliation and silencing -- underscores a basic misunderstanding about the nature of democracy. In their haste to label Zoabi an "enemy of the state" and turn her into the ultimate punching bag, in their one-upmanship to see who could humiliate her the most, Israeli MKs conveniently forgot all the principles of freedom of expression and the right to dissent. But Zoabi's is just one example among many of an unprecedented trend that is unfolding before our very eyes in the current Knesset. The rules of democracy are crumbling.
One needs to look no further than the "Acceptance Committees" Law, the Naqba Law, the "Prevention of Boycotts" Law, the Cancellation of Citizenship Law, the McCarthy-like hearings of the Knesset's Education Committee regarding freedom of academic expression, and the harassment of human rights organizations to understand the day-in, day-out reality of the current Knesset, where one black day for democracy follows on the heels of another.
In the current atmosphere where freedom of expression is gradually being restricted -- in academia, on the street, and in the Knesset -- this week's anti-democratic display was perceived as a routine performance. The Knesset is no longer an arena in which the struggle for human rights can be advanced; rather, it is a place where democracy itself has become a punching bag, where the defenders of human rights are fighting to hold the defensive line.
Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin correctly remarked that "the revocation of rights of a Knesset member, through the exercise of the power of the majority, while the case is still being examined by the Attorney General, cannot remain the private business of the Knesset." Indeed, if the Knesset -- the supposed stronghold of democracy - abuses its role, it is not a private matter. It is a matter of interest for all citizens: it is our business.
What is now needed of Israel's citizens, who gaze despairingly as their elected officials pull the democratic rug out from under their feet? We must stand up and choose the appropriate arenas in which to fight, to protect the basis of democracy that still exists and to create a space for democracy where it is lacking. The opportunities to do so -- through direct citizen involvement steeped in democratic vision -- lie there before us. We can become involved in the struggle for the children of migrant workers; protest against the eviction of Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah; we can demonstrate against the exploitation of workers by greedy employers, or march for LGBT equality in Jerusalem; we can demonstrate for a woman's right to carry a Torah scroll at the Western Wall, or for her right to refuse sitting at the back of the bus; we can protest against the separation regime and the occupation, take part in the struggle for equal rights for all, and demonstrate with our feet in the annual Human Rights March in December.
This week featured yet another black day for democracy, one of many in this period that began somewhere between Operation Cast Lead and the openly racist election campaign soon after. But yet another black day is no reason for despair; rather it must strengthen our resolve. We have seen the precipice that our elected officials are leading us toward, and we must not allow them to bequeath to us their vision of the future. This is not a fate decreed by the heavens, and it is within our power to prevent it.
If enough Israelis refuse to remain silent, if enough Israelis insist today upon freedom of speech for those with whom they disagree so that tomorrow their own freedom of speech will be protected, if enough Israelis want to build together a future of equality, democracy and human rights -- then it will become a reality. The realization of this vision lies solely in our hands.