In less than eighteen hours from Thursday evening to Friday afternoon, Israeli racism and xenophobia exploded into three forms of extreme violence. I witnessed two of them.
Six people were stabbed by an ultra-Orthodox Jewish man named Yishai Schlissel at Jerusalem’s Gay Pride Parade. Yesterday, sixteen-year-old Shira Banki succumbed to her wounds. Only three weeks before, Schlissel was released from prison where he served a commuted ten-year sentence for stabbing three gay men at the 2005 parade. Despite a massive security presence, they were unable to prevent him from attacking again. After the parade, right-wing Israelis gathered in Jerusalem’s Zion Square to celebrate the stabbing rampage.
While this attack was condemned by Israeli political figures, their statements ring hollow – some of these politicians have incited against the LGBTQ community. During a 2006 Gay Pride Parade MK Belazel Smotrich organized a Beast Parade, marching through Jerusalem with goats and donkeys. Earlier this year, Smotrich said “I am a proud homophobe” while on a panel at a school.
At the Pride Parade, I spoke to a nineteen-year-old Israeli-American named Shmuel who would be enlisting in what he described as the “gay-friendly” Israeli Air Force. He acknowledged the Israeli military specifically targets gay Palestinians in order to coerce them to collaborate, but saw this homophobic tactic as unrelated to the acceptance of gay conscripts into the military. “It’s totally separate,” he told me. Shmuel’s allegiance to the Jewish State and its homophobic tactics deployed against Palestinians outweighed his commitment to LGBTQ rights – a clear display of the racism he professed to be against.
This anti-Palestinian racism and homophobia is so normalized in Israeli society that no one I spoke at the Pride Parade to seemed to be fazed by the simple fact that Palestinians trapped by Israeli apartheid behind the walls in the West Bank and Gaza Strip were not allowed to attend the march. If a supposed movement which demands equality, as so several marchers told me, cannot purge itself of racism, it should come as no surprise that they would be victimized by the same violence that they partake in.
Shmuel was not the only representative of the Israeli military. Several soldiers could be seen marching in uniform.
Late that night, the price-tag firebombing on a Palestinian home in the occupied West Bank village of Duma was carried out, burning 18-month-old Ali Dawabsha to death and severely burning his mother, father and four-year-old brother, who remain in critical condition. Like the stabbings, this attack was predictably condemned by Israeli political figures. But as Chaim Levinson wrote in Ha’aretz, numerous attempts of firebombing attacks on Palestinian homes have gone unpunished. It was only after the attack of the Dawabsha home that Israeli security forces arrested Moshe Orbach, a right-wing settler suspected of authoring a guide to carrying out price tag attacks, including a full chapter on how to firebomb houses and trap families inside.
“He recommends using a bottle filled with a gasoline-soaked rag (a firebomb), as was the case early Friday morning. He recommends placing burning tires outside the front door, to prevent anyone from escaping.”
While some supporters of Israel may criticize Israeli security forces for what they perceive as a failure to perform their duties, the bitter truth is that these security forces are part and parcel of the same colonial project that has been expelling, ghettoizing, and killing Palestinians since the inception of the state. This explains why Israel’s vaunted security apparatus and networks of collaborators have been unable – or perhaps unwilling – to apprehend the suspects in the firebombing. Given the Israeli government’s complicity with the movement that burned baby Ali, any investigation will ring hollow without prosecution of responsible officials at the highest levels.
Instead of heading to the village of Duma, I decided to join the Israeli/Canadian journalist David Sheen at an open forum for African asylum seekers in Levinsky Park in south Tel Aviv. As they told their harrowing accounts to a group including several liberal Israelis, right-wing Israelis wearing black t-shirts emblazoned with “South Tel Aviv Liberation Front” and flanked by police and Border Police came to disrupt the event and shout obscenities. As one woman spoke of the stabbing of her one-year-old (another vigilante racist attack on a non-Jewish baby), a young Israeli screamed at her, “You’re a liar! Don’t lie!”
Minutes later, the same Israeli accused two young African boys of throwing a piece of watermelon at him. As police approached the boys, the Israeli threw a piece of watermelon at the boys. Despite having witnessed the Israeli adult throw watermelon at the African children, the heavily-armed border police detained and interrogated the children.
In addition to the African asylum speakers, Reuven Abergil, founding member of the Israeli Black Panthers – a radical Mizrahi movement founded in the 1970s – took the microphone and directed his fury towards the disruptors, asserting that they were now spewing the same anti-immigrant tropes that they were on the receiving end of when they were new immigrants. “Us from the neighborhoods, from the periphery, the state never belonged to us,” Abergil boomed. “In Ha’aretz there were racist articles against the Jews of Islamic lands. They used these words: These Jews are bringing diseases! They will rape your children! They will rape your women! They have no respect for society! They have no culture! They said this about my parents and your parents!”
For David Sheen, who covers anti-African racism in Israel, he was particularly disturbed by cheers that erupted from liberal Israelis when an African asylum seeker said that if conditions improved in his home country, he would leave.
“It’s sad, that after years of state-sponsored racist incitement and racist attacks, when African refugees say, ‘Don’t worry, we don’t want to be here either, as soon as things get better in our home countries, we will leave immediately’ – no Israelis respond by saying, ‘No! We don’t want you to feel that you have to leave right away!’” Sheen told me after the open forum. “Why shouldn’t some Africans choose to stay here and put down roots, even if things eventually do get better in their home countries? Why can’t Africans, Arabs and white folks, Jews, Christian, Muslims, animists, atheists all live in the same society? Because the consensus assumption among Zionists is that the country must have a permanent Jewish super-majority. Even liberal Zionists will only accept non-Jewish immigrants as a temporary exception that must be expelled at the earliest opportunity.”
The various forms of extreme violence that occurred over those eighteen hours – whether directed at Palestinians or African asylum seekers – are deeply rooted in a greater context of normalized racism, as Sheen articulated. The symptoms will continue as long as the cause is not treated.