Open Zion

02.14.13

The Latent Chauvinism Of Lapid's "Zoabiz" Apology

A bitter smile appeared on my face when I read that Yair Lapid had called Ahmed Tibi to apologize for saying that he would not sit in collation with "a bunch of Zoabiz," referring to Balad Knesset Member Hanin Zoabi. For an Arab woman like me, this is all part of a familiar ritual. Anger a notable person in the community, and they'll complain to your father—unless, of course, you're married, in which case your husband doubles as your personal ombudsman. Lapid, it seems, tried to respect community customs by explaining to Tibi, the responsible man on hand, that he hadn't meant to disrespect the woman cowering under Tibi's wing.

"I didn't apologize," Lapid later said of the call; he simply wanted to explain to Tibi that the insult in question had not been directed at him. Lapid can accept Tibi as a proud Palestinian worthy of equal rights; it's just this Zoabi woman who pisses him off.

Once again, Lapid demonstrates how good he is at channeling the mainstream Jewish Israeli viewpoint. Many Jewish Israelis are fond of Ahmed Tibi and despise Hanin Zoabi. Despite the strong similarities in their positions, Tibi is seen as the likeable uncle, while Zoabi is seen as something quite different. Both advocate abrogating the Jewish nature of the State of Israel in favor of "a country for all its citizens" (Tibi calls it "a country for all its nations"). Moreover, before becoming an MK, Tibi was an advisor to Yassir Arafat on Israel and a spokesperson for the Palestinian Delegation to the Wye River Accords. Clearly Tibi, like Zoabi, challenges Israeli society on consensus issues. This begs the question of why Laipid feels more comfortable turning to Tibi and excluding Zoabi.

Zoabi is a brave and opinionated Arab woman, who doesn't walk the path carved out for women in Arab society. Even worse, as former MK Yohanan Plesner publicly pointed out, she is unmarried. She doesn't speak softly to us, doesn't put leftovers in the freezer, and doesn't try to please the mainstream. She insists on speaking in Hebrew about subjects that the Israeli public tries desperately to ignore: the occupation, the siege of Gaza, the Jewish character of the state, and the national status of Palestinian citizens. She also insists on speaking to the Arab public about women's rights.

In today's superficial political environment, where image is more important than content, it doesn't matter that Zoabi shares positions with Tibi and many other Arab citizens of Israel. Zoabi's defiance is more annoying to the mainstream because she is a woman. The "double glass ceiling" is not just an expression for the economic or occupational suppression of Arab women, but also a manifestation of the strict unwritten rules that apply to Arab women who seek political expression.

Lapid made an important political decision when he made sure his parliamentary list included a high proportion of impressive women, and he recognized the electoral value of this decision. But in using the term "Zoabiz" and in the apology-that-wasn't that followed, he gave voice to the murky currents of racism and misogyny in the public, both Jewish and Arab. The center, which voted en masse for Lapid, does not see itself as misogynist or racist. But the "Zoabiz" was a small reminder that latent chauvinism is alive and well. Let's hope that that the increased presence of women in the new Knesset will help free us from that chauvinism once and for all.