Wonder Woman, Netanyahu face off over 'Jewish nation' comments
By Sim Sim Wissgott

Wonder Woman herself waded into a debate over the definition of the Israeli state after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu drew ire over the weekend for saying it was a nation only of Jews.

Israeli actress Gal Gadot, star of the 2017 hit film "Wonder Woman," joined a growing chorus of disapproval against the prime minister that included advocacy groups and Israel's president, as she called for tolerance.

The cause of the uproar was an Instagram post by Netanyahu over the weekend, saying, "Israel is not a state of all its citizens."

"According to the basic nationality law we passed, Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people – and only it," he added, referring to a law that already drew condemnation from Arab lawmakers and foreign observers last year. 

All created equal

Netanyahu's remarks – coming as Israel gears up for general elections on April 9 – were in response to an earlier post by popular Israeli TV actress and model Rotem Sela on Saturday.

Arab Israelis and supporters protest against the Jewish Nation-State Law in Tel Aviv, August 11, 2018. /VCG Photo

Arab Israelis and supporters protest against the Jewish Nation-State Law in Tel Aviv, August 11, 2018. /VCG Photo

"When the hell will someone in this government convey to the public that Israel is a state of all its citizens and that all people were created equal?" Sela asked.

"Even the Arabs – believe it or not – are human beings, and the Druze and the gays, by the way, and the lesbians and – shock – leftists."

The prime minister nevertheless repeated his comments at a regular cabinet meeting on Sunday, insisting that Israel "respects the individual rights of all its citizens – Jews and non-Jews alike. But it is the nation-state, not of all its citizens, but only of the Jewish people."

Campaign time

Ahead of the election, Netanyahu has been accused of pandering to right-wing politicians and voters.

Last month, he brokered a deal that could see the small far-right party Otzma Yehudit enter the Knesset – Israel's parliament – for the first time. This would bolster future efforts by Netanyahu to build a ruling coalition.

The prime minister and his Likud party have also tried to scare voters by arguing their main opponent, the Blue and White Party, would join forces with Arab lawmakers if elected. It was one such comment by Culture Minister Miri Regev that prompted Sela's irate post on Saturday.

The latest polls currently show Likud trailing in second place behind Blue and White.

Benny Gantz (front right), leader of the Blue and White Party, attends a campaign event in Tel Aviv, January 29, 2019. /VCG Photo

Benny Gantz (front right), leader of the Blue and White Party, attends a campaign event in Tel Aviv, January 29, 2019. /VCG Photo

Last year, Israel passed a new nation-state law defining Israel as the historic homeland of the Jewish people and making Hebrew the only official language in Israel, downgrading Arabic. 

About 17.5 percent of Israel's population is Arab Israeli.

Wonder Woman speaks out

After Sela's post drew vicious attacks online, Gadot, who does not usually speak out about politics, backed her in an Instagram post.

"This isn't a matter of right or left, Jewish or Arab, secular or religious. It's a matter of dialogue, of discussing peace and equality and our tolerance toward one another," she said, adding "Love your neighbor as yourself."

Israel's President Reuven Rivlin in a series of tweets late Monday also condemned what he called "entirely unacceptable remarks about the Arab citizens of Israel."

"There are no first-class citizens, and there are no second-class voters," he added.

CGTN screenshot of Israeli President Reuven Rivlin's official Twitter account.

CGTN screenshot of Israeli President Reuven Rivlin's official Twitter account.

Ahmad Tibi, a prominent Arab member of the Knesset whom Netanyahu has sought to portray as a threat to national security, called the prime minister's comments "embarrassing," adding that these were "dark times" if “a leading media personality (Sela)… needs courage to say that Arabs are also human beings."

Threat to democracy

Beyond mere campaign bluster, many wondered what Netanyahu's comments said about Israel's system of government. 

An editorial in the Haaretz newspaper on Monday said his wording "constitutes a public admission that… Israel has ceased to be a democracy."

Even in the US, a staunch ally of Israel, advocacy groups spoke out against his remarks.

Liberal pro-Israel group J Street deplored "the disgraceful, racist rhetoric of Netanyahu and his allies," saying it was "endangering Arab-Israelis and fundamentally undermining Israel's commitment to democracy."

The Anti-Defamation League, which campaigns against antisemitism, called the recent trend of anti-Arab rhetoric "deeply troubling." Without naming Netanyahu, it urged "all Israeli politicians to exercise caution in their choice of words. Stereotyping and stigmatizing Israeli Arabs is unacceptable and immoral."

(Cover picture: CGTN composite of VCG pictures showing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and actress Gal Gadot (R).)