Hounding Azmi Bishara

— David Finkel

AZMI BISHARA, THE leader and representative in the Knesset (Israeli Parliament) of the National Democratic Assembly (Tajamu’) — and quite possibly Israel’s most outstanding democratic politician — has resigned his Knesset seat and apparently gone into exile.

The circumstances, which are becoming public shortly before Against the Current goes to press, appear to speak volumes about the destruction of democratic substance in the “Jewish and democratic State of Israel.” According to published reports, Bishara, who submitted his resignation at the Israeli Embassy in Cairo, Egypt, did so and left Israel due to his expectation of imminent arrest.

The charges? As Ali Abunimah reports in his Electronic Intifada (4/21/07), in mid-April Bishara stated on Al-Jazeera television “that in fact he is the target of a very high-level probe by Israeli state security services who apparently plan to bring serious ‘security’ related charges against him. Censorship on this matter is so tight in ‘democratic’ Israel that until a few days ago Israeli newspapers were prohibited from even mentioning the existence of the probe….Haaretz admitted that due to official censorship it could not even reprint much of what Bishara said to millions of viewers.”

Bishara could face life in prison for a vaguely defined offense of “assisting the enemy in wartime,” 10 years for “transmitting information to the enemy,” or 15 years if the enemy was helped by the information.

In fact, neither the police pretext nor Azmi Bishara’s real “crimes” are particularly secret. The pretext is that he has visited Syria and expressed solidarity with Palestinian and Lebanese resistance to Israeli occupation and aggression, for which attorney general Elyakim Rubinstein (Israel’s Alberto Gonzalez) attempted to prosecute him in 2001.

His real crime — for which the Central Elections Committee once before attempted to ban Bishara and his party from the 2003 election — is that Bishara and the National Democratic Assembly call for Israel to become “a state of its citizens” instead of a “Jewish state.”

This proposal has been codified in documents signed by leading Arab organizations in Israel on the future of Palestinian Arabs in Israel as well as a proposed Israeli Constitution and a still unpublished “Haifa Declaration.”

The Supreme Court in 2003 rejected the electoral ban, which meant that a mainly Arab party could run in a democratic election even if a large majority of Israeli Jews found its opinions odious.

With the act of forcing the party’s outstanding leader into exile, that important element of democracy may disappear. The party’s reported choice to succeed Bishara in the Knesset is Sa’eed Naffa, an attorney from the Druze community, who along with three sons have served jail time for refusing to be drafted to the Israeli army.

Bishara told al-Jazeera that “I will no doubt return (to Israel), but I will choose the timing of my return by myself. This depends on many factors, including consultations with my friends in Israel and in the Arab world…Now that I have become an ordinary citizen, there are new rules for the game in which I define the limits, rules where the investigation does not touch my ideological and political position nor my standing within the Palestinian people.”

In ATC 106 (September-October 2003), we proudly reprinted a speech by Azmi Bishara on “The Arab World After the Aggression Against Iraq.” It bears re-reading today.

It also bears remembering that Julian Bond, a young civil rights activist, was barred from taking his elected seat in the Georgia state legislature in the mid-1960s due to his opposition to the Vietnam war. Bond, of course, overcame that racist ban and has gone on to become a prominent U.S. Congressperson — a sign that back then at least, the United States was making some progress in a democratic direction.

The forced exile of Azmi Bishara tells us that the Israeli state is moving in the opposite direction, the political disenfranchisement of opposition to official Jewish supremacy. Whether this direction is reversible will be decided in struggle. But denying the racist and apartheid-like quality of a “Jewish state” looks more and more like denying global warming.

ATC 128, May-June 2007