Why are equal rights dangerous?
In today's Israel, advocating equal rights for all can prove fatal, writes Ahmad Tibi*
In the 11 years that I have served in Israel's Knesset I have received numerous death threats. Pulsa Denura (the term for a rabbinical death curse) has evidently taken exception to my consistent call for equal rights for Israel's Palestinian minority. Recently I received a letter -- the second in as many days -- that warned: "You have 180 days to live. Your death will be sudden and cruel, accompanied by great pain... "
Last month, I was forcibly removed by armed guards from the Knesset podium. In recent days, colleagues have faced violent and vulgar rhetoric and one was very nearly physically attacked by fellow Knesset members. Much, but not all of this fury, is a consequence of daring to speak out on behalf of Palestinians in the biggest prison in the world, Gaza, a land cruelly and illegally deprived of essential goods. Yet American elected officials seem far more concerned with specious claims against humanitarian aid workers who were violently attacked and abducted by Israel in international waters.
A young American citizen was killed execution-style aboard the lead ship, with one bullet to the chest and four, at close range, to the head. The next day, another young American, Emily Henochowicz, a college student at New York's prestigious Cooper Union, had her eye shot out by an Israeli-fired tear gas canister as she peacefully protested against the flotilla raid. Days later, a Palestinian man married to an American woman was executed after what appears to have been a traffic accident at an Israeli checkpoint.
American officials have not demanded accountability for these acts of violence. Instead, too many are busy responding to AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee), which has released a list of members of Congress parroting the group's talking points. They speak of Israel's right to "defend itself" from humanitarian workers brutally murdered in international waters by the equivalent of modern-day pirates. It seems that only in the US Congress is this perverted Israeli rationale accepted as reality.
The new American president's silence is even more disappointing. It reminds us that Palestinian freedom and equal rights are unlikely to be secured by a United States committed to false notions of Israeli security. Since his Cairo speech, President Barack Obama has failed to pursue new policies. In the Middle East, he is regarded as full of fine but empty words. Empty because securing Palestinian freedom and equal rights requires standing up to Israel.
Furthermore, the president is grievously undercut by fellow top Democrats such as Senator Charles Schumer who recently said of Palestinians in Gaza that it made sense "to strangle them economically" because they elected Hamas and "they don't believe in the Torah, in David." This racist sadism may play well with some of Senator Schumer's constituents at the Orthodox Union where he was cheered for his remarks, but it goes over very poorly with Palestinians agonising over stunted and malnourished children. One can imagine the uproar had he suggested economically strangling Israelis for electing neo-fascists such as Avigdor Lieberman.
The one glimmer of hope I see came from President Obama's National Security Strategy of May 2010. Promisingly, the document calls for "rights for all Israelis". But the strategy requires crucial elaboration. We have some rights in Israel. The question is whether we will have equal rights and here the document falls silent. The issue is vital as the human rights organisation Adalah has documented over three-dozen Israeli laws that discriminate against Palestinian citizens of Israel. As we have learned with Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, constructive ambiguity is not helpful. American support for a "Jewish state" suggests a willingness to relegate Palestinian citizens of that state to inferior standing, much as one would expect for other groups in a "white, Christian state".
Israel's current government clearly opposes equal rights and its most extreme members are threatening the overthrow of numerous democratic norms. Foreign Minister Lieberman leads the charge with his loyalty oath that threatens to strip Palestinians of citizenship. More than 20 bills have been introduced since Netanyahu took office in spring 2009 that would exacerbate discrimination against the Palestinian minority.
Between the Scylla of death threats and the Charybdis of expulsion, the standing of Palestinian citizens of Israel is as tenuous as it has been since the lifting of martial law in 1966. Democratic allies of Israel must concern themselves not only with Israel's 43- year subjugation of Palestinians in the occupied territories, but with the mounting threats being directed at Israel's minority population by a majority that wrongly deems us a fifth column for demanding to be treated as equal human beings regardless of whether or not we believe in the Torah.
* The writer is a Palestinian citizen of Israel and is a member and deputy speaker of the Knesset.