Lisa Goldman is director of the Israel-Palestine Initiative at New America, a Washington-based think tank.
Earlier this month, one of Israel’s most famous writers announced in his weekly newspaper column that he was packing up his family and moving to the United States – permanently. Sayed Kashua, an Arab-Palestinian citizen of Israel who resides in Jerusalem, is the author of critically acclaimed novels and a popular television series, all written in Hebrew with wit and insight into the complex, conflicted society of Arabs and Jews living uneasily side-by-side. But after more than two decades of believing that ultimately Arabs and Jews would find a way to co-exist as equals, he wrote, something inside him “had broken.” He no longer believed in a better future.
Mr. Kashua’s decision to emigrate came in response to a series of events that were marked by violence and incitement against the Arab population, from the government to the street. One member of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, called for a war against the Palestinian people on her Facebook page. Another called an Arab legislator a “terrorist” during a parliamentary committee session, while still another, the leader of an ostensibly centrist party, submitted a proposal to ban an established Arab nationalist party with sitting members of the Knesset. The editor of a right-wing newspaper suggested that now was the time to transfer the Arab population out of the occupied West Bank. In Jerusalem, mobs of hyper nationalist youth rampaged through the cafe-lined downtown streets chanting “death to Arabs,” assaulting random passersby because they looked or sounded Palestinian. Most horrifically of all, a 17 year-old Palestinian boy from East Jerusalem was abducted from the street by six young Jewish men, three of them minors. The police found Mohammed Abu Khdeir’s corpse in the nearby Jerusalem Forest shortly after CCTV cameras recorded some young men forcing him into a car. He had been doused with gasoline and burned alive. Three of the six boys confessed to the crime and re-enacted it for the police.
This orgy of internecine violence was sparked by the mid-June abduction of three Jewish teenage boys – Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaer and and Eyal Yifrah – who were hitchhiking in the West Bank. The army carried out a massive three-week manhunt for the boys, that included pre-dawn raids and dozens of arrests; it ended with the discovery of three corpses buried in a field near Hebron. And while the men who committed the crime were almost certainly Palestinian, Hamas has vociferously denied involvement even as the Israeli government continues to accuse them of masterminding the abduction and murder as an act of terrorism.
After the nationally televised funerals for the boys, with moving eulogies delivered by their mothers, the country seemed to explode. Ultra nationalists openly organized anti-Arab demonstrations via Facebook groups. In response to the murder of Abu Khdeir, the Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem demonstrated violently against even more violent paramilitary police, three of whom were filmed beating a handccuffed and unconscious Palestinian-American boy named Tariq Abu Khdeir. And then the rage spread to the Galilee, where Palestinian-Arabs (sometimes called “Arab Israelis”) came out onto the streets to demonstrate; they were met by paramilitary police who used violent crowd control methods usually reserved for the occupied territories – rubber bullets, tear gas and brutal beatings. According to Adalah, a local NGO that monitors minority civil rights in Israel, the police arrested more than 400 Arab citizens for protesting.
And then the Israeli military announced its third military assault on Gaza in less than six years. The purpose of the operation, announced the government, was to destroy Hamas’s military capacity, stop its military wing from launching rockets at civilian population centers, which was occurring more frequently since the army arrested Hamas members in the West Bank, and “restore peace” to the areas of Israel that border Gaza. The vast majority of Israeli Jews support the military operation, called Protective Edge, but leftist Jews and the Arab minority organized anti-war protests, primarily in liberal Tel Aviv and then in Haifa, a mixed Arab-Jewish city.
There’s nothing new in seeing a minority of Israelis protest a popular war. It is not unprecedented for that minority to be met by counter-protestors who wrap themselves in the flag and call out insults like “traitor.” But this time something new and worrying happened: Peaceful, unarmed demonstrators in Israel’s two most liberal cities were physically attacked by ultra-nationalists wielding stones and bottles. In Haifa, nationalist thugs assaulted the Arab deputy mayor, slamming the middle-aged man down on the pavement. In Tel Aviv, they chased anti-war protestors into a cafe and smashed a chair over the head of one of them, even as municipal sirens wailed to announce an incoming rocket from Gaza. The police were ineffective in stopping the violence. Later, it emerged that the ultra-nationalist attackers had organized via a Facebook group managed by a well-known rap artist – a tattooed, muscular fellow who goes by the name The Shadow.
Something has broken down in Israeli society. Friends who always said they would never leave because they were too deeply rooted in the place, its language and their families are deeply worried and even despairing over the radical rightward shift of the mainstream political discourse. Several have said they were looking for opportunities abroad because they couldn’t see themselves raising their children in a country where dissent was slowly but surely being suppressed even as the national discourse hardened rightward.
Israel has always been a flawed democracy with many festering internal divisions. Its policies toward the Arab minority reflect the unresolved tension of a conflicted identity: Should Israel aspire to be a liberal democracy or a democracy for Jews? But in the five years since Benjamin Netanyahu was elected prime minister and formed a governing coalition composed of far-right, racist and anti-democratic parties, something very fundamental has changed in Israeli society. It feels as though the majority is willing to suspend essential elements of democracy in favor of Jewish nationalism. There doesn’t seem to be a place for dissent anymore.