In Israel, free speech is a privilege for some, not a right for all

by Kathryn Shihadah

Israel is a land that takes pride in its ability to defend itself, especially in the military and media arenas. Whenever a hint is in the air that Israel’s Arabs are treated like second-class citizens, the state’s supporters quickly move into action.

One classic example from the equality toolbox is the fact that Israel’s Arab citizens have seats in the Knesset (parliament). This would prove equal opportunity for all in the land of America’s closest ally, “the only democracy in the Middle East.”

“Democracy” is a sacred word in the United States, so we must take Israel’s claim seriously, examine the evidence objectively, and reach an informed verdict – especially since this ally takes over $10 million from our coffers every day (weekends and holidays included). We want to invest American money in projects that are truly in line with the best of American values.


The Jewish majority Knesset has tinkered with the electoral system, making it difficult for Arabs to get elected. The 20% Arab population of Israel is underrepresented, with only 14% of the Knesset’s 120 seats. The other 86% are pro-government Jews (55%) and opposition Jews (31%).

Even 14% is too many Arabs for Prime Minister Netanyahu, who panicked on election day in 2015: “the right-wing government is in danger. Arab voters are coming out in droves to the polls.”

A democracy in which the head of state publicly laments a good voter turnout may be a tarnished democracy.

The power imbalance keeps Arabs and their pro-Palestinian policy ideas off the table; right wing, pro-government MKs (members of Knesset) and conservative opposition parties regularly bully non-Jewish members in order to keep them in their place.

Three strikes

For example, Arab MK Haneen Zoabi was recently (March 2018) shut down during discussion of a bill prohibiting anti-IDF organizations from speaking in schools. She was slapped with a one-week suspension for telling the truth – a truth that is literally front-page news: that the Israeli army “murders from time to time.”

The committee chairman retorted, “IDF soldiers are not murderers; they are operating in an impossible reality,” and ordered Zoabi out of the room.

She stood her ground: “This statement is a fundamental element of freedom of expression, and no one has the right to shut people’s mouths because of opinions that they are not comfortable with.” She then offered to send Knesset members “detailed information about the high number of instances of murder of Palestinians at the hands of soldiers.” And she was escorted from the room. Her suspension was announced several weeks later.

oint (Arab) List members Jamal Zahalka (left), Basel Ghattas (center) and Hanin Zoabi (right) at the weekly Joint (Arab) List meeting at the Knesset, on February 8, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

oint (Arab) List members Jamal Zahalka (left), Basel Ghattas (center) and Hanin Zoabi (right) at the weekly Joint (Arab) List meeting at the Knesset, on February 8, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In February of 2016, Zoabi and other Arab MKs met with constituents whose children had died while carrying out attacks on Israelis. Israel had refused to hand over the bodies of some of the young Palestinian men for more than 4 months; the families had requested this meeting to garner help in securing their remains.

This meeting elicited not only criticism from Jewish legislators, but the creation of a new bill which would limit Arab MK free speech, or remove those legislators who spoke too freely. According to the bill – which passed under somewhat shady circumstances – Knesset members now “may file a complaint with the Knesset speaker against any lawmaker who supports armed struggle against Israel or incites to racial hatred, kicking off the impeachment process.”

It is important to note that, according to international law, “armed struggle” against illegal occupation is a legal, human right.

In July 2014, MK Zoabi also got in trouble for an issue relating to free speech. Her crime? Earlier that summer, 3 Israeli teenagers had been kidnapped and later found dead. While Zoabi condemned the violence, she declined to label the perpetrators as “terrorists.” Her mere refusal to say a word preferred by the privileged majority won her a 6-month suspension. And just to be on the safe side, she was also placed under investigation.

So, what does free speech combined with privilege sound like in Israel?

Speaking out

After Zoabi’s comment about IDF murders “from time to time,” a member of the pro-government Likud party, shouted at Zoabi, “You won’t call IDF soldiers murderers, you and your terrorist friends.” He was removed from the room; however, he was not suspended.

Following Zoabi’s meeting with parents of Palestinian attackers, Tzipi Hotovely, a high-ranking Likud party member, asserted: “Arab MKs don’t miss an opportunity to support terrorism. They…represent nothing and promote nothing besides supporting terrorism and actively working against the State of Israel.” She was not reprimanded for this statement.

Israel’s own Prime Minister Netanyahu also weighed in: “MKs going to console families of terrorists who murdered Israelis are not worthy of serving in the Knesset,” adding that Zoabi had “crossed every line” and that there was “no room” for her in the Knesset. No one batted an eye.

And Avigdor Lieberman, eminently quotable foreign minister and right-wing party leader, declared that “the terrorists must be removed from the Knesset, and preferably from the State of Israel as well, as soon as possible.” He received no official criticism.

During the 2015 election cycle, Lieberman referred to Israeli Arabs, whose loyalty to Israel he considers suspect: “Those who are against us, there’s nothing to be done – we need to pick up an axe and cut off his head. Otherwise we won’t survive here.” Twitter posts began to appear, calling for MK Haneen Zoabi to be beheaded, yet Lieberman was neither reprimanded nor investigated.

On one occasion in 2014, LIeberman responded to Zoabi's comment on Israeli M-16s’ ability to kill Gazans at the touch of a button: "The law must be used to put the terrorist - there is no other word for it - the terrorist Haneen Zoabi in jail for many years…She can also live in Gaza. As a single woman, dressed the way she dresses, she will feel very comfortable in the company of Hamas and Islamic Jihad.”

Eli Ben Dahan, who became MK in 2013, said in a radio interview that year, that Palestinians “are like animals, they aren’t human.” He is now deputy defense minister, and runs government affairs for Palestinians in the West Bank.

MK Oren Hazen pulled a stunt in December 2017 with a camera crew present, boarding a bus that was taking families of Palestinian prisoners to visit their loved ones. He harassed them, calling their sons “dogs,” “terrorists,” and “scum.”

Hazen’s purpose was to send a message calling for the release of 3 Israelis being held prisoner in Gaza. According to Palestinian prisoners rights group Addameer, Israel is currently holding over 6,100 political prisoners.

Hazen was not reprimanded for this racist action, although he has at other times faced suspension from the Knesset, once in February 2018 for 6 months over “a series of sexist, chauvinist and otherwise offensive statements against his colleagues.”

Economics Minister Naftali Bennett once likened the Palestinians to pieces of shrapnel in the buttocks, suggesting that they were a problem that just wouldn’t go away: “I have a friend who’s got shrapnel in his rear end, and he’s been told that it can be removed surgically but it would leave him disabled. So he decided to live with it.” That is real freedom of speech.

These are just a few of many egregious examples of Israelis’ near immunity from doing wrong, and Palestinians’ near inability to make their dissenting voices heard in the “only democracy in the Middle East.”

Can this really be considered a democracy? And if not, should we be pouring good money after bad? Are there better ways for America to spend $3.5 billion a year?

These are not just rhetorical questions for Palestinians and their allies to throw around. Any American who is serious about human rights should familiarize her/himself with this topic that has gone largely unscrutinized.

Any American who supports Israel should be scrupulously informed about the real truth in that country, rather than buying into the idealistic pictures of the "only democracy" and its "most moral army in the world." If Israel would be great, it needs allies who will first see its flaws, and then, rather than making excuses, advocate for change. 

Next time, we’ll look at the Israeli court system.

Kathryn Shihadah