Yossi* wants to make it very clear from the beginning of our discussion that I cannot use his real name. Rotem, his friend who is also translating, explains, “He is afraid. We’re all afraid. The fascists are searching for our Facebook profiles, for any information about us on the internet. They are hunting us.”
What first may seem like hyperbole is in fact exactly what pro-Palestinian, anti-occupation Jewish-Israeli activists have been describing for the last week: mobs of right-wing fascists chasing peaceful protesters and violently attacking them in the centers of West Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
On Saturday night, July 12, a few hundred demonstrators gathered in Habima Square in Tel Aviv to protest the ongoing massacre in Gaza, organized by the Coalition of Women for Peace. Habima Square, according to Rotem, is the place for “mainstream” protests in Tel Aviv. Hundreds of demonstrations have been held there, though none in recent memory had turned as violent and ugly as Saturday night’s. While demonstrators chanted and held signs in the square, a group of approximately 60 counter-protesters, some wearing shirts with fascist logos prominently displayed, arrived and began menacing the crowd. Police were not doing much to separate the two groups. Some of the demonstrators had already dispersed, sensing the tension with the counter-protestors, and then a siren sounded, indicating an incoming rocket from the resistance in Gaza.
“The police were just cowards,” Rotem said. “They left us to face a group of fascists who wanted to kill us. They actually told us that.” The demonstrators there to support the people of Gaza tried to leave the area. Yossi explained what happened next. “We ran down the street and the fascists followed us. We ran into a cafe and about 20 of the fascists came inside after us. They completely destroyed the cafe.” A chair was raised and crashed over Yossi’s head. It was only when he lost consciousness that the police were called. Yossi was evacuated by friends to the hospital.
On Monday, Yossi decided he wanted to return to the cafe and apologize.
“I felt bad,” he said. “It is a cafe in my neighborhood. It wasn’t the owner’s fault that the fascists got violent. I wanted to apologize.”
Yossi describes himself as rather “strange” for a “left-wing activist”. He comes from a religious family and wears a yarmulke, a rare sight among the largely secular Jewish-Israeli left. He’s in his early twenties and says he’s been going to demonstrations in support of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and inside Israel, as well as social justice issues. He went to the cafe and was chatting with the owner without incident until the bartender asked him, “are you a leftist?” Yossi replied that he was, which the bartender found odd, considering that Yossi was religious. Yossi gave the example to the bartender of the Naturei Karta, an orthodox sect that is strictly anti-Zionist when a customer in the cafe got up to confront him.
“Are you a fucking leftist?” he asked. “Do you love this country?”
Yossi replied that he did not, in fact, love the state, and said in English, “Judaism is not Zionism.” Rotem interjects at this point to explain, “this may seem like an obvious thing to say, but in Israel, it’s not.”
Yossi, wary of the increasing tension, tried to leave the cafe. The customer began to laugh at him. “Were you the one injured on Saturday?” he asked. Yossi replied that he was, and was in fact hospitalized. The man began shouting and getting aggressive with Yossi, who took out his phone and snapped a picture of the enraged customer. Yossi described what happened next with a sense of shock in his voice.
The customer grabbed Yossi by the hair and threw him to the ground, insisting that he give him the phone to delete the picture. Yossi suggested he would show the owner that he was deleting the picture but the customer would have none of it and again threw him to the ground and beat him. Yossi saw a police officer outside and tried to go to him when the customer threw him down again. Yossi blacked out for a moment and when he came to the customer was trying to physically throw him outside. The owner by this point was also trying to throw Yossi out of the cafe, saying he was causing trouble. Finally, Yossi managed to leave and call friends and the police, though both he and Rotem want to make clear that they don’t trust the police and don’t believe in using them anyway.
It is a level of violence that neither Yossi nor Rotem have seen before. Not aimed at other Jewish-Israelis, at least. Rotem was particularly appalled that throughout the assault, no one lifted a hand to help Yossi or to interfere.
Both Rotem and Yossi want to make it clear, though, that they recognize violence itself is nothing new. Yossi said, “this is nothing compared to the violence used against Palestinians every day.” Even during periods of relative calm, he says, “Palestinians are attacked every day. Every day.” What’s different, Rotem said, is that it is now being visited on other Jews, “in the heart of Tel Aviv.”
I asked what they saw as the cause of the surge of violence and fascist rhetoric in Israeli society. Yossi explained it this way: “The differen[ce] between the pilots bombing Gaza every day and the hooligans in the street is that the hooligans aren’t killing people.” In other words, the mentality required to massacre Gazans and that which leads to assaulting those who you don’t agree with are one in the same. Rotem lays the blame at the increasingly right-wing government and their direct incitement. “[Naftali] Bennett and others like him are encouraging this kind of violence. They are calling Palestinians animals and us traitors.” He believes it’s part of a coordinated campaign to incite violence. “It used to not be politically correct to talk like this. You used to only say these things behind closed doors. Now it’s out in the open.” The people on the streets attacking Palestinians and left-wing Israelis, he said, “are just the soldiers.” This is the result of “twenty years of denying democracy, of working against the Supreme Court, against minorities” he said.
“I don’t want to say it will get worse before it gets better, but….” Rotem said, his voice trailing off. The sense of urgency then returns to his voice. “It’s only going to get worse if the left doesn’t stand against it,” he said. “We are trying to organize. People can’t be afraid to be loyal to Palestinians. I don’t care if we get beaten again and again. We need to stand against the fascists.” “I’m a teacher,” he told me, “I wasn’t even really an activist. But I am now.”
*Not his real name