Actions begin with ideas, and laws begin with musings by politicians and statements that find an echo in the public discourse. I admit that Itamar Ben-Gvir’s remarks in an interview with Army Radio on August 16 kept me awake that night. How is it that in democratic Israel version 2022, politicians aren’t ashamed to speak in public about the “deportation law”?
Ben-Gvir, the man of “We got to the emblem of Rabin’s car and we’ll get to him too,” said on Tuesday: “I will pass a law against those who act against the State of Israel and IDF soldiers. Whoever isn’t loyal to the State of Israel, whoever supports the enemy during wartime, I will pass a deportation law for people such as [Joint List chair] Ayman Odeh, not hundreds of thousands, and not tens of thousands.” Okay, the main thing is that it’s not hundreds of thousands.
Israelis, attuned to scaremongering ever since Rehavam Ze’evi first raised the idea of an Arab population transfer, continue to tell themselves, “It will all be fine, it’s not real.” I too, when I expressed my apprehensions to friends, was told that “Ben-Gvir is a kid who is bullied and his words have no real influence, you don’t have anything to worry about.”
But as Rogel Alpher writes (Haaretz Hebrew, August 17), it’s impossible to continue with the “everything will be fine.” We need to linger a bit on the idea of establishing a government ministry whose purpose is to examine who is loyal and who is not, and a law that will determine whether to expel citizens from Israel based on their political positions and statements.
The idea of deportation was not born today, and certainly not by Ben-Gvir. It began even before 1948 and was not really taken off the agenda after the founding of Israel, as can be seen in the recently published minutes of the Kafr Qasem trial and the Hafarperet (“mole”) plan that in the end was shelved and never implemented. Fast-forward 65 years, and in October the overly statesmanlike and anachronistic MK Bezalel Smotrich, according to Ben-Gvir, who refuses to run together with him in the next election, attacked the lawmakers of the Joint List and the United Arab List while addressing the Knesset plenum after the migration law was voted down. “You’re here by mistake, because Ben-Gurion didn’t finish the work in 1948 and did not throw you out. I don’t talk to you, you’re anti-Zionists, supporters of terrorism.”
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At a time when most Israelis are indifferent to these ideas that come up and fade away every time anew, and are busy with whether Mahmoud Abbas did or did not deny the Holocaust – a historical event about which there is no genuine dispute – the Arab community in Israel actually remembers deportations that really did happen, and instead of trains from the past asks itself whether trains will arrive in the future. In 1948 there may not have been trains, but there was fear, panic and villages that were destroyed by surprise. Ben-Gvir’s proposal to expel not just Odeh but also MK Ofer Cassif of the Joint List and members of Neturei Karta, as if to prove that he is not a racist and is willing to deport Jews as well if they are not Zionist enough by his lights, is not really comforting.
Unlike the threats of the past, the nation-state law, the downgrading of the official status of Arabic and the openness with which disgusting racist statements are made, without any real criticism, shows that the processes leading to actual expulsion are genuine and palpable. History has taught us that ethnic cleansing does not happen in a day, and is almost always accompanied by a seemingly legitimate legal infrastructure. One may continue to dismiss Ben-Gvir and his vulgar style, but the Arab community that experienced expulsion in 1948, and the Jewish community that remembers how it experienced processes of the type that Yair Golan pointed to, must take his threats seriously.