Consider the following: a British parliamentarian or American congressman says something incredibly inflammatory during a legislative debate. No criminal charges are laid, but the MP is barred from legislative debates for six months on the basis of the controversial nature of these comments. There would be enormous outrage for the censorship of unpopular opinion, and rightfully so.
Precisely the following has occurred in Israel, after the controversial Member of Knesset Hanin Zoabi has been slapped with a six month ban on participation in the plenary debates and committees. This came after a number of provocative statements. In response to the kidnapping of the three young Israeli teenagers last month, she said (before it was known that the boys had been murdered) that the kidnapping was not an act of terrorism:
I can’t call this act terrorism, even if I don’t agree with it – and I don’t […] this incident is a result of [Israeli] war crimes.
Additionally, Zoabi had published an article where she encouraged Palestinians to take part in popular resistance and “to put Israel under siege instead of negotiating.” The six month ban is the maximum possible punishment that can be meted out by the Knesset’s Ethics Committee.
In a society that prides itself on free expression, open and fair legislative elections, and the ability for minority voices to be heard, this decision sets a worrying precedent. The Knesset Ethics Committee decision stated that:
A distinction must be made between harsh, but legitimate, criticism and protest and encouraging the enemies of the state, calling for harm to come to Israel and giving legitimacy for terrorist acts against the citizens of the state.
The Committee decided that Zoabi went beyond “the legitimate criticism that can be expressed by members of Knesset.”
In response to her statements, a large number of complaints started to pour in, prompting the Speaker of the Knesset, Yuli Edelstein, to submit a complaint based on “statements bordering on incitement, encouraging violence and supporting terrorism.” Edelstein wrote that:
I know that the consistent position of the Ethics Committee is to protect the freedom of expression of the members of Knesset in general and particularly of the members who represent minorities.
However, he argued that Zoabi had crossed the line. The Ethics Committee agreed, noting that:
When MK Zoabi said, regarding the kidnappers of the three boys, that ‘they are not terrorists’ and when she justified their acts saying ‘they see no way to change their situation, they have to use these methods,’ even if she explains that she doesn’t agree with it, as she did, these comments still show identification with the enemies of the state; even more so because she did this during a time when the fate of the kidnapped [boys] was unknown, and the citizens of Israel, both Jews and Arabs, were hoping and praying that they be found safe and sound.
Numerous police probes have also been launched against Zoabi. The first, for her kidnapping statements, no evidence of wrongdoing was found. Deputy Attorney General Raz Nizri told a Knesset committee that Zoabi expressed reservations about the kidnapping, and so this did not constitute the offence of incitement to commit kidnapping. A further probe has been launched for Zoabi allegedly calling Arab-Israeli police officers “traitors” and encouraging protestors to spit in their faces. The Attorney General is also investigating the “siege” comments Zoabi published in the Palestinian paper.
The Ethics Committee acknowledged that Zoabi had not been criminally charged. As Lahav Harkov reports:
The committee noted in its decision that when Weinstein said Zoabi’s comments on the teens’ kidnapping were not criminal, he added that they could be unethical as they were “especially harsh at the time they were said because, although she expressed reservations about the action of kidnapping, they could be understood as understanding [of] and identification with it. (emphasis added)
This insidious argument has substituted political censorship in lieu of a criminal conviction in an attempt to silence Zoabi. Israel uses a proportional representation electoral system, resulting in a plethora of political parties in the legislature (currently 13). Zoabi’s party, Balad, is a small anti-Zionist party that holds only 3 seats out of 120. If criminal charges were actually laid against Zoabi, her dismissal would be appropriate. However, it is pure political censorship to justify Zoabi’s dismissal from speaking in the Knesset merely because what she said hurt some feelings and resulted in complaints. The Ethics Committee must make the right decision and reverse this unjust ban on a controversial politician’s unpopular ramblings.