In the summer of 1998, I became a Bar Mitzvah at the Western Wall in occupied east Jerusalem. Sixteen years later, during Israel’s latest assault on the Gaza Strip, I attended an event billed as a prayer vigil for the well-being of Israeli soldiers in Gaza.
The Western Wall is a favorite for tourists and setting for countless photo-ops for politicians seeking the political blessing of Israel’s right-wing leadership. Part of a highly secured plaza, the Wall sits where the old city’s Moroccan Quarter once existed before Israeli forces demolished it shortly after its capture in 1967.
At the prayer vigil, I expected a somber mood. However, I found a tense atmosphere in which every Israeli I spoke to spouted some amount of racist and hyper-violent rhetoric.
The content I gathered portrays something of the besieged mentality and anti-Arab racism that is foundational in Israeli society. Though there is no shortage of horrifying moments, perhaps most mind-boggling is the claim to desire peace while being openly racist and inciting violence against Arabs on camera.
There were a handful of scenes I did not capture on film. At the time of the vigil, US officials had briefly banned American airplanes from landing at Ben-Gurion airport because of a rocket that had struck nearby. However, US Secretary of State John Kerry had flown in to once again futilely attempt to resuscitate negotiations. After a middle-aged woman described the vigil as peaceful and non-political, her husband shouted that he wished a rocket would have hit John Kerry’s plane.
After I spoke to the group of high school students, a middle-aged woman approached me. In fluent English, she seemed suspicious and began to question me. “Are you left wing or right-wing,” she asked. Careful not to expose myself, I told her, “I want peace. I know the army has to do what it has to do.” Still skeptical, she encouraged me to “join us,” and told me that if I were to “become right-wing,” I could live among them and marry. I asked for her contact information, but she refused to even identify herself. She told me that she couldn’t divulge her identity because she is an artist and that she was in the Air Force.
Throughout the evening, I wondered if I might be attacked for being perceived as smolinim — the Hebrew word for “leftist” — a dangerous label in Israel today. Never in my life had I felt so threatened for being a politically-minded Jew as I was that evening.