Israelis rallied in support of a religious edict forbidding Jews from selling or leasing homes or land to Arabs [GETTY]
On a recent Monday, more than 200 Jewish Israelis rallied in Bat Yam, a suburb of Tel Aviv under the banner ‘Keep Bat Yam Jewish’. The demonstrators, most of whom were religious and young, were there to protest against romantic relationships between Arabs and Jews, particularly those between Arab men and Jewish women.
I did not go as a reporter. I went to bear witness. I had also volunteered to translate for a colleague, a Palestinian man, who does not speak Hebrew.
We stood to the side. Demonstrators, mistaking us for supporters, handed us leaflets containing shameless propaganda. I read them aloud to my colleague, even though I was ashamed to repeat the words I held in my hands. “The Arabs are taking control of Bat Yam, buying and renting apartments from Jews, taking and ruining girls from Bat Yam! Fifteen-thousand Jewish girls have been taken to Arab villages! Guard our city – we want a Jewish Bat Yam,” the leaflets said.
The rally came in the wake of a religious edict forbidding Jews from leasing or selling homes or land to Arabs. The proclamation was signed by 50 rabbis, many of whom are state employees, before it was announced publicly several weeks ago. Another 250 have joined since then.
Over 1,000 rabbis have signed a letter against the edict, calling it “a painful distortion of our tradition” and a “desecration of God’s name”. But these are diaspora rabbis. And although Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, has condemned the initial proclamation, the rabbis who signed it remain state employees.
Monday’s rally in Bat Yam was just the first moment of a week that suggested that open racism is spreading through Israel like a wildfire.
Along with the leaflets, there was singing, shouting and speeches, which I translated for my colleague. Several times, I stopped mid-sentence. I could not believe what I had heard. Did that man really say that Jewish women who date Arab men should be sentenced to death? Did that rabbi really say that the Jewish people have “holy blood”?
‘We have facts’
A group of teenage girls approached us and asked us to register our names in support of their “cause”. We refused. When they understood that my colleague did not speak Hebrew, they turned to me.
“Do you agree with what we’re doing here?” one asked. Like the other girls, she was wearing a burgundy shirt that read “Keep Bat Yam Jewish”.
“I don’t,” I said.
“Because it’s racist.”
The girl tried to explain that it is not about race, but defence. “There are people in my family that have been hurt in terror attacks,” she said. “I’m really scared. Sometimes, I’m even scared to walk down the street.”
“You know what’s scary to me?” I said, pointing to the crowd. “This. It reminds me of what happened in Europe before the Holocaust. This is Germany in the thirties.”
“You can’t compare,” she said. “The Arabs want to kill us.”
“All of them? Really? How do you know? Have you ever talked to an Arab or a Palestinian?” I asked her.
“No,” she said.
“And you?” I asked another one of the girls.
“No. But we don’t need to. We have facts.” She held up a leaflet. “Fifteen-thousand Jewish girls have been taken to Arab villages. They’ve been kidnapped …”
My colleague interrupted. “Tell these girls that they’ve been brainwashed,” he said to me.
‘Survival, not racism’
That was Monday.
On Tuesday, police announced that they had arrested seven teenagers and two adults, all Jewish, suspected of attacking Arab youths in Jerusalem. The group allegedly used a 14-year-old girl to lure the victims to isolated places. They then attacked the Arabs using pepper spray, glass bottles and stones. Several were beaten so badly that they needed to be hospitalised. According to police reports, the attacks were motivated by nationalism.
On Tuesday night, hundreds of South Tel Aviv residents held a rally against the growing presence of foreigners, calling on the government to deport foreign workers and African refugees. Participants carried signs that read: “It’s not racism. It’s survival. Eli Yishai, you’re not alone,” referring to the interior minister. Yishai has pushed a plan to deport the children of illegal migrant labourers and has publicly stated that foreigners bring diseases into the country.
Fistfights broke out between demonstrators and left-wing activists who were holding a counter-demonstration.
The next day, Netanyahu responded with a video, which was posted on Facebook and YouTube. He emphasised that “Israelis cannot take the law into their own hands,” and asked the people to refrain from violence.
But the week was not over yet.
On Thursday, the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot reported that five Arab men – all citizens of the state, one of whom had served in the Israeli army – had been driven out of the home they shared in south Tel Aviv.
And that night, thousands of Jewish Israelis gathered in Jerusalem to support both continued settlement growth as well as the rabbis’ letter forbidding rental to Arabs.
Friday morning saw a demonstration of another kind.
More than 1,000 Israelis and African refugees, mostly from Eritrea and Sudan, marched through Tel Aviv in protest against state plans to build a new detention centre in the desert. The government claims it will provide “humane conditions” for illegal migrants from Africa, a group they call “infiltrators”. Human rights’ organisations say that the facility will be a prison camp for refugees.
A drum line wove its way through the crowd as it walked through the city. Protestors chanted: “What do we want? Rights! When do we want them? Now!” An Israeli called out: “The camp is dangerous, no less than south Sudan.” Demonstrators shouted it back, clapping out the beat of the sentence, which rhymes in Hebrew.
Despite the gravity of the cause, the mood was upbeat. The crowd seemed huge. It was exhilarating. It felt like we were really doing something, like we were taking the city – no, the country – into our hands.
How many are we? I wondered. I hopped up onto a bench to get a headcount. My excitement fell away as I saw us for what we were – a small, thin line, crawling past a traffic jam, cars full of Israelis who had forgotten the week and were starting the weekend.
The ‘foreigners’ among us
Most Israelis are apathetic. This leaves the Right free to take over – although the government is trying to distance itself from their efforts.
The Israeli media seems to be both condemning the “rise of racism” while giving the coals an occasional poke.Haaretz, a centre-left newspaper that has run many editorials decrying recent events, recently published a story with the provocative headline: 17 per cent of AIDS carriers over last decade were foreign migrants. It seemed to me an irresponsible and unnecessary article in light of recent events.
The government sends mixed messages, too. Netanyahu’s video urging Israelis to stay calm came just months after the government embarked on a public campaign against foreigners. It included videos of another sort – advertisements in which “real Israelis” (read: actors) claimed that migrant workers were taking their jobs. And while Netanyahu condemns the rabbis’ letter, a religious proclamation against the “foreigners” who live among us, he refers to another group of outsiders, the Africans, as “a concrete threat”.
And some of those speaking out in earnest against recent events still do not get the point. They bemoan the sudden “rise” of racism in Israel. One writer bucked this trend, arguing that the “roots” of the issue lie in the Ashkenazi mistreatment of Mizrahi Jews. But racism goes further back – to 1948 when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were driven from their homes.
Racism has since remained in ways large and small. Today, Arab schools receive less funding than Jewish schools and Arab areas of East Jerusalem receive less municipal services.
It is here in more insidious ways, too. When some Israelis want to call something tacky – a pair of shoes, a dress – they call it “Arab”. And a poorly-done job is referred to as “Arab work”.
The argument I had with those girls is not new. What is new is that it is taking place in public. And it begs the question: Which way will the Israeli public tip?
I am scared of the answer.