On Wednesday, June 3, I went to the Knesset to speak to two of the deliberative body’s most ideologically opposed members. First, I spoke to Alex Miller, a backbencher in Avigdor Lieberman’s incipient far-right Yisrael Beiteynu party, and at 28-years-old the youngest ever member of Knesset. At behest of his party’s leadership, Miller introduced a now-notorious bill that would criminalize public observance of the Nakbah, and which succeeded in a committee vote. After meeting with Miller, I discussed the growing repression of Israel’s Arab population with MK Ahmad Tibi, leader of the Raam-Tal party and one of the Knesset’s most consistently demonized figures. For years, Lieberman and his far-right allies sought to ban Tibi from the Knesset, accusing him of treasonous rhetoric and crimes against the Jewish state. Their campaign against him and his constituents continues unabated.
Despite Miller and Tibi’s political differences, they agreed on one fundamental point: the Zionist project is in crisis. Miller and his party appear terrified that the Arab minority in Israel, a marginalized and oppressed element, could undo the Jewish state simply by exercising their right to commemorate their history. Thus they seek to ban any expression of sorrow regarding Israel’s founding and, in the words of Tibi, “impose happiness” on already demoralized victims of Zionism. Tibi described the rise of Beiteynu and its stridently anti-Arab platform as a reflection of the weakness of the Zionist narrative and the shambolic state of Israeli democracy.
Miller and Tibi’s personal demeanors presented a study in contrast. When I entered Miller’s office, a small, spartan space, he sat at his desk playing computer games beneath a framed portrait of the Dear Leader, Lieberman. The baby-faced Russian immigrant seemed uncomfortable with my presence, refusing to allow me to videotape the interview and deferring routinely to his aide, Tsah, a young political science graduate fresh out of Tel Aviv University. Throughout the interview, Tsah rushed to Miller’s desk with handwritten notes urging him to harp on the threat of “radical Islam” or to assure me of his belief in the strong bond between the US and Israel. Miller seemed bereft of political independence; he had all the trappings of an Eastern bloc communist cadre eager to impress his party elders with total loyalty. “The Israeli public believes in loyalty,” Miller grumbled towards the end of our talk. “Duties must be equivalent to rights.”
Tibi agreed to an interview after a brief request while he rushed to a plenum vote. He met me and my friends Joseph Dana and Mairav Zonszein (who translated Miller’s comments) in the Knesset cafeteria, ordered an orange juice, and sat down to take our comments. Unlike Miller, Tibi spoke fluent English, engaging us for thirty minutes with cleverly phrased observations on the flawed nature of Israeli democracy. “Right now I would say Israel is a Jewish democracy,” he remarked. “It is democratic towards Jews and Jewish towards the Arabs.” Afterwards, Tibi offered me his card so we could arrange a videotaped interview. To survive in the Knesset as its most vilified, routinely scapegoated member, as Tibi has, requires unique levels of charisma and political resiliency. To rise through Israeli political ranks as Miller apparently intends on doing requires no more skill than amplifying the howls of a gathering mob.
A full transcript Miller and Tibi’s interviews follows:
Alex Miller Interview – June 3, 2009
Why did you propose this law criminalizing public observance of the Nakbah now?
This is not new, we submitted the law last year already following protests against Israel’s independence day in Gaza and by Arab citizens of Israel whose message was rejecting Israel’s existence as a Jewish state.
No country in the world allows large minority groups to protest against their independence day. But a year ago we had a violent protest at Tel Aviv University against our independence day. This law was the response. These violent protests are organized by leaders who have a cynical message of opposition to Israel as a Jewish state.
Imagine that on July 4th people got up and rallied against America’s celebration of independence day.
Actually it is legal to burn flags in the US. Are you not aware of this?
Miller: Israel has a law prohibiting any damage to Israel’s symbols – with a penalty of up to one year.
Why are you targeting Arab citizens of Israel and do you believe you are infringing on their democratic right to free speech?
The law does not differentiate between citizens. All citizens have equal rights. There is a problem of equal opportunities, which should be addressed, but the party believes that just as citizens are granted rights they should also be obligated to fulfill duties.
The law defends democracy, free speech and is meant to forbid cynical attempts to damage state.
Is there significant support for your bill in the Knesset and among your constituents?
The Minister Council representing legislation has come out in support of the bill and it will shortly be put to a vote on the Knesset floor. In democracy there are always those for and against, so the law must go through the normal legislative process and I will do everything I can to get full support for its passing.
[Legislative aide rushes to the desk with a note for Miller; Miller reads from the note]
It is important to note that the [radical] Islamic leadership uses the right to protest to incite hatred. Most participants at these protests are young and being preached hatred that passes on from generation to generation.
You are the leader of Lieberman’s youth division and he has garnered considerable support among young Israelis. Virtually his entire campaign was focused on cracking down on Arab citizens of Israel and taking a strong hand against Palestinians. Isn’t this the same thing you are talking about – inciting young people with division and hatred?
Israel sees Lieberman as a leader who knows how to implement what he believes in. The party believes rights should be given in accordance with obligations, such as serving in the army
Legislative aide pipes up: Or national service.
Miller: We want this law to pertain to all citizens. We support Arab citizens serving country through national service, but their leaders are doing everything possible to discourage Arab citizens from doing national service.
Do you think this law you’ve introduced will damage Israel’s image in the eyes of the international community? Aren’t you concerned about this?
This law only strengthens Israel’s national honor and its desire to develop further. Israeli citizens should contribute to the strengthening of the country and not to negating its existence.
Do you believe in the transfer of Arab citizens of Israel to other countries?
No. We have never advocated or said anything about transfer of Arabs.
What do you think about Barack Obama’s planned speech in Cairo on Thursday? Do you agree with his call for a freeze on settlement construction?
Lets see what Obama says on Thursday. As for the settlements, I speak as an MK, not a Foreign Ministry representative: The settlement resolution should be comprehensive, not partial. That means it should address illegal Bedouin construction as well.
[Legislative assistant whispers to Miller in Hebrew: “Our connection to the US is strong.”]
Our connection to the US is strong.
Many in the international media have called Avigdor Lieberman a fascist. Are you a fascist and is Yisrael Beiteynu a fascist party?
I’m not a media analyst but it is clear from our election campaign that our country must ensure that citizens do not conduct massive protests opposing the existence of the state. The Israeli public believes in loyalty. Duties must be equivalent to rights.
Does Yisrael Beiteynu’s platform, specifically with regard to Arabs, reflect a growing trend in Israeli society? And do you believe your party’s support will grow in the future?
I don’t have to believe it; I can see it. Since the founding of the party we have grown in strength. We have never changed our platform and we are seeing increasing support from the public.
Ahmad Tibi Interview – June 3, 2009:
Alex Miller says his law banning public observance of the Nakbah will strengthen Israeli democracy by preventing attacks on the state. What do you think of his statement?
“The question is Israel a weak democracy? Yes, it is a weak democracy. Yisrael Beitaynu is the Israeli Jewish Fascist Party and it seems that Alex Miller and his party are not confident about the Israeli Jewish narrative of Zionism.”
“We are victims of Zionism and have a different story of events about 1948. How do you expect our people to celebrate their agony and disaster? These are basic human feelings to mourn destruction. I can understand that the Jewish people want to commemorate the Shoah. But to have Jewish victims of Nazi racism impose celebration on another’s tragedy is horrible.
Do these laws reflect a new mood among Jewish Israelis towards Palestinian citizens of Israel or this merely the release of years of pent-up resentment?
“This is an escalation and the flood of new laws (like the loyalty law) is continuing the path of the last Knesset which tried to ban Balad and other Arab parties. The ban on the Arab parties passed in committee but failed [in a full vote]. They are attacking us as not loyal after they tried to ban our parties in the government. What’s loyalty to Lieberman? To be Jewish and Zionist. They are willing to have Arabs in their country only if they are loyal to Zionism but we are victims of Zionism and I can’t accept imposing happiness.”
Are Netanyahu and the Likud leadership contributing to the rising public resentment against Arabs in Israel?
“Because of the mood of parts of the Israeli public and the Israeli media Likud members of Knesset like Benny Begin have been prevented from supporting these laws. But under Netanyahu there have been more laws like these and there will be more laws. Just last week there was a law that gave communities the right to set their own standards of who can live in the said community or not [in order to prevent anyone who isn’t a Jewish Zionist from living in them]. There is not enough rejection of these laws and they will keep coming”
As late as the 1960’s there were laws in towns throughout the United States called “Sundown Laws” which forbade African-Americans from entering towns after dark.
You mean in Mississippi?
No, a wealthy suburb of Washington DC called Montgomery County had these laws too.
We are in a situation similar to African-Americans before the 1950’s and 1960’s and blacks in South Africa before the end of apartheid. In Israel you have three systems of laws. One is democracy for eighty percent of the populations. It is democracy for Jews. I call it an ethnocracy or you could call it a Judocracy. The second is racial discrimination for twenty percent of the population, the Israeli Arabs. The third is apartheid for the population in the West Bank and Gaza. This includes two sets of governments, one for the Palestinians and one for the settlers. Inside Israel there is not yet apartheid but we are being pushed there with these laws.
Do you believe Israel will ultimately fulfill the direction you say it’s going in, by becoming an apartheid state?
There is a deepening of discrimination towards Arabs in Israel that we have not seen in the past. One of the laws in the Knesset would jail anyone for one year who did not recognize Israel as a Jewish state. The problem is that they (the Israeli government and population) are dealing with us (Israeli Arabs) like enemies and not as citizens. So racism is not allowed in the Western world expect when it is Israeli racism towards Arabs. This has a lot to do with history. We have become the victims of the victims.
Do you have hope for coexistence in Israel?
“I want co citizenship. I want to be equal citizens and not just live with coexistence. It is hard to have co-existence when one side is the rider and the other side is the horse. Right now I would say Israel is a Jewish democracy. It is democratic towards Jews and Jewish towards the Arabs.”
Obama has said he will be “honest” with Israel and may apply pressure to exact a peaceful solution to the conflict. When Obama speaks in Cairo on Thursday, what should he say to Israel?
We are in a phase where Israel is no longer the preferred child of the international community. This White House has contributed to this in what it has said but we see no evidence on the ground. It is very important that Obama will mention the absence of equality for Arab citizens to Israel. Why are we so neglected by this [Obama] administration? I know why. Because we are minorities inside Israel, the world is afraid to upset Israel, and we are paying the price.