Israel Pulse

Israeli model stands up to Netanyahu on equality

Article Summary
Popular Israeli model and actress Rotem Sela has riled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by reminding him that Israel has a diverse citizenry, including Arabs, who have the right to political representation.

Israeli publicists are unlikely to advise their celebrity clients to post thoughts like those TV presenter and model Rotem Sela shared with her 800,000 or so followers: “When will anyone in this government tell the public that this is a country of all its citizens, and all people are born equal. The Arabs are also human beings.”

Sela hit the keyboard after watching a March 9 television interview with Culture Minister Miri Regev on “Meet the Press.” Regev, Sela wrote, “is sitting and explaining to Rina Matzliah that the public needs to beware, because if Benny Gantz is elected, he will have to create a government with the Arabs. Rina Matzliah 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.”

Wonder Woman Gal Gadot and actress Maya Dagan were quick to fire off messages of support for Sela, even as social media was flooded with predictably furious reactions against Sela and her friends. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu joined in, naturally. “Dear Rotem,” he wrote in an Instagram post designed to set her straight. “An important correction: Israel is not a state of all its citizens. According to the nation-state law we passed, Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people — and not anyone else.” Netanyahu is right. That is what the nationality law that Netanyahu and his government pushed through last year stipulates, along with additional anti-democratic legislation such as a law overriding Supreme Court rulings and another allowing Israel to expropriate private Palestinian land in the West Bank and legalize Israeli settlements built on it.

Netanyahu explained that his Likud party merely sought “to hone the central issue of these elections — it’s either a strong right-wing government led by me, or a weak left-wing government led by Yair Lapid and Gantz, with the support of the Arab parties.” Netanyahu went on to declare that the centrist Blue and White Party led by Lapid and former military chief Gantz will be unable to form a coalition government after the April 9 elections unless they have the support of the Arab parties, threatening, as usual, that such a government would “undermine the security of the state and its citizens.” Polls indicate that Gantz and Lapid will indeed require Arab support to forge a stable majority coalition. The claim that such a government would harm state security and its citizens is obviously a load of incitement and propaganda.

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The only senior Jewish politician to express public support for Sela was Tamar Zandberg, chair of the leftist Meretz. Blue and White's leaders are are avoiding the discussion. The Blue and White platform merely states that the nationality law enshrined Israel’s status as the nation-state of the Jewish people, where it has uniquely realized its right to national self-determination. The platform also promises to enshrine in constitutional legislation the principle of equality in the spirit of Israel’s 1948 Declaration of Independence. The platform document says nothing about inviting Israeli citizens of Arab origin to form an inseparable part of their state.

President Reuven Rivlin is not running for re-election. He has severed himself from his mother ship, the Likud, whose leader has forgotten what it means to be an ethical Jew and a decent human being — to paraphrase Netanyahu’s infamous claim that “leftists” have forgotten what it means to be Jewish. “I refuse to believe that there are parties that have given up on the idea that Israel is a Jewish democratic state, a democratic and Jewish state in the same phrase,” said the president, speaking on March 10 at a Hebrew University conference marking the 40th anniversary of the Israel-Egypt peace treaty. The state’s top citizen lamented the “completely unacceptable discourse regarding Israeli-Arab citizens” taking place these days during the “dizzying” election campaign.

With all due respect, the president is not accurate. The racist discourse is not a recent phenomenon. Racist sentiment has been trickling down into Israeli society ever since Netanyahu, former Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and others of their ilk appeared on the political scene in the 1990s. In March 2016, representatives of the American Pew Research Center presented Rivlin with the findings of a comprehensive survey showing that 79% of Israeli Jews think the country’s Jewish majority should receive preferential treatment. The survey, conducted in Israel in 2014 and 2015, found that almost half the Jews polled support the transfer of Arab citizens out of the country. “The idea that the State of Israel could be a democracy only for its Jewish citizens is unconscionable and we must find a way to address this,” he said at the time. “I call on all the country’s leaders to come to their senses and change their discourse toward Arab citizens,” he added. The Israeli coalition parties responded by adopting the nationality law.

Nonetheless, there was a bright spot among the pages of the survey: Most Israeli Jews (76%) believe Israel can be a Jewish and democratic state at the same time (compared with 64% of Arab citizens, who believe the opposite is true). This view held by most Jews is enshrined in a landmark 1996 Supreme Court ruling against the disqualification of the Arab Ta’al party from running for election. “Our view is that the determination that the State of Israel is 'a state of all its citizens' does not deny the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish state,” Justice Mishael Cheshin wrote in his ruling. “And if someone claims that Israel is not a state of all of its citizens? Can it be argued that the State of Israel is a state of only a portion of its citizens?” Cheshin asked.

The principle of equality also applies on election day, which is why the interviewer’s failure to ask Regev the obvious question “What’s the problem with the Arabs?” was so pertinent. A pervasive insensitivity makes us forget the most basic questions and ignore many injustices. We must also not forget the glaring absence of women in senior positions, especially since Tzipi Livni was deposed from the Zionist Camp, that has left high-level discourse and decision-making an all-male domain.

“A whole generation of children grew up in our country without hope for peace,” Sela wrote in response to her critics, promising to keep expressing her views without fear. This view that a democratic state belongs to all its citizens must be a guiding light for all Israelis as they enter the ballot box on April 9.

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Found in: nationality law, equality, reuven rivlin, arab israelis, israeli elections, lawyers, actor, israeli politics, benjamin netanyahu

Akiva Eldar is a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. He was formerly a senior columnist and editorial writer for Haaretz and also served as the Hebrew daily’s US bureau chief and diplomatic correspondent. His most recent book (with Idith Zertal), Lords of the Land, on the Jewish settlements, was on the best-seller list in Israel and has been translated into English, French, German and Arabic.

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