A right to vote but not to dismantle the state

In comparing Arab doctors to Joint List Knesset members, Israel’s critics are exploiting the coronavirus pandemic to promote the lie that Zionism is racism.

MK Ahmad Tibi speaks in Shfar'am in the Galilee, March 2, 2020. Photo by David Cohen/Flash90.
MK Ahmad Tibi speaks in Shfar'am in the Galilee, March 2, 2020. Photo by David Cohen/Flash90.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

It seems like a devastating argument. If Israeli Jews are willing to accept life-saving treatment from Arab doctors, why won’t they give their representatives in the Knesset a seat in the country’s government?

That’s the point The New York Times’ Jerusalem bureau chief David Halbfinger made last week both on Twitter and in an article that made the same point. It’s been echoed elsewhere in features in the Israeli press.

But the premise is false. The idea that objections to giving anti-Zionist Arab parties a role in the government of Israel is racist is more than a cheap shot aimed at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his supporters. The attempt to use the coronavirus pandemic as a way of chipping away at the legitimacy of a Jewish state demonstrates that Israel’s critics consider the catastrophic spread of a deadly disease as merely just another opportunity to take pot shots at Zionism.

It’s important to separate two arguments being made here. One is about the yearlong standoff between Netanyahu and his political opponents as the two sides continue to battle over who will lead the country’s next government, and whether the votes of Knesset members who support Israel’s enemies should be the deciding factor. The other is a more fundamental question about whether Israel can be both a state devoted to protecting the national rights of the Jewish people while granting equal rights to non-Jewish citizens.

Of course, Jews gratefully accept treatment from Arab doctors and nurses working in the country’s hospitals. Arabs—both those who are citizens of Israel and residents of the territories—also accept the care they got from the far larger number of Jewish doctors and nurses that work in the same medical facilities. It should also be pointed out that even the families of hostile Palestinian terror groups based in Gaza or the West Bank have been admitted to Israeli hospitals, where they are treated with the same scrupulous devotion that any Jew gets.

So when Dr. Ahmad Tibi, a physician who also serves as a Knesset member of the Joint Arab List, which won 15 seats in the Knesset earlier this month, claims that Jews who would accept his services as a doctor, but don’t want him deciding who will be prime minister, are racists and hypocrites, he isn’t being honest.

Israel’s founding fathers agreed that the Jewish state they were striving to create would offer equal rights to the country’s Arab inhabitants. That was the position of the two ideological opponents who led the factions from which Israel’s current political parties draw their origins. David Ben-Gurion, the country’s first prime minister and leader of the left-wing Labor Zionist movement, believed that Israel should be both a Jewish state and a democracy. The same was true of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, who created the movement from which today’s Likud stemmed.

Jabotinsky even theorized that the government of the Jewish state should make room for those who represented the Arabs. He even went as far as to say that if the prime minister was Jewish, then the vice premier of the country should be an Arab.

That vision of equality, however, rested on the assumption that Arab citizens would accept that the country’s basic purpose was to be the national home of the Jewish people. The rights of the non-Jewish minority were to be protected. These leaders did not accept the idea that the Arab minority would be permitted to use democracy to try to eliminate the Jewish state.

Yet that is exactly what those who are branding as racist the objections voiced by Netanyahu and his supporters about the Joint Arab List being either an active or silent partner in the creation of a new Israeli government are essentially enabling.

The Joint List won’t be able to legislate the Jewish state out of existence, even if it were an active part of a new government formed by Blue and White Party leader Benny Gantz. Still, depending on their 15 votes to get power and keep it would give them a potential veto over any measure of Israeli self-defense against Palestinian terror movements that the members of the Joint List cheer on from the sidelines.

The four parties that make up the Joint List have different ideologies. One is avowedly Communist. One seeks to make Israel into an Islamist state along the lines advocated by Hamas. Another wants it to become a secular, Palestinian Arab-dominated state. The fourth doesn’t want an independent Palestine, though wants it to be part of a Pan Arab state encompassing the entire region. All oppose the existence of Israel as a Jewish state within any borders.

Israel’s Arab citizens have every right to elect anyone they like to represent them. And those Knesset members should have the same rights as those who were chosen by the Zionist parties. But to say that keeping them out of the government denigrates and disenfranchises Arab citizens is to declare that the destruction of the Jewish state is a legitimate Arab aspiration. Indeed, the unwillingness of Israeli Arabs to give up on the failed century-long war against Zionism is the single greatest obstacle to ensuring an equitable society for all of Israel’s citizens.

It’s hard to say if the end of the long tussle between Netanyahu and his foes is in sight. The animus towards the prime minister is such that it has caused some of those who share many of his beliefs to be willing to legitimize the Joint List in order to be rid of him.

Yet opposing the Joint List has nothing to do with denying equality to Arabs—let alone denigrating the work of Arab medical personnel at a time of crisis. Those who say that it is racist to want to keep the Joint List out of government are, in effect, buying into the old anti-Semitic meme that Zionism is racism. That Netanyahu’s critics and those of Israel are using the coronavirus outbreak as an excuse to revive such a canard aren’t merely wrong. They’re despicable.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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