Intolerance and Violence in Tel Aviv

Israel has been under attack in recent years on claims that its democracy has been weakened by a perceived resurgence of haredi oppression, and a string of bills and legislative efforts sponsored by right-wing nationalists designed to remove any criticism of the (right wing) government and the settlement enterprise, and to disenfranchise citizens and remove their political and civil freedoms.

I, for one, have argued that things were never dire: that some of these legislative efforts were defeated, that some accounted for the criticisms and were watered down considerably, that some are reflective only of the contemporary context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or that citizens still have ways around these constraints. I have become concerned over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s lack of effort to rein in some of the more egregious activities of some of his political allies, but still think things are not nearly as bad as many on the left have been insisting. And I still think Bibi has been unfairly targeted as the repository of all that people dislike about Israel, the settlements, the orthodox, and, well, everything else they don’t like.

The disgusting rioting against African migrants last night in Tel Aviv (excellent coverage and discussion of which can be found at +972 Magazine) has demonstrated that the anger, fear, resentment, and inability to accept difference operates at the societal as well as the political level.  

But we need to keep perspective. At Ottomans and Zionists, Michael Koplow reminds us that it was a small number of people at the demonstration-turned-riot, and that the MKs who spoke there were speaking against, not for, the government.

And, as with much of the legislative activity, voices have been heard denouncing both the rioters and the MKs who incited them. This includes the Prime Minister (Bibi) and the Speaker of the Knesset (Reuven Rivlin)—both of whom, it should be noted, belong to the same party as some of the MKs who incited at the protest (Danny Danon, Miri Regev). Already protests against racism in Israel have sprung up in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

But there is still a deeper problem here. It’s not about imposing a hegemonic vision of Zionism (a common explanation) but rather about intolerance—which has perhaps been so obvious that it hasn’t been given the credit it deserves.

This isn’t an Israeli thing or a Zionist thing, it’s a human thing.

There is a group in Israel (and the US) that is intolerant of Others. It is diverse, even fluid. It can consist of the religious or the secular, Ashkenazi or Mizrachi, Russians or Ethiopians, settlers or non-settlers, Israelis or American Jews.

What they have in common, at one time or another, is intolerance of an Other. The intolerant group is amorphous, but it perceives itself to be the real Israel, composed of the real pioneers and defenders of the Zionist dream, against a different and, subsequently, hostile world composed primarily of Gentiles, but also of left wing Israeli and American Jews who (they believe) hate the real Israel. In return, this ingroup feels intolerant of others who do not share its political or ideological agenda.

That’s why Peter Beinart has been attacked personally, for not being a good Zionist or even a good Jew, rather than on the merits of his argument. That’s why left-leaning human rights organizations are attacked as surreptitiously carrying out the instructions of Europeans who dislike Israel. And it’s why members of the Knesset can call African migrants to Israel vile names (“plague”) that evoke horror and disgust but that also suggest a particular method for excising them (violence through incision or operation), and incite a mob to riot against them.

It is not easy to get over one’s intolerance, and in fact much of the work falls to others to help demonstrate why the intolerance is a negative thing. Given this group’s diversity, this is not easy task. One way to do so is to avoid the rhetoric that many have used to describe settlers, trends in Israeli democracy, Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians, its discussions of how to deal with Iran, and so on. Demonization is demonization, whether done in blunt or gentle terms.

This, of course, gets back to the levels of vitriol that characterize the debate over Israel. A reasoned, serious, and civil discussion is absolutely necessary. Obviously it must be done in conjunction with the imposition of law and order, the sanctioning of inciters, and careful policymaking. But it cannot be ignored. The fear- and hate- mongers cannot be allowed to control the conversation—or anything else.

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