Why Wonder Woman challenged the racist views of Netanyahu
In a world in which populism, opportunism and appealing to the lowest common denominator by vilifying minorities and questioning their loyalty is the norm, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is king.
He has practiced and perfected such behavior for decades, consolidating his power by delegitimizing Israel’s Arab minority, which accounts for about one fifth of the population. It would have taken an extreme case of incurable naivete to believe that with his back to the wall, Netanyahu would focus his election campaign on anything other than inciting hate against an entire community whose only “crime” is being Arab. Together with some of his political henchmen he has embarked on an assault and an attempt to delegitimize not only the political representatives of the Arab citizens of Israel, but also any coalition that relies on their support.
Last week’s welcome response to the vilification of Israeli-Palestinians from a number of female celebrities, including “Wonder Woman” actor Gal Gadot, should have left even those in complete denial about the racism embedded in the Likud Party and its leader in no doubt about the situation.
The initial angry response, by well-known TV presenter and actress Rotem Sela, was triggered by the “warning” to Israeli voters by Likud’s Miri Regev, the not-so-subtle minister of culture and sport, who said that voting for the newly formed Blue and White party might result in a coalition government supported by the Arab parties — as if this this was an inherent sin or some sort of treason.
It was not only what Regev said that so irked Sela, who shared her anger with her hundreds of thousands of followers on Instagram, but also the fact that the minister was not challenged by the TV interviewer she was talking to. This was an abdication of journalistic responsibility that represents the ugly face of the normalization of discrimination against 1.8 million Israeli citizens and their representatives in the Knesset. Are some sections of the Israeli media so cowed by and so afraid to challenge an Israeli minister, as crude as she might be?
When Sela was subsequently attacked by a flood of violent and threatening responses, Israeli actress Gadot, who has more than 28 million followers on Instagram and mostly keeps her political opinions to herself, jumped to her defense. She told her followers that the issue of minorities in Israel should not be a matter of partisan political debate but “a matter of dialogue, of discussing peace and equality and our tolerance toward one another.”
This should be a reminder that even during an election campaign, when the line between opportunism and extremist ideology can be blurred and nastiness becomes a regrettable norm for those on the right, it is unacceptable to turn the Israeli-Palestinian minority into a punchbag.
Sela’s post provided the perfect opportunity for who else but Prime Minister Netanyahu himself to jump into the fray on social media so that he could, with his customary patronizing approach, “enlighten” Sela and Gadot about how “Israel is not a state of all its citizens.” He continued: “According to the Nation-State Law that we passed, Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish People – and them alone.”
There is no democracy when not everyone is equal in all spheres of a state’s activity.
As usual, Netanyahu saw no problem in contradicting himself in his very next sentence, when he gracefully acknowledged that he has no problem with the Arab citizens of Israel who, he claimed, “have the same rights as us.” He then further patronized the Arab minority by reminding those who are part of it that the Likud government was investing heavily in them.
In just one social-media post his (almost) entire discriminatory approach to the Arab minority was clear for all to see. The Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel who were lucky enough not to become refugees after 1948 are second-class citizens in a country that belongs only to those who are Jewish or are deemed by the state to be Jewish. Non-Jews are tolerated and the government, in its generosity, invests in improving their standards of living, but perish the thought that they could be trusted with being part of government and thus partners in running the country.
This neatly encapsulates Netanyahu’s racist views, which always become more transparent and more clearly expressed as an election approaches. His half-hearted apology for his incendiary warning to supporters before the previous election that “Arab voters are heading to the polling stations in droves,” to encourage them to vote, was not taken as a genuine expression of remorse.
Netanyahu’s support for the contemptible Nation-State Bill was a clear demonstration of his view of Israel’s Palestinian minority and his contempt for the principles that must govern a democracy. When the bill was approved by the Knesset, many of the members who voted for it, and especially the prime minister, were evasive about its racist nature. Now, that thin veil has been removed and, by the prime minister’s own admission, the Nation-State Act enshrines in law the bald fact that Israel’s Arab citizens are not equal to those who are Jewish.
Israeli Palestinians now have an opportunity to react and express their democratic right — while they still have it — at the ballot box. It is indeed time for them to head in droves to polling stations and vote for their representatives. This is, after all, what citizens are entitled to do in a democracy, and it would be the most fitting response to the attempts to marginalize and delegitimize them in society and in politics.
There is no democracy when not everyone is equal in all spheres of a state’s activity. A healthy representation of Israeli-Palestinians in the Knesset, and consequently in a coalition government that aims for peace with its brethren on the other side of the Green Line, will be an important step in rescuing Israel’s damaged and endangered democracy.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media.