A spat has been taking place in Israel for a couple of days now between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Rotem Sela, a celebrity host-model-actress.
Responding Saturday to the Likud’s constant anti-Arab rhetoric, with their warnings that voting other than Likud is voting for Arabs, Sela wrote on Instagram:
[Culture Minister] Miri Regev is sitting and explaining to [Channel 12 news anchor) Rina Matsliah that the public needs to beware, because if Benny Gantz is elected he will have to create a government with the Arabs. Rina Matsliah is silent. And I ask myself: why doesn’t Rina ask her in shock: ‘And what’s the problem with the Arabs???’ Dear God, there are also Arab citizens in this country.
That’s all good and true. But then Sela continued with the following claim:
When will anyone in this government tell the public that this is a state of all its citizens, and all people are born equal. The Arabs are also human beings. And also the Druze, and the gays, and the lesbians and… gasp… leftists.
This brought Prime Minister Netanayhu to respond, on Facebook:
Dear Rotem, an important correction: Israel is not a state of all its citizens. According to the Nation-State Law that we passed, Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people – and its alone. As you wrote, there is no problem with the Arab Israeli citizens – they have equal rights like everybody and the Likud government has invested in the Arab sector more than any other government.
Netanyahu is being factually correct here, concerning the citizenship and Nation-state issues (when it comes to ‘equal rights’, Palestinian citizens suffer institutional discrimination). Sela’s wish that someone would tell the government and the public that Israel is a “state of all its citizens,” is not merely wishful thinking – it is a wish that they would lie. As Netanayhu says, Israel is simply not a state of all its citizens. In the end, it is a nation-state of Jews, and Jews alone. Only Jews have national rights in Israel, while others may have citizenship rights (at best). Shockingly to some perhaps, an Israeli nationality doesn’t exist in the Jewish State. This was in fact the case long before the Nation State Law passed last year. That law only made this construct more overt and official.
But Netanyahu didn’t stop with the correction to Sela. He continued:
The Likud merely sought to emphasize the central question in these elections: It’s either a strong right-wing government under my authority, or a left government of Yair Lapid and [Benny] Gantz with support of the Arab parties. Lapid and Gantz have no other way of forming a government and such a government would weaken the security of the state and the citizens. The result will be determined in a month in the ballot box. Good day.
Netanayhu’s claims that Lapid and Gantz’s Blue and White party would have to rely on the ‘Arab parties’ to form a government is not necessarily true, and Lapid has expressed himself unequivocally that they would not do so. But this is the race-baiting that has been coming from the Likud – it is essentially an “Arabs coming to vote in droves” as a regular rhetorical trickle. And Gantz and Lapid are not fighting it at all. Notice how the “Arabs” are used as a symbol of weakness, a threat to national and civil security .
This is ironic. Sela is trying to be morally right, but she is factually wrong. Netanyahu is being factually right about Israel not being a state of all its citizens, but is being morally reprehensible and appallingly racist. He is, alas, portraying the racism inherent in the Zionist concept, and Sela wants to give it better makeup. This story shows the mire of Zionism, in which the ultimate question is cosmetic: who can make it look better?
The problem is, those who try to make it look better are misrepresenting it, while those who are more true to its values inevitably expose its racism.
But the Likudniks also use some makeup. That is the claim that ‘Arabs are equal’ because some Palestinians have citizenship rights (if they’re lucky), and that makes them equal, although they have absolutely no national rights.
Miri Regev also used this makeup, in a subsequent response to Sela on Facebook:
Rotem, we have no problem with the Arabs. We have in our party many Arab, Druze and Christian members. We have a problem with the hypocrisy and the masquerade ball of Lapid and Gantz, who are trying with all their might to hide from the public the fact that they’re left-wing, and are dressing up as centrists.
Regev then added that her interviewer, Matsliah, “didn’t stop me because it’s the truth. It’s either Bibi or Tibi.”
The “Bibi or Tibi” racist slogan is a refrain from Likud, referring to Netanyahu’s nickname and the Palestinian-Israeli lawmaker Ahmed Tibi from Ta’al.
This is really the usual spat between ‘liberal-Zionists’ and more hardcore Zionists.
It is completely natural that Sela’s friend, the actress Gal Gadot, came to her defense:
Love thy neighbor as thyself. It’s not an issue of Right or Left, Jew or Arab, secular or religious. It’s an issue of dialogue. Of dialogue for peace, for equality, for tolerance between one another. The responsibility to grow hope and light for a better future for our children is on us. Rotem, my sister, you are an inspiration to us all.
Once again, that might all sound great, but it doesn’t stand the test of reality.
Notice now how the Anti-Defamation League’s Israel office director, Carole Nuriel, is concerned about the anti-Arab rhetoric (cited in Jerusalem Post):
This anti-Arab rhetoric is a deeply troubling trend that, if it continues, could undermine Israel’s vibrant democracy. The representation of Israeli Arabs in the Knesset has historically been a source of pride for Israel, highlighting its democratic character, despite the enduring conflict with its Arab neighbors, and attesting to its genuine efforts to include the Arab community as equal citizens. If the very exclusion of Arab parties becomes a litmus test for a legitimate coalition in the Knesset, Israel’s democracy undoubtedly will suffer.
Read: Israel’s image is at risk. It is supposed to be known as a “vibrant democracy”, and that little problem, of “Arabs” in fact being second-class citizens (at best), as well as their systematic exclusion from government coalitions and real political influence, is not supposed to be something that we speak too overtly about. It’s far better to keep it low-key. Isn’t it just enough to keep excluding them without overtly inciting against them? Can’t we just be closet-racists?
It would be a whole other story, if Sela were to face the actual truth, which Netanayhu, with all of his shortcomings, actually told her: Israel is not a state of all its citizens. Another memo here is, that those who actually call for a state of all its citizens, are excluded by law from running for parliament. All people are indeed “born equal”, as Sela points out.
But in the Jewish state, if they happen to be born Palestinian, they will be… less equal than others… So if Sela really wants a state of all its citizens, she needs to confront Zionism, not just Regev or Netanyahu.
H/t Ofer Neiman