Right-wing Israeli lawmakers determined to silence Jews opposed to Gaza genocide
Israeli police attack and apprehend Ofer Cassif, the only Jewish member of the Hadash coalition in Israel's Knesset, during a protest against evictions of Palestinian residents in east Jerusalem on April 9, 2021. During the current brutal war in Gaza, Cassif has been an outspoken opponent of genocide. Right-wing lawmakers are now trying to impeach him. | Mahmoud Illean / AP

In what one Israeli civil rights group called “a shameful act of McCarthyism and gagging,” an Israeli Knesset committee made a move to impeach MK Ofer Cassif over his support of South Africa’s International Court of Justice case alleging genocide in the Gaza Strip.

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) called the debate surrounding Cassif’s future “a political circus” whose “outcome was determined by populist considerations.” The organization declared that the Knesset House Committee’s decision will severely harm freedom of expression and the right to vote in Israel.

Cassif, who is a member of the Communist Party of Israel, is the sole Jewish member representing the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality (Hadash) coalition in the Knesset. Though Jewish, Cassif has long been an opponent of Zionism, calling it a “racist ideology and practice which espouses Jewish supremacy.” In April 2021, he was beaten by Israeli police when protesting against illegal evictions of Palestinians in East Jerusalem.

During the Netanyahu government’s latest brutal war in Gaza, Cassif has already been temporarily expelled from the Knesset for speaking out. In October, he warned that an “ethnic cleansing” of Palestinians was underway at the hands of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) in Gaza and was booted from parliament for several weeks by the Ethics Committee, which is dominated by the right wing.

Cassif’s decision to join other Israeli peace activists in supporting the South African genocide case, however, has extremist lawmakers aligned with the government working overtime to permanently silence him.

The petition Cassif signed directly criticizes the military’s war in Gaza, saying:

“Israel is indeed taking methodological and fundamental steps to erase, starve, abuse, and expel the population of Gaza. It actualizes a policy of erasing the possibilities of living, which leads to genocide. It methodologically kills broad swaths of the population, leading academics, authors, doctors, medical teams, journalists, and simple citizens.”

MK Oded Forer called Cassif’s decision to sign the petition “treasonous” and accused him of supporting a “terrorist organization against the state of Israel.” Forer is a member of Yisrael Beytenu, a nationalist party that denounced previous ceasefire efforts as a “surrender to terror.”

Historically reliant on anti-Soviet Jewish immigrants for votes, the party was founded in 1999 by former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. It is a factional split-off from the ruling Likud Party of Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu, whom Yisrael Beytenu supporters see as being too soft on the Palestinians. As part of the current war effort, however, Forer and the rest of the party are fully backing the prime minister.

The effort to remove Cassif is a clear escalation of the attack on freedom of thought in Israel, but simply impeaching Cassif isn’t enough for Forer; he would also like to see him expelled from the country altogether, presumably stripped of his citizenship.

“He must soon find himself outside the borders of the Knesset,” Forer declared late last week, “and preferably also outside the borders of the State of Israel.”

As part of the scheme to sweep parliament clean of any anti-war and anti-genocide voices, the right wing is relying on a never-before-used legal mechanism from a 2016 act called the Suspension Law. To launch impeachment proceedings, the signatures of 70 out of the Knesset’s 120 members were needed; 90 signatures could remove Cassif immediately.

Forer and supporters managed to secure 85 signatures, so the decision on whether to advance to a full Knesset vote went to the House Committee.

There, a fierce debate raged for two days. The Times of Israel reported that the discussion “repeatedly descended into screaming matches between legislators.”

Cassif and his lawyer, Michael Sfar, argued during the panel hearing that his opposition to the war and condemnation of genocide in no way equates to support for Hamas or its tactics.

As many of those persecuted politically throughout history have done, such as Georgi Dimitrov at the Reichstag Fire trial, Cassif turned the tables on his accusers.

“While those who call for the destruction of Gaza by fire or atomic bomb sit around the Cabinet table, I face impeachment on the baseless charge of ‘supporting armed struggle,’” he said.

Ultimately, almost the entire committee, 14-2, opted to send the measure to the full Knesset for a final vote. Two committee members from the centrist liberal Yesh Atid party abstained.

MK Ahmad Tibi, chair of the Hadash coalition and one of the two ‘no’ votes on the committee, called it “a black day for the Knesset.” The opposition Labor Party characterized the entire process as “anti-democratic by nature.”

Condemnation from outside Israel’s borders was also swift. The U.K.-based Peace and Justice Project, founded by MP Jeremy Corbyn, said it was obvious that “Israel’s political establishment seeks to silence Israeli Jews calling for an end to the destruction of Gaza.”

Yanis Varoufakis, the left-wing Greek politician and political economist, said, “Let there be no doubt anymore that Israel’s political class is not even pretending to respect the democratic rights of Israeli Jews who oppose apartheid.”

The final impeachment vote by the full Knesset has not yet been scheduled. If the body decides to remove Cassif, he would still have the option to appeal to the Supreme Court, where many legal experts believe he would prevail.

Regardless, the impeachment campaign is not just about shutting up Cassif; it is one component of a broader effort to intimidate anti-war Israelis—particularly Jewish Israelis—from standing up to the government and opposing the genocide in Gaza.

As ACRI said, the vote against Cassif has struck “a fatal blow to the freedom of expression” and set up “a slippery slope” for the future of constitutional liberties in Israel.

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C.J. Atkins
C.J. Atkins

C.J. Atkins is the managing editor at People's World. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from York University in Toronto and has a research and teaching background in political economy and the politics and ideas of the American left.