On Monday, Israeli Minister of Knesset (MK) Haneen Zoabi spoke at Stanford. The title of her talk was “Israel: Democracy or Colonial Project?” An observer unfamiliar with Zoabi’s politics might have expected the first female Palestinian MK to champion Israel as a democratic state. Zoabi, of course, did nothing of the sort.
Israel, Zoabi made clear in her lecture, is the supreme evil. It is a “colonialist” and “fascist” state whose “terrorism” is the root cause of all Palestinian violence. Israeli Arabs, Palestinians, even the 850,000 Jews who were expelled from Arab countries in 1948 and were taken in by the nascent state of Israel—all of these groups are “victims of the Zionist propaganda.” The problem is not just with Israel’s “occupation” or policies. Israel’s very “essence” is racist.
None of this was particularly surprising coming from Zoabi. In her capacity as elected legislator, Zoabi has actively opposed the legitimacy of the state of Israel not only in words but also in action. Recently, Haneen Zoabi called for “millions of Palestinians to march on Jerusalem,” adding that Israel was a “fascist country” that is “only looking for an excuse to kill the Palestinians.” Previously, she called Israeli soldiers “murderers” and claimed that the Hamas operatives who kidnapped three Israeli teenagers in 2014 were “not terrorists,” prompting the terrorist group to “bless” Zoabi.
All of this is precisely what’s so paradoxical about Zoabi. By claiming that Israel is racist and undemocratic at its core, she proves—by her very ability to make this ludicrous claim—that Israel is, in fact, democratic. Zoabi did not present a shred of evidence for Israel as a democratic state. But she didn’t have to.
The very fact of her existence—as an elected Israeli official who nevertheless brands the state “racist” and “colonialist” and calls its soldiers “murderers”—is the best evidence for Israel’s democracy that one could ever marshal. For if Israel were truly as undemocratic and racist as she says, wouldn’t she, a minister in the Knesset (and a Palestinian minister at that), be thrown in jail or executed? Hence the paradox: the more radically-critical Zoabi’s claims are, the more radically-inclusive she proves Israel’s democracy to be.
In fact, we can use Haneen Zoabi as a litmus test for the vibrancy of other democracies. The central question of this test—call it the Zoabi Test—is whether a given country has, or would allow for the election of, an official whose criticism of the state is as severe as Zoabi’s condemnation of Israel.
Most countries fail this test. Egypt, whose president recently “won” over 98% of the popular vote in an election and frequently disposes of political opponents, would undoubtedly prohibit or eliminate a figure like Zoabi. So would Saudi Arabia, whose “elected” body is a rubber stamp parliament with absolutely no legislative power. But Egypt and Saudi Arabia, along with many other Middle Eastern peers, set a pitifully-low bar.
What about America? Does our democracy pass the Zoabi test? Does the United States, in other words, have its own Haneen Zoabi, an elected official that questions the very democratic principles on which the nation was founded?
Plenty of politicians in the United States oppose police brutality and make racial justice a centerpiece of their platforms. But as far as I am aware, no congressman has ever called policemen murderers. No senator has ever claimed that racism is the essence of America. The closest thing we have to Zoabi is Bernie Sanders, but even he grounds his political claims in American ideals. Thus even America fails the Zoabi Test.
Seventy years ago from this Thursday, the State of Israel vowed in its Declaration of Independence to “ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex” and to “guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.” Despite what Zoabi or anyone else might say, Israel has largely lived up to this ambitious standard—and there is no better proof than Haneen Zoabi herself.