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Racism in Israel: a Predictable Byproduct of Occupation

Two generations of Israelis have now been born and raised in an Israel that must constantly find ways to justify the occupation, including justifying both the denial of rights and freedoms to Palestinians and the ever-growing settlement enterprise.  As those justifications become harder and harder to make - whether in the context of a moribund peace process or in the context of Israel facing harsh criticism for its actions in Gaza or against the flotilla, or in the context of Palestinian hunger strikers challenging Israel's policy of holding them indefinitely without trial (euphemistically called "administrative detention") - a tribalist, circle-the-wagons mentality, more pronounced than at any time in Israeli's history, is coming to the fore in Israeli society.  

The ugly racism that was on display last night in Tel Aviv was a symptom of this phenomenon.  A rally against African migrants turned violent and a race riot ensued.  It followed on the heels of a rally earlier in the week characterized by similarly racist, hateful themes.

All of us who care about Israel should be alarmed and outraged by these events, but we should not be surprised.   This racism is not some isolated or exceptional phenomenon neatly linked to a complicated and socially fraught immigration issue.  No.  It is part and parcel of the longstanding and growing intolerance in Israeli society - intolerance that is an inevitable outgrowth of the 45-year-long occupation and the policies that sustain it.  

In this context, anyone who challenges Israeli policies or the status quo is dehumanized and treated as an enemy of the state and of the Jewish people.  This applies not only to Palestinians, both citizens of Israel and residents of the occupied territories, but also to Israelis who are fighting for peace, civil rights, and human rights; to foreigners who show any sympathy for the Palestinians or who support Israeli activists; and even to the IDF and Israeli politicians whose support for rule of law and democracy puts them at odds with Israeli extremists promoting their "Greater Israel" agenda.

Likewise, in this context, a legitimate and difficult debate over illegal immigration (one that is taking place in countries all over the world) has become an occasion to cast African migrants - the most visible face of the non-Jewish population in Israel - as another dehumanized enemy who must be routed.  Anyone who dares disagree is a deemed a traitor. These points are made in terms that are chillingly evocative of those used against Jews in pre-Holocaust Europe and against black people in America's pre-civil rights era.  

This convergence of intolerance and right-wing nationalist zeal is evident in the fact that the Israeli politicians who set the stage for and participated in last night's outrage are some of the same politicians who are the loudest defenders of the settlers and the greatest aggressors against democratic values like free speech.  They include:

•    Likud MK Miri Regev, who egged on the crowd last night, calling African migrants "a cancer in our body."  

This is the same Miri Regev who suggested that Palestinian-Israeli MKs who were photographed with a Hamas official should die, saying they "should become shahids [martyrs] themselves" and said that "The time has come for Arab Knesset members to realize their place."  For taking part in the flotilla, Regev shouted at Palestinian-Israeli MK Hanan Zoabi "go to Gaza, traitor" and suggested that she is a "Trojan Horse in the Knesset."  Regev is a leader in the effort to have Israel annex the West Bank and legalize illegal outposts, and has announced plans to establish a new Knesset lobby to press for extension of Israel law to the West Bank.

•    Likud MK Danny Danon, who at last night's hatefest told the crowd that "We should not be afraid to say the words 'expulsion now.'"  Danon is the head of a Knesset caucus whose mission is to deport African migrants, bearing the Orwellian name "Knesset Caucus to Solve the Infiltrator Problem."  Danon recently declared, "Without delay and without mercy, all the infiltrators should be taken out of Israel" and "Some call it expulsion, I call it defending the homeland."  

This is the same Danon who is the Knesset champion of the settlers, working (among other things) to annex the West Bank and protect and legalize illegal outposts.  He has also introduced anti-democratic legislation and led anti-democratic initiatives, including a law requiring "loyalty oaths" from all Israelis in order to obtain any government-issued document (including ID card), a law seeking to limit the ability of pro-peace organizations from taking cases to the Israeli Supreme Court, and a law under which the Knesset could expel fellow Knesset members if they express opposition to Israel as a Jewish state.  Danon also was the leader in targeting funding of progressive NGOs Israel.  Danon recently wrote an op-ed rejecting any state for the Palestinians.

•    National Union MK Michael Ben-Ari, whose theme at the event was "Sudanese to the Sudan" and who in the wake of the violence called on Israel to deport all illegal aliens "for their own safety."

This is the same Ben-Ari who, on his own website, proudly proclaims his status as "the first outspoken disciple of Rabbi Meir Kahane to be elected to the Knesset".  That is the same Meir Kahane whose party was outlawed in Israel for being racist and who spawned two parties - Kach and Kahane Chai - that are classified as terrorist organizations in Israel and the United States.  Ben-Ari is famous for having referred to members of Israeli left-wing organizations as "traitors who must be persecuted at any cost" and referred to the Israeli Peace Now movement as a "dangerous enemy" and "a germ" that threatens Israeli society and an "enemy that threatens Israel's existence."  When an IDF officer was recently caught on tape smashing the butt of his rifle into the head of a non-violent foreign demonstrator, Ben-Ari commented: "Well done to the IDF officer who did what Bibi and Aharonovich have no brain or courage to do... Radical leftists must be handled with a heavy hand..." In response to rocket attacks, Ben-Ari called on Netanyahu to "erase the Gaza that is threatening our existence."  He is an outspoken opponent of the two-state solution and an enthusiastic champion of the settlers, actively supporting and showing solidarity with settlers taking over new properties inside Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem and with residents of illegal West Bank outposts.  

What happened last night in Tel Aviv is just the latest evidence of the brutalization and coarsening of ever-growing segments of Israeli society - creating a poisonous, zero-sum atmosphere in which the mob is ready to turn on any group that has been singled out, for whatever reason, as the enemy "other." It is a trend whose roots have burrowed deep in the West Bank and are watered by policies that support and promote the "Greater Israel, at any cost" agenda.  This racism cannot be addressed without dealing with these roots.  Pretending otherwise is just an exercise in self-delusion and denial, and will only result in Israel sliding deeper down the slippery slope toward authoritarianism.