At the moment it happened, the July 31 murder of eighteen-month-old Ali Dawabshe by Israeli settlers in a firebombing in the West Bank village of Duma seemed to shake the foundations of the Israeli occupation itself. Anguished cries for accountability rang out worldwide as Israeli politicians declared they would crack down on Jewish terrorism and Israel supporters warned the legitimacy of Zionism itself could hang in the balance if the perpetrators were not brought to justice. When the child’s father died from burns ten days later, the demands for accountability only increased.
More than a month later Israeli authorities have failed to produce a suspect directly linked to the attack. I spent an afternoon around north Tel Aviv’s picturesque beachfront asking Israelis for assessments of the government’s handling of the firebombing. The coastal city is often portrayed as the counterweight to the dominant right-wing – as Israel’s bastion of liberalism and intellectualism. But the Tel Avivians I talked to were largely uninterested, and some had long forgotten about the attack.
“Did they catch anyone?” Melih Bahar asked after my description of the firebombing jogged his memory.
I explained to him that the police had not arrested anyone linked directly to the firebombing, and he expressed confidence that the attackers would be apprehended.
“So apparently they haven’t done a good job,” he said. “But listen, it takes time. I can’t blame them [the police]. I trust them and I think they are doing a great job.”
Ori, 25, was certain the police were handling the case properly. “I’m sure they are investigating it. They said they have suspects.”
“I don’t know how the investigation is going, but the government took it very seriously,” said Rona Temkin, 46, pausing on an evening bicycle ride with her husband to speak with me.
Not only were Israelis in Tel Aviv confident that their government was pursuing justice for the Dawabshe family, some believed that Palestinians had committed the firebombing – a conspiracy theory widespread throughout the right-wing that is supposedly antithetical to Tel Aviv.
“They blamed Jewish terrorists but there is no proof that Jews burned the house,” said Yiram, a 36-year-old educational software designer. “It’s the opposite”, he continued twisting logic to claim that the fact that two houses were firebombed indicates an intra-Arab conflict.
Arthur, a 25-year-old Russian immigrant and Labor Party supporter, also questioned if Jews had actually committed the attack.
Others simply did not care.
“We don’t talk about politics,” one woman told me as she walked away.
“Maybe when we come back by,” another man said. “We’re walking right now.”
Across the board, Israeli politicians condemned the attack. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claims he instructed security forces to “use all the resources at their disposal to capture the killers and bring them to justice as soon as possible.”
“He who burns a Palestinian baby declares war on the State of Israel,” said journalist turned politician Yair Lapid.
“We will chase down the murderers until they are caught,” promised Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon.
Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, known for a pro-genocide Facebook post during the 2014 war on Gaza, backed the death penalty for Jewish terrorists.
For liberal Zionist groups in the United States, the Duma attack and the fatal stabbing at Jerusalem’s Pride Parade prompted a crisis of soul searching. J Street published an article entitled, “Condemnation Is Not Enough,” calling on the Jewish community “not only to offer words of condemnation and consolation, but to fight to change our social, political and religious reality so that such things never happen again.”
That view was echoed by the American pro-Israel mega-philanthropist Lynn Schusterman, who blogged about the gravity of the event: “It is not enough to simply decry—rather, each of us has the responsibility to staunchly defend the human rights owed to us all. To hold our leaders accountable. To organize ourselves, take action and ensure that our voices are loud enough for all to hear.”
While Palestinians in the West Bank are forced to organize to defend themselves from settler attacks, I couldn’t find any calls for accountability in Tel Aviv. In fact, I could not find a single Israeli who was even familiar with the status of the case.
The Duma case illustrates why critics like Israeli activist Ronnie Barkan see Tel Aviv as a bubble.
“It doesn’t surprise me that people in Tel Aviv don’t know the basic facts about the Duma case because they don’t have to know,” Barkan explained to me. “People in Tel Aviv are just as much as part of the system [as settlers] but they are participating in a different way. Tel Aviv is the only cosmopolitan city in the world that is Arab-free. They adapt to the Tel Aviv bubble and not having to care, but Tel Aviv is the place where you have the [military] command-and-control center which is responsible for the siege of Gaza. In the massacre that took place a year ago, the pilots who razed entire neighborhoods to the ground left their homes in Tel Aviv to the air force base and got into their F16s and bombed the hell out of Gaza, and then went back home to the comfortable life in Tel Aviv in the evening. In Jerusalem, it’s in your face. You can’t travel on the light rail and not engage with Palestinians. You don’t have this kind of friction in Tel Aviv – it’s kind of frictionless.”
“In Hebrew, there is an expression: ‘lihiyot im v’lehargish bli.’ It means being with and feeling as if you are without,” Barkan said. “This is what the Tel Aviv bubble is all about.”
Rona Temkin seemed to confirm Barkan’s analysis as she acknowledged she hadn’t really been following the Dawabshe story: “Tel Aviv is like a different country – like another country inside Israel.”