Acidic exchanges between members of the Knesset, in the Knesset plenum and committees, and over the media, are unfortunately nothing new. Nevertheless, the emotional attack two weeks ago by MK Jamal Zahalka from the Joint List on members of the Labor Party in general, and on MK Stav Shaffir in particular, warrants a closer look.
Zahalka accused Shaffir of being a racist, since – according to him – she never greets him, never responds to his greetings to her, and has never exchanged a single word with him. “I am totally transparent to her,” he said, “the Arabs don’t exist.” “A racist of silence, of ignoring.”
When several Labor MKs, who were in the plenum, tried to defend Shaffir, Zahalka went on to accuse the whole Labor Party of racism. “Even the people from Yisrael Beytenu smile at us. But the Labor Party – they are the father and the mother of the racism – you invented the racism. Those who took the land away from us, those who expelled us, not those who say ‘death to the Arabs,’ but those who said to us ‘hevenu shalom aleichem’ (we have brought peace upon you).”
I watched the whole episode on TV, and reread the minutes of the Knesset sitting several times, and could hardly believe my eyes and ears.
It is not that the Labor Party is clean of racism – far from it. Many Jewish Israelis are inflicted by various degrees of racism – some of it with religious origins (“the chosen people,” and biblical commands about what ought to be done to the gentiles), some of it with universal origins, stemming from color of skin and notions of “superior” culture, intelligence and capabilities, and some of it resulting from objective and/or subjective historical experience. Arabs are not the only objects of this racism.
Members of the Left, in general, are probably in greater denial of their racism than are other groups in Israeli society. In general, they are inclined to be self-righteous.
However, to accuse a person or a collective of racism simply because he or she is impolite, or that they emerged victorious from their nation’s war of independence, in a situation in which the choice was between “to be or not to be” – that is simply evidence of ignorance, or of a total loss of control over one’s words due to an emotional state of mind. Since I know Zahalka, and even have a liking for him, I suspect that he ought to be accused of the latter.
The background to Zahalka’s emotional diatribe was the infamous natural gas outline. According to unsubstantiated reports, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (or people on his behalf) contacted the Joint List (or some individual members thereof) to check whether there was any chance of getting them to vote in favor of the outline, in return for various benefits. Whatever did or did not take place, nothing came of the alleged initiative, except accusations by some of those fighting against the outline (many of them Laborites), that the Arabs were willing to take bribes for their votes.
Even if there were an inkling of truth in these accusations, their moral basis is questionable. First of all, whenever a government has a shaky Knesset majority it will try to “buy” votes. In the US, especially in a situation in which the president doesn’t control Congress, there is constant horse-trading going on by the president to gather votes. Most omnibus bills that get through Congress (bills that include everything, including the kitchen sink, where no section of the bill has anything to do with any other section) are the result of such horse-trading.
To accuse Arab MKs of immoral conduct when they are allegedly doing what is considered kosher for anyone else – is hypocrisy. Thus, Zahalka’s anger is justified. The words he chose to express this anger are outrageous.
First of all, the fact that someone has bad manners doesn’t turn him automatically into a racist. My personal experience has taught me that in general (though exceptions certainly exist) members of the political camp I belong to are much less friendly and “chummy” than are members of the political Right. They are also less inclined to express gratitude. The two MKs who thanked me in a plenary speech for work I had done for committees that they chaired, even though I was simply doing my job, were both Likudniks – MK Limor Livnat, and MK Yariv Levin. I sometimes joke about this by saying that left-wingers are so busy “saving the world” that they do not have time for individual mortals.
So I can report to Jamal Zahalka (whom I always greet when I bump into him in the Knesset corridors, even though I do not agree with most of what he says and does) that most Labor MKs who know me, do not greet me. This has nothing to do with racism. My first employer in the Knesset almost 40 years ago – the late Yigal Allon – was one of the exceptions. Allon had the capacity to make anyone he encountered feel as if he was the most important person on earth, at that moment. Stav Shaffir, apparently, does not belong to that breed.
As for accusing Labor of racism due to the consequences of Israel’s victory in the War of Independence (yes, it was Labor’s social-democratic predecessors, who were responsible for that glorious victory) – that is unworthy of Dr.
Jamal Zahalka, who ought to know better.
THOUGH IN 1975 the UN General Assembly singled out Zionism – of all the national movements on earth – as being identical with racism, fighting for one’s right to independence and sovereignty, and doing whatever is necessary to achieve this goal, is not an act of racism. It might be accompanied by acts of terrorism (as in the case of the Palestinian national movement), and it might be accompanied by war crimes (as is true with regards to most if not all wars of independence), furthermore, many of those fighting might be racists of one sort or another, but the act itself and its consequences are not, as such, racism.
The establishment of the State of Israel was certainly accompanied by a Palestinian tragedy. But even though the Jewish forces did not always measure up to the high moral standards that they set for themselves (the so called “purity of arms”), had the Arabs in general and the Palestinians in particular accepted the 1947 UN Partition Plan for Palestine, and had the Arab armies and Palestinian fighting forces avoided the invasion of the Jewish State on the morrow of the end of the British Mandate, most of the Palestinian tragedy could have been avoided. In other words, it is not “Labor racism,” but Palestinian ineptitude, which was largely to blame.
But as I said above – none of this means that many Israeli Jews, including Laborites, are not infected by racism. I would also say that most Israeli and non-Israeli Palestinians are also infected by racism, against Jews and against other “heretics” alike.
Zahalka would have certainly served his cause much better had he simply stuck to the facts – i.e. concentrating on the hypocrisy in accusing the Arabs of allegedly considering doing what is considered kosher for anyone else to do.
Incidentally, it is worth giving some thought to the question what the interests of Israel’s Arab citizens are regarding the natural gas outline. Why do Jewish MKs assume that these interests are identical to their own? Racism? Not necessarily. More like self-centeredness.
The writer is a retired Knesset employee.