A normal level of violence

Is Israel becoming more extreme, or is it behaving normally for a country under siege?

Right-wing activists protest in Tel Aviv on July 1. (photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH 90)
Right-wing activists protest in Tel Aviv on July 1.
(photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH 90)
Cliché-like as it might sound, tensions were already running high in Israel as the IDF launched a ground operation into Gaza against Hamas to neutralize the threat posed by insidious tunnels Hamas has built along the Israeli-Gaza border.
So much so, that even a request for an interview about the real or perceived increase in violence in Israeli society could cause a theoretically mild-mannered, neutral academic to angrily refuse to be interviewed, becoming verbally antagonistic, harshly accusing the Israeli media and the Left of foolish introspection, and, by putting undue focus on violent protests also aiding the foreign press to present Israel in a negative light while Israeli lives are in danger in a time of war when the country should be united.
He pointed to the violence prevalent in American cities and the existence of the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis in the United States. Is that taken as reflection of racism on the entire country? Do American journalists go around wringing their hands about how racist and violent their society is, he asks indignantly. So if three delinquents go and commit a terrible crime killing a Palestinian teen after three young yeshiva students were murdered by Palestinians and there are some violent demonstrations, does that mean the whole society is hopelessly morphing into a mess of escalating violence, he demands.
No, he says.
It is a country in abnormal circumstances behaving in a way that is to be expected given the situation. And normally, he insists, Israel is one of the most non-violent societies.
Prof. Nissim Mizrachi, chairman of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Tel Aviv University, who did agree to be interviewed, put the current atmosphere in perspective in a more composed manner.
“Yes, people are expressing more violence, moving more to the extreme Right and becoming more nationalistic. But that is obvious [considering the situation the country is in],” Mizrachi tells The Jerusalem Report.
“There is a real feeling of needing to be united… to demonize the other. The tension will decrease again but there is some indication that there is a movement to the right, which has nothing to do with this particular insistence. It is a real demographic issue that some segments of the population are becoming more [right-wing]. But I am cautious of sweeping generalizations. Israel is behaving naturally for a country under siege.”
Mizrachi says that among the interesting findings of a 2012 study he published in a special issue of “Ethnic and Racial Studies,” co-edited with Harvard professor of sociology Michèle Lamont, focusing on reactions to stigma of ordinary people among minority groups in Israel, the United States, Brazil, Canada, France, Sweden and South Africa, was the need to carefully look at the context in each country to understand the nuances of this behavior.
Mizrachi notes that “whereas race is central to understanding majority/minority relationships in the US as well as other countries, when we move to Israel, we find that national identity eclipses other issues such as race and ethnicity. For example, Arab Palestinian citizens of Israel suffer more overt stigmatization when compared to, for instance, Ethiopian Jews, who are phenotypically black.
“The fact that Ethiopian Jews belong to and identify with the Jewish state put them in a better position than Arabs citizens, who are identified with the enemy and suffer from considerable distrust. In addition, social boundaries are much clearer; for instance, marriage between Arabs and Jews is almost inconceivable and the level of residential and institutional segregation very high.”
The reaction of ordinary people in Israel during the current crisis could have been expected. “I am not surprised,” says Mizrachi. “People under external threat tend to feel the need to strengthen internal solidarity. They thus become less tolerant and more nationalistic and prejudiced. In general, the right-wing parties are gradually strengthening.”
Regarding the purported revenge murder of Palestinian teen Muhammad Abu Khdeir, Mizrachi said there was not enough information yet available to arrive at any conclusions or place the event into a broader context.
Abu Khdeir was murdered the day after the burial of three Jewish teenagers, Naftali Fraenkel, Gil-Ad Shaer and Eyal Yifrah, by suspected Hamas terrorists.
“We can’t really estimate any kind of trend based on one event,” he said.
Still, when Gadi Gvaryahu, founder of Tag Meir went with 350 Israelis to the mourning tent of the Abu Khdeir family in Shuafat, east Jerusalem, he said it had only been a matter of time before such a murder took place. Tag Meir was founded to counter the growing “tag mechir” (price-tag) vandalism attacks against Arab property, first in the West Bank and then later in Israel in response to various government actions including the dismantling of illegal settler outposts.
“We have been saying already for two years that with whoever has been burning mosques or churches, it is a matter of time before [someone] burns a human being,” Gvaryahu said.
Three suspects, Yosef Ben-David, 29, of the Adam settlement, and two 16-year-olds, all who according to the police are youth on the fringes of the Orthodox community, have been indicted for the murder. Two of the murder suspects have also been charged with incitement in the failed kidnapping attempt of 7-year-old Palestinian boy Mussa Zaloom a day earlier. The suspects have also been charged with trying to burn cars several times in the Arab neighborhood of Sur Bahir, in southern Jerusalem.
The three were said to have had been influenced by the hugely racist “La Familia” fan group of the Beitar Jerusalem soccer club, which has been involved in attacking Arabs in malls and shopping centers after matches, even burning their team management’s offices in protest of signing two Muslim players.
During the shiva mourning period for the death of her son, Naftali, Rachel Fraenkel spoke out strongly against Abu Khdeir’s murder: “If a young Arab really was murdered for nationalistic reasons, this is a horrifying and shocking act. There is no difference between blood and blood. Murder is murder. There is no justification and no atonement for murder.”
The violence spread as Palestinians rioted in east Jerusalem in protest over the murder of Abu Khdeir, with demonstrators destroying light-rail stations in two Palestinian neighborhoods. At the same time, leftwing protesters in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, against Israeli Operation Protective Edge in Gaza, found themselves targets of extreme violence by right-wing anti-demonstrators.
Verbal violence also found its way online and pictures of mostly young Israelis holding up signs demanding “revenge” abounded on social media.
With all the rioting and talk of revenge, together with the forest fires, which broke out periodically in and around Jerusalem that first week, it seemed like the whole city was just going up in flames.
For some Israelis, the apparent increase in the use of violence within Israel sounded off warning alarms. MK Tamar Zandberg, of the left-wing Meretz party, initiated an emergency discussion in the Knesset following the violent counterattack against the left-wing demonstration in Tel Aviv, calling on Internal Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch of Yisrael Beytenu to stop the wave of what she called “incitement and violence.”
But, despite this, Menachem Landau, a former high-ranking officer in the Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet), is not too fazed by the recent spate of right-wing violence.
“First of all we have to keep things in proportion. Jewish terrorism has not reached the level of Arab terrorism. It is far from that,” Landau notes to The Report. “Up until now, tag mechir has not killed anyone. Tag mechir has burned a tire here, scribbled things on a wall there. Those who killed the Palestinian boy are another, different group, a small group without any ideology except hatred towards the Arabs.”
Normally, he says, right-wing extremism usually goes hand-in-hand with a very extreme religious ideology, sometimes imbibed at home, sometimes at schools and yeshivas, but not necessarily.
According to Landau, many of the radical Right come from Sephardi families who have memories of living amongst Arabs, remembering life in Syria and Iraq and the anti-Jewish “pogroms” there.
It is hatred, he says, which sometimes comes from the streets, as he believes to be true in the case of the murder of Abu Khdeir from the information he has about the families of the suspects. He adds that racism within the world of soccer clubs is spread worldwide, and not unique to Israel, though in Europe they are doing more to combat it than in Israel.
“It is pure hatred. You see it a lot at Beitar games,” he says. “They decide to hate Arabs because all of the people they hang out with do, but it is a very aberrant phenomenon.
[The murderers] have been caught and they will spend many years in jail.”
Indeed, he notes, it has been some three months since there has been a tag mechir incident – the police cracked down after Christian officials complained just before the visit of Pope Francis in late May.
Still, he says, security services have to keep in mind that there is a possibility of tag mechir becoming more violent in the future.
There is a law against incitement, but it is rarely enforced, he says.
“I understand there is a problem with the law but what are you going to do, put them in jail for life on charges of scribbling some slogans?” he says. “Even if they take spray paint and write ‘Death to the Arabs’ that is not considered incitement. That’s part of the price a democratic country pays. If they do something worse they will be put in jail. The security services will do what they need to do, and if they raise their heads up we will knock them down again.”
In all, he says, there are only a few hundred religious ideologues and another few hundred hate-filled extremists involved in violent acts, he says. “In the end, when you look at it, I am proud that you can say that there is almost no Jewish terrorism,” he says. “And it definitely is not a threat to Jewish democracy.”
Despite left-wing claims to the contrary, he believes that the government is working responsibly to act against religious radicalization, including closing of a yeshiva whose rabbis have been accused by the Shin Bet of encouraging students to take part in violent acts against Arabs.
Education in schools and in youth groups is the key, says Landau, although there will always be fringe elements that are outside of those frameworks.
Part of the democratic freedom of expression also means allowing the social media pages that call for revenge against Arabs, he says. People need to let off steam in tense situations, he asserts, and even the political rhetoric espoused by some politicians can be put into that same category.
This is not the first time the religious Right has become involved in violence, and in the 1980s, a Jewish underground terrorist group with ties to right-wing Gush Emunim carried out a series of deadly, violent attacks against Palestinian targets.
After the murder of Abu Khdeir many people in the right-wing settler camp felt they were coming under undue scrutiny and were being unfairly connected to the murder and ensuing violence where mobs of demonstrators combed the streets for Arabs.
Several people in the nationalist camp and spokesmen for settlements were approached to be interviewed for this article but most declined.
However, Hebron resident Baruch Marzel, the leader of the far-right Jewish National Front party, tells The Report that although he is against the use of violence, he understands Jewish frustration.
“When the government doesn’t do anything against attacks of terrorism against Jews, that leaves a vacuum. If the Israeli government would be doing its job, Israeli citizens would not have to take matters into their own hands,” Marzel says.
Nevertheless, he maintains that he is against violence. “Violence doesn’t solve anything. The authorities should be dealing with the traitors who are cooperating with the enemy. I am for tag mechir by the government. Every time Hamas shoots a missile on Beersheba, they should impose a tag mechir on Gaza. And they should do the same thing they are doing in Gaza in the West Bank.”
The freedom of expression on the part of the Right prevents violence, it does not create violence, Marzel asserts.
But freedom of speech does not endorse situations in which the physical safety of a person is threatened, maintains the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.
Following multiple reports of racist and violent demonstrations by Jewish rioters in the vicinity of Arab citizens in Jerusalem, Nazareth, the commercial center of Pardes Hana, Iron Junction and other places, ACRI attorney Avner Pinchuk wrote a letter to Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein on July 10, to demand that he order the police to restrain these groups of rioters.
“Our position on the right to free speech is well known, and we usually turn to you when the police fail in their duty to protect protesters and ensure their right to free speech, even when they are expressing dangerous, irritating or vulgar sentiments that are loathed by the public. Moreover, even in cases where calls are made during a protest that could be construed as incitement to violence or racism, this would still not be enough to justify the dispersion of the demonstration,” he wrote.
“However, the type of events that we described above, even if some of them began as demonstrations, do not constitute mere public offensiveness, disturbing the peace or public humiliation. These cases include rioters who are casting their menacing shadow over a minority group that lives in the area and that is deprived of its free choice and free movement because of illegal threats.
A supermarket worker and passing bystander cannot help but feel a clear and present danger to their lives and safety because they are Arabs (or look like Arabs) and are forced to stay away from their places of work, from shopping centers and from public streets.”
Pinchuk tells The Report that ACRI carefully chose the wording of its letter in order to prevent any misuse of its original intention. The police are in a difficult situation, he says, and there are nuances in freedom of speech.
“I have worked many years at ACRI and have seen lots of things but we are all now both terrified and astonished at what we are seeing. We certainly did not believe the situation would reach something like the murder of Muhammad Abu Khdeir. This is a pattern of violent people, they impose a blockade in certain areas where Arabs are and threaten them physically and they are terrified.”
Pinchuck says he first began to fear for the country when he observed the attacks against asylum seekers and African migrant workers in southern Tel Aviv several years ago, which included the firebombing of a kindergarten.
He was shocked by the intensity of hatred in the demonstrations against the asylum seekers, people with whom Israel has no history of animosity or conflict, he says.
In its 2013 “Racism in Israel” report, The Coalition Against Racism in Israel noted that the 18th Knesset was the most racist in the history of the state. Dozens of racist and antidemocratic bills were introduced, but not necessarily passed, mainly directed against the Arab minority in Israel, but also against labor migrants and asylum seekers. The bills have also been directed towards human rights organizations, said the coalition, which is made up of 30 civil society organizations.
According to the report, there has also been a significant increase in racist statements made by elected officials, recording 107 incidents of incitement in 2013 compared to 59 recorded the previous year. The cases of incitement against Arabs almost doubled from 26 in 2012 to 45 cases in 2013, refugees also fared worse in 2013 according to the report with 54 incidents of incitement compared with 23 in the last report.
“The significant increase in incitement incidents by public leaders also helped spur an increase in racist incidents by Jewish citizens against Arab citizens,” said the report. “It is hard not to make a connection between this increase and the period of the Knesset elections, which may have served as the principal motive and catalyst for those public figures in their ongoing carnival of incitement,” the coalition said in the report.
In a 2012 report to the UN Committee Against Racial Discrimination, the group said Israel was witnessing “one of the worst periods in terms of ethno-nationalism and discriminatory behavior by Israel’s political leadership. Increasingly, political incitement is directed against the Arab Palestinian minority as well as other marginalized groups in Israel.
“Politicians do not take the necessary measures to protect the Arab minority in Israel from verbal and physical attacks, and regularly participate in this extremely harmful behavior and declarations both through tacit approval or direct participation.”
Among those politicians the coalition named as having expressed themselves in an inciteful manner are Yisrael Beytenu party leader Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Internal Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch and former Shas minister Ariel Atias.
“There is a long line of right-wing Jewish extremism. Look over a 30-year period and you can see, from the killing of Emil Grunzweig to the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, it is all part of the extreme right wing,” says Ben-Gurion University politics and government professor David Newman, who has done extensive research on the impact of the Gush Emunim and the settlement movement on Israeli society and settler movement. “Israel is becoming increasingly violent over time.”
Following the murder of Abu Khdeir, Chief Rabbis Yitzhak Yosef and David Lau spoke out against his killing, noting that this was not the way of the Torah and calling for an end to the violence.
Leading settler Rabbi Elyakim Levanon, head of the Elon Moreh yeshiva, issued a statement calling for the death penalty for the perpetrators of the crime. He also called for the death penalty for the murderers of the three yeshiva students.
The solution many people fall back on is the need for stronger education towards tolerance and coexistence, says Rabbi Ron Kronish, director of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel. “The Ministry of Education needs to work harder,” he says.
But Hebrew University education professor Edna Lomsky-Feder notes that education is not an easy cure to the ills of society, more often than not education is a reflection of the society itself.
“Education is not homogeneous. The possibility of education changing things is very little. There is a big gap between how Israeli society presents its education and what happens really inside the classroom.
A teacher who voices criticism is quickly stifled,” she says, noting that in Israeli society today there is violence coupled with an extreme sense of nationalism in certain sectors. “There is a real emphasis on nationalist education in Israel.”
Today, there is a lot of emphasis on Jewish suffering, trauma and victimhood, she notes.
People outside of Israel do not understand the power this narrative takes on in the country and how it combines with the deep need to be strong and defend the country against any perceived threat. And this feeling, she says, can create a higher sensitivity to violence and criticism.
“The more Israel feels threatened on all fronts, the willingness to be inclusive and more tolerant to other voices and criticism narrows,” she says.