For years, Israel’s leaders have cultivated ethnic hatred – this is on them

Dahlia Scheindlin

Newsweek  /  May 13, 2021

No one was truly surprised when Hamas and Israel resumed vicious fighting again this week, trading rockets and air strikes, generally terrorizing Israeli and Palestinian civilians alike.

But something more insidious is happening: Perhaps inevitably, though still shockingly, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has bled into Israel’s cities and citizens. As I write this, lynch mobs are roaming the streets just a few kilometers from my house, chanting “Death to Arabs”. Young Jewish men thronged the streets of Bat Yam near Tel Aviv, swarming a car and dragging the Arab [Palestinian] driver out to beat him, with no police in sight. An Arab man was shot to death in Lod [Lydda] earlier this week. On Tuesday night, Arab rioters torched a synagogue there and burned cars. In “mixed towns” all around the country—which is itself a large mixed town—where Jewish and Arab-Palestinian Israelis live together, the last 48 hours have descended into the hell of ethnic conflict.

Both Jews and Arabs have been attacked and have done the attacking. In a snapshot of the last 48 hours, it would be hard to assign blame.

But in Israel, one party is in control: Jewish Israelis have the most influential pulpits in the country—the national government, prime time news—and they—we—control myriad social institutions from the army to the education system, defining the worldview of Israelis from the start.

After recently watching the Oscar-nominated film Quo Vadis, Aida, about the genocide perpetrated by Bosnian Serb forces against Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica in 1995, the greatest question of that horrible war came roaring back to my mind: How did people who lived side by side, who shared schools and communities, wake up one day and kill each other?

The answer is that they didn’t wake up one day. Teaching and cultivating ethnic rage takes time. And for years in Israel, the leadership entrusted with serving its citizens has been pumping hatred into the air.

It’s not one person. In 2009, Avigdor Lieberman ran a political campaign with the slogan “No loyalty, no citizenship!” explicitly referring to Arab citizens. From that year, against a backdrop of structural discrimination against Arab-Palestinian citizens from the start of statehood, Lieberman’s party, under Netanyahu’s Likud government, passed a salvo of laws or debated bills targeting Arab Palestinian Israelis.

Since then, the prominence of racist Israeli Jewish politicians, and the brazenness of their political programs, has only increased.

In 2013, Naftali Bennett called Palestinians under occupation a matter of “shrapnel in the rear“, to argue that it would be more painful to remove them, a literary metaphor to justify his annexation policies. And Bezalel Smotrich, who entered Knesset through Bennett’s party, used chillingly familiar metaphors. In 2018, he said of Palestinians, “The problem is when you’re dealing with mosquitoes: When you kill mosquitoes, you manage to kill 99 of them, and the one hundredth mosquito that you didn’t kill, it kills you. The real solution is to dry up the swamp”.

Some of these statements were made of Palestinians in the occupied territories, but the distinctions were likely lost on the Israeli-Jewish audience. Nor would the distinction have comforted Palestinian citizens inside Israel.

And of course, in 2018, Israel passed legislation with constitutional status, codifying the hierarchy of Israeli society: under the Nation State Law, Jews come first.

There is no other name for these words and actions but incitement. And incitement is loudest at the top. During his twelve years in power, Benjamin Netanyahu warned of the danger of Arab citizens participating in elections. He has said that Arab politicians seek to “annihilate us all,” and called them an “an existential threat.” He gave the futile justification that he only meant the politicians, not the people, but in other contexts, calling a vulnerable group an existential threat has functioned as incitement to the gravest crimes of human society.

Israelis are deeply concerned about Palestinian incitement, and where it exists, they’re right to be. But at this point, the accusation is used almost exclusively as projection. That projection has obscured Israel’s own home-grown poison.

Netanyahu has tolerated, cultivated and promoted the politicians mentioned here (who are just a few examples), and now this young guard is taking over. Bennett could become the country’s next leader. Smotrich will be a powerful member of the opposition. His party has spawned the revival of Kahanism—open Jewish supremacy—in Israeli politics.

Young Jews in Israel have been nurtured in this climate. So when mobs rampaged down the road from my home, smashing up an ice cream shop owned by Arabs, and Smotrich finally admitted it’s all gone too far, what did he mean? You don’t light a fire and then spit on it after human lives go up in flames.

The rockets have been falling as I write. And I’m afraid to ask for whom the sirens wail.

Dahlia Scheindlin is a political strategist and a public opinion expert; she is also a policy fellow at The Century Foundation