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Tibi rejoined that it was misleading to suggest that meeting with democratically elected P.A. lawmakers from Hamas implies endorsement of the violence deployed by the group’s military wing.
“We are against the harming of civilians and condemn bombing restaurants and buses — this is known to Hamas and to Likud,” he said.
When the Forward interviewed Tibi in the Knesset on January 23, he was less rushed than normal. Thanks to yet another controversy, Tibi had been banned from the plenum for one week.
The issue in this case was his reading of an allegedly offensive poem from the Knesset podium aimed at Anastasia Michaeli, a lawmaker from Yisrael Beteinu. On January 9, Michaeli, herself a sometime practitioner of politics by provocation, threw a cupful of water into the face of Arab lawmaker Ghaleb Majadle, of the Labor party, after Majadle called her a “fascist” during a Knesset debate. Michaeli was banished from all parliamentary proceedings for one month as punishment for her misconduct.
In his poem responding to Michaeli, Tibi said the Yisrael Beiteinu member had “a problem with her plumbing” and used the Hebrew term “cos amok,” or “cup of frenzy” to describe her act.
The Knesset’s Ethics Committee took this phrase as an innuendo, as it sounds like an Arabic curse that refers to female genitalia, and imposed its ban. Tibi denies any innuendo. “Worse than its stupidity is it not knowing Hebrew,” he said of the committee. (The poem’s many linguistic nuances are described in this week’s Philologos column, on page 17.)
Though Tibi has disdain for Zionism, he has a fascination with one of its products, Modern Hebrew. The son of middle-class parents from Taibe in central Israel, Tibi earned his medical degree at Hebrew University in the late 1970s and was immersed in Hebrew there. “I like the language,” he said. His speech is often laced with word plays and literary references — hence the readiness of Knesset members to suspect innuendo in his poem. His eloquence in Hebrew, combined with his sharp tongue or charm, depending on the day, means that his comments often make the news. “Among the Arab MKs, I am the one who communicates with the Israeli public more than others — they may not love me or like me, but I want them to listen to me,” he said.
Tibi’s face, with his trademark moustache, is instantly recognizable to most Israelis — many know him best from newspaper cartoons, where he is regularly caricatured. For the Jewish Israeli public, ever suspicious about what many consider the divided loyalties of Israeli Arabs, the election in 1999 of a top aide to Yasir Arafat was unsettling. Even today, Arafat’s picture is displayed in Tibi’s office.
As far as Tibi is concerned, the current controversies involving him and his fellow Arab lawmakers stem from a basic desire by the Israeli right to present them in black-and-white terms as the enemies of democracy and of the State. The charge, he says, not only misrepresents him; it oversells Israel as a democracy. Israel, he insists, is better described as an “ethnic democracy” that gives preferential treatment to Jews, or a “Judocracy.”
Despite this, Tibi does respect a few of Israel’s veteran Jewish politicians, even from the right — he named Likud’s Reuven Rivlin, whom he regards as principled and honest, as one. But Tibi feels only fury towards the newer and farther-right Yisrael Beiteinu party, which was established by Russian-speaking immigrants. “Normally, racism is from the indigenous to the newcomers, like with Jörg Haider in Austria, but here it is the immigrants towards the indigenous,” he said indignantly.
Tibi’s relationship with Jewish lawmakers has had the odd high over the years. His speech on International Holocaust Memorial Day in 2010, calling on Palestinians to reject Holocaust denial, won him praise from across the Knesset. “There is nothing more foolish or amoral than Holocaust denial,” Tibi said from the Knesset podium. “For what purpose? What end is served exactly by those who do so? We are here in the era of realizing rights for self-determination and freedom, not dismantling states or peoples.”
Later that night, he told broadcast news anchor Yair Lapid, “I live together with you, I am obliged to understand your happiness and your sadness…just as I expect you to know me and know those sides in me….You have all gone through an infinite experience, a very unique one that will live on even after the last of the murderers and criminals have passed from this world.”
Yet on a different broadcast, he rejected his hosts’ efforts to get him to denounce Hamas as a “Hitlerist” group on the basis of its charter, which calls for Islam to “obliterate” Israel, looks forward to the murder of Jews by Muslims on judgment day and denounces Zionism as an evil worldwide force throughout history, responsible for everything from the French to World War II.
Tibi believes that relations now are on a steady downward slide. The current accusations against him are just opening shots, he said, because right-wing lawmakers from Likud and Israel Beiteinu see criticizing him as a vote-winner. “If we are close to an election, they will increase their incitement,” he said.
Contact Nathan Jeffay at firstname.lastname@example.org