Video of Jewish mob chanting ‘Death to Arabs!’ as they stop cars looking for Palestinian drivers in Jerusalem.
On Saturday July 19, I was invited to give a lecture to students at the Arab American University in Jenin, in the northern tip of the West Bank. Jenin has a reputation in Israel of being a kind of Gaza away from Gaza. Its gunfights with the Israeli military and periodic destruction also brings it closer to Gaza in the Israeli imagination. ‘They don’t like Jenin,’ a friend, an ice-cream maker in the city, once told me.
These days Jenin is quiet. It’s distinguished from other Palestinian cities by its pastoral calm. The university, located 7km outside the city center, is surrounded by rolling hills and rich farm land. Students come from not only the northern West Bank, but also from Nazareth and Haifa — Israel. The Green Line is only observed by Jewish Israelis. The topic of my lecture was about the complexities in individuals who continue living in a society that they reject, and I discussed this through the example of Israeli anti-Zionist activists, namely members of groups like Anarchists Against the Wall, Zochrot, and a handful of others who constitute a microscopic minority in Jewish Israeli society. This topic is one I’ve presented several times at academic conferences in Europe and North America, but I was excited to be presenting to a Palestinian audience for the first time. How does a critique of Zionism from the children of Zionism sound to the victims of Zionism? I’ve had conversations about the topic with Palestinian friends before, of course. It’s never easy. Palestinians are mistrustful of Jewish Israelis, even those who declare support for them. But in the classroom in Jenin, I was the boss. The dialectic of speaking to students is quite different from having a conversation with friends. They hang on your every word. You are a messenger and you want the message to be true.
In researching this topic for the past two years, I’ve been living on and off in Israel/Palestine, mostly in Ramallah, the cosmopolitan center of Palestinian life and culture. My research also regularly took me to Tel Aviv, where most of the anti-Zionist activists live, and to Palestinian villages in the West Bank, where they are most active. Given this very personal acquaintance with the land and its inhabitants, people are often surprised to hear that I have very little knowledge of Jerusalem. Something impalpable, mysterious kept me away from the holy city. For me it was always a transit point, a necessary and unpleasant layover that I never cared to explore or understand. This summer, however, I have been living in Jerusalem. I was in Jerusalem when the three yeshiva students went missing near Hebron, when Mohammed Abu Khdeir was kidnapped and burned alive — maybe 3km from my house — and it’s Jerusalem from where I obsessively follow updates from Gaza as Operation Protective Edge wreaks utter havoc on over a million lives.
It has been under these conditions that I’ve finally been acquainting myself with Israel’s capital and the city most associated with the Israel/Palestine conflict. Clashes between Palestinians and Israeli police have been occurring every night in Shuafat, Issawiya, and other Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, to the blind eye of the media. Palestinians wake up in the morning to find their cars and businesses vandalized. News of hate crimes circulate word of mouth. Most visibly, mobs of Jewish nationalists march through West Jerusalem streets chanting maavet la’aravim ‘death to Arabs.’ The mobs are usually composed of Mizrahi youth, themselves of Arab descent and at most two generations removed from Arabic language and culture, with haircuts modeled after their favorite soccer players. Often there are religious nationalists with kippahs and the fringes of a tzitzit dangling from under their shirts. Sometimes there are even a few beautiful young women scattered among the mostly male mobs. I struggle to comprehend their hate. As the mobs stroll through the streets, its total toleration from passersby and police deflate any hope I may have in the future of a harmonious Jewish/Arab coexistence. The mobs may be a minority, but the toleration suggests that they represent a majority.
As the massacres in Gaza intensify, I see a change also in how people of the city perceive me, a dark-skinned Indian-American who is neither Jew nor Arab. Less and less people sit next to me on the light rail connecting Arab East Jerusalem to Jewish West Jerusalem, even when it’s the only available seat. The contempt is real. I’m not welcome in the Jewish state.
As I spoke to students in Jenin, Operation Protective Edge was on its twelfth day. The students listened attentively as I explained the inner turmoil of Jewish Israelis who demonstrate for Palestinians. ‘But why don’t they leave?’ a student asks. I don’t have an answer. Another asks, ‘ What have they accomplished?’ I give them the example of Zochrot, a group that has successfully introduced the word Nakba into the Hebrew language in the past ten years, thus giving the Israeli national consciousness a tool with which to confront the ethnic cleansing of 750,000 Palestinians that made the foundation of Israel possible. It’s not much, I tell the students, but it’s a start.
After finishing the lecture, I drove to Tel Aviv to participate in a demonstration organized by the Coalition of Women for Peace, an anti-Zionist feminist group, against the operation in Gaza. I had been present at a similar demonstration the week prior, when a mob of Jewish nationalists disrupted the demonstration and attacked the crowd. They threw chairs, sexually harassed women, spat on faces, and physically assaulted quite a few people. When the bomb siren sounded and the sky was lit up by a Hamas rocket, and then an Israeli counter-rocket, and then an explosion, they chanted: maavet la’aravim. The full moon hung low above us. It was surrealism in motion. The anti-Zionist left are courageous in many ways, but I am ashamed to say that they are not fighters. They are filmmakers, artists, professors, and philosophers, among a host of other non-threatening occupations. They cannot fight fascists. A friend of mine, a former haredi Jew who left his ultra-conservative society and joined the radical left, was hit over the head with a chair and was taken to a hospital. He was released without major injuries, but he was spotted in a café a few days later and assaulted again. This time the injuries were more severe. The emotional damage is likely even more severe still. This is Jew-on-Jew violence. When the mobs chant maavet la’aravim, it’s clear that Jews who stand for Palestinians become stand-ins for Palestinians. For the fascists, these are Jews who have left the nation. They are yordim ‘those who go down.’
After these demos end, I usually find myself in an unfamiliar street where we had been forced to retreat by police, fear, and chaos. Walking back to a friend’s apartment, we take side-roads and alleys. We walk in shadows and in groups. My friend changes t-shirts, lest he be recognized. Tel Aviv is becoming a frightening place to be. The party is over in the great Mediterranean party city.
Because of these events I’ve been witnessing in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, I have been reading on fascism. I want to clarify here that the word ‘fascism’ is often misused, but such a thing actually exists and its implication should taken seriously. It has an ideology and a political program. In my readings, I came across a curious little document called The Doctrine of Fascism, co-written by Mussolini in 1932. I urge everyone to read it. Its points line up with the views of Jewish nationalists exactly. It is spiritual, anti-individualistic, and race-based. With minor changes, it can easily be adopted as the manifesto of the Israeli right. Fascism is here.
So when I think back on speaking to students in Jenin about Jewish Israelis who continue living in a society they reject, I am ashamed by the incompleteness of my lecture. I didn’t speak of fascism. I didn’t speak of maavet la’aravim, although no doubt they know. I chose to give a message of hope, trusting that the idea of something beautiful is sometimes more important than the horrific truth.