Jerusalem - When Knesset member Esterina Tartman opened her mouth on Israel Radio last week to attack the Labor Party for naming Israel’s first-ever Muslim Arab Cabinet minister, she did more than just rattle Ehud Olmert’s shaky coalition. She opened up a raging national debate on the taboo topic of where Zionism ends and racism begins.
“What [Labor leader] Amir Peretz did this morning is to swing an enormous ax at the tree called Zionism,” said Tartman, a member of the right-wing Yisrael Beitenu party, referring to Peretz’s January 11 designation of Labor lawmaker Ghaleb Majadleh as minister of science, sports and culture. “We need to drive out and destroy this evil from our environs…. The State of Israel is a Jewish state that is supposed to be ruled by Jewish values, with a Jewish regime and Jewish sovereignty.”
Tartman’s comments sparked outrage across the political spectrum from politicians and commentators who called her views racist and compared them to the outlawed doctrines of the late Meir Kahane. “The Zionism of Herzl, Jabotinsky and Begin always advocated the integration of Arabs who are loyal to the state in all of its institutions,” said Knesset member Michael Eitan of the opposition Likud party. Eitan demanded a formal Knesset debate on Tartman’s “racist comments.” “No believer in equality and democracy can accept them being on the agenda,” Eitan said.
But after a week of furious public debate, it wasn’t clear which side was winning. Outraged Labor Party lawmakers demanded an emergency party meeting to discuss quitting the coalition if Tartman’s party and its fiery leader, Strategic Affairs Minister Avigdor Lieberman, weren’t ejected. But no such meeting was scheduled. Yossi Beilin, head of the left-wing Meretz party, called on the attorney general to open a criminal investigation under Israel’s anti-racism laws. But no probe was announced.
In fact, Majadleh’s nomination wasn’t even brought to the Cabinet for approval when it next met, January 14. Under the Kadima-Labor coalition agreement, Labor is entitled to name the science minister, subject to Cabinet approval. The prime minister, however, sets the Cabinet’s agenda.
In the interim, a string of similar incidents has riveted national attention, training a spotlight on the depth of Israel’s divisions. A homemade video that aired on national television this week showed a Hebron settler verbally abusing a Palestinian girl with shockingly crude language — something that a police representative said was commonplace in the troubled West Bank city. The incident was recorded by a relative of the Palestinian teen, Raja Abu-Aysheh, 18, with a video camera given to the family by the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, in order to document settler abuse. Settler leaders said they would begin to give out cameras so that their side of the story could be told in a similar fashion.
Meanwhile, leaders of a settler-led party, the National Union, announced the formation of a new youth movement to educate secular Jewish youth toward such “national” values as annexing the West Bank and Gaza, creating a Palestinian state in Jordan and stripping West Bank and Gaza Palestinians of political rights. National Union Knesset member Aryeh Eldad said he is frequently approached by high school students who favor “transfer” but are uncertain how to express their views. “I want to teach them the Land of Israel belongs to the people of Israel, not to Arabs,” Eldad said.
And in the mostly Orthodox town of B’nei Brak, just outside Tel Aviv, fliers appeared on walls in recent months, announcing a religious ban on renting rooms to Arabs, mostly from nearby universities.
Israeli Arabs responded with a mixture of alarm and anger. “If these racist ideas got here, it shows that it is spreading throughout society, that the Lieberman ideology is gaining momentum and it’s very worrying,” said Ragheed Haddad, president of the law school’s Arab student union at the Ramat Gan Law School.
Knesset member Dov Khenin of the Arab-Jewish Hadash Party appealed to the attorney general to open a criminal investigation against the flier’s authors. That has yet to happen.
“We have an illness of racism in Israeli society,” said Khenin, who serves as chairman of the Knesset’s human rights committee. “Like any illness if you don’t treat it, it grows and spreads. That’s the situation now.”
But while liberal protests mounted over the signs of ethnic tension, public comment on mainstream news Web sites appeared to be running about 3-to-1 against the liberals and in favor of Tartman and her allies.
Ironically, the political maneuver that touched off the storm, the naming of a new science minister, was a direct result of Tartman’s party joining the coalition government last fall. The entry of Lieberman, who is known for his anti-Arab rhetoric, prompted then-science minister Ophir Pines-Paz to quit the Cabinet in protest. Majadleh, a Labor backbencher, was one of the few party leaders to support Pines-Paz’s decision.
“Lieberman wants a Jewish country with no Arabs,” Majadleh then said. “So we cannot legitimize him by sitting with him.”
Last week, however, Majadleh was calling his Cabinet appointment a “milestone” for Israeli Arabs and a rebuke to Lieberman.
Even more ironic, Majadleh’s nomination drew criticism from left as well as from right. Pines-Paz himself called the appointment a “stinking maneuver” by Peretz to woo Arab voters in advance of a May party primary. Some critics said that Majadleh, a high school graduate, was unqualified to oversee Israel’s science and technology budgets.
As for Lieberman, Tartman’s party leader, he said that he had “nothing against” a Muslim Arab joining the Cabinet, but he denounced the timing as a political maneuver that proved Peretz was unfit to serve as defense minister. He did not, however, criticize Tartman.
Lieberman’s standing got a boost this week when the visiting American secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, found time to meet with him during a brief visit to the region, just two days after Tartman had made her statements. Such a meeting is not part of the standard protocol for Rice’s visits here.
It is that sort of legitimization from above, critics say, that hurts efforts to combat ethnic incitement. “In the past, these people would be thought of as extremist,” said Fred Lazin, chair of the politics and government department at Ben-Gurion University. “Now they aren’t even being asked to leave the government.”