We have to give a voice even to those we hate, otherwise we drain away the lifeblood of our democracy

4 Nov 2014


As tensions rise in Jerusalem, the Israeli Parliament voted this week to keep the fiery Israeli-Arab anti-Zionist politician Haneen Zoabi suspended from the Knesset. 68 voted in favour; 16 opposed.


Zoabi was suspended from the Knesset in July for six months — the maximum punishment possible from the Ethics Committee that banned her — for “her statements [which bordered] on incitement, encouraging violence and supporting terrorism.”


Zoabi said those who kidnapped the three Israeli teenagers in June were “not terrorists”. “They have to use these means until Israel will wake up a little, until the citizens of Israel and Israeli society will wake up and feel the suffering of the other.”


She also supported Hamas rocket attacks on the State of Israel and participated in the 2010 Gaza flotilla. Earlier this month she compared IDF soldiers to so-called Islamic State militants — a statement that was found not to be a criminal offence. In 2011, she physically attacked an usher who was trying to remove her from the Knesset for incessantly interrupting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.


Haneen Zoabi has broken no laws. Numerous police probes have been carried out. No evidence of wrongdoing was found regarding her statement about the kidnapping.


In July, Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein said Zoabi’s comments on the teens’ kidnapping were not criminal. He added that the comments 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.” Censorship has been used in place of a criminal conviction.


If Zoabi is found to have committed a criminal act, she should be dismissed. But until that moment, she has a right to freedom of speech. After all, the State of Israel is democratic and in a true democracy we must give a voice even to those we hate. Those voices that we find repulsive, vile, disgusting, those opinions that make us feel sick — a democracy has to protect them.


As opinion piece in Haaretz recently put it: “What makes free speech distinct is that it isn’t meant to defend sentiments that are already acceptable to the majority of the public, because the majority doesn’t need that protection. It’s the minority that needs a law to protect it… Freedom of expression is the lifeblood of democracy.”


We might find Haneen Zoabi’s comments hateful, we might think her words unhelpful, we might view her opinions as disgraceful; remember, she has been banned from the Knesset because of their politics not her ethics.


By Tom Fenton


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