Arab lawmaker from Zionist Union quits Knesset to protest nation-state law

Zouheir Bahloul announces resignation in live TV interview, saying his conscience will not allow him to sit in a parliament that passed a law that discriminates against Arabs

Arab Israel lawmaker from the Zionist Union party Zoheir Bahloul announces his resignation from the Knesset on July 28, 2018 to protest the nation-state bill (Screenshot/Hadashot news)

An Arab Israeli lawmaker from the Zionist Union faction announced on Saturday that he would be resigning from the Knesset to protest the recently passed nation-state bill, which he said officially discriminates against Israel’s Arab minority.

“When the Knesset recess is over my resignation will go into effect, I promise you I will not sit in this Knesset again,” Zouheir Bahloul told Hadashot news.

Asked if his resignation was not too drastic, Bahloul, a popular former sports commentator, said that “the drastic act was the legislation of the nation-state law that makes the Arab population officially, constitutionally outside the realms of equality in Israel.”

Bahloul said this Knesset had recently passed a raft of laws he called “racist and extreme.”

“I can’t sit on the fence, I will need to give an answer to my grandchildren who will ask me what I did and say, ‘I resigned because of this harsh law that should have brought  all the Israelis out onto the barricades and we wonder why they have not.'”

Outgoing Zionist Union chief Isaac Herzog paid tribute to Bahloul, saying that “the voices of the minorities in Israel have to be heard.”

The nation-state bill — which for the first time, enshrines Israel as “the national home of the Jewish people” and says “the right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people” — has sparked widespread criticism from Israel’s minorities, the international community and Jewish groups abroad.

On Sunday, Israeli Druze leaders, including three Knesset members, petitioned the High Court of Justice against the Jewish nation-state legislation, saying it was an “extreme” act that discriminated against the country’s minorities.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) meets with Sheikh Muafak Tariff, spiritual leader of Israel’s Druze community, Communications Minister Ayoub Kara (L) and other Druze leaders at his office in Jerusalem to discuss the nation-state law on July 27, 2018. (Kobi Gideon/GPO/Flash90)

Israeli ministers have moved to reassure the Druze community that they are valued in Israeli society and have proposed a raft of measures to placate them.

The nation-state law, proponents say, puts Jewish values and democratic values on equal footing. Critics, however, say the law effectively discriminates against Israel’s Arabs and other minority communities.

The law became a Basic Law, which, similar to a constitution, underpin Israel’s legal system and are more difficult to repeal than regular laws.

The law also declares that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, sets the Hebrew calendar as the official calendar of the state, and recognizes Independence Day, days of remembrance, and Jewish holidays. One clause of the bill downgrades the Arabic language from official to “special” standing, but also cryptically stipulates that “this clause does not harm the status given to the Arabic language before this law came into effect.”

This is not the first time Bahloul has been uncomfortable as an Arab Israeli in a Zionist party. Last year he announced that he would not be attending a Knesset ceremony marking the 100th year anniversary of the Balfour Declaration

In the Balfour Declaration, which was issued on November 2, 1917, then-UK foreign secretary Arthur Balfour told British Jewish leader Lord Walter Rothschild that His Majesty’s government “view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.”

Although the lawmaker recognized the strength of his Israeli identity, he also emphasized his equally strong connection to the Palestinian people. “What about my people?” he asked. “You [the Jewish people] received the right to self-determination through the Balfour Declaration, while the same Palestinian goes completely ignored.”

The lawmaker added that he had no problem being a member of a Zionist faction, but celebrating the Zionist character of the state when part of his own identity as a Palestinian remains unrecognized was something he could not accept. “I do not think it would be appropriate to participate when I myself am not free,” Bahloul said.

Close associates of Zionist Union chairman Avi Gabbay said that Bahloul’s remarks “were too extreme and that his place is no longer in the party.” They added that this would be the Arab lawmaker’s last term on the faction list, although Gabbay does not have the authority to remove members elected by Labor voters.

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