Israel’s Ugly Racial Holy War

As the incitement to violence by Israeli leaders ramped up, so did racist attacks by Israeli citizens.

By David Sheen

The year 2014 will be remembered as a banner year for violence in Israel and Palestine; most of the casualties occurred in the Gaza Strip, and most of these were Palestinian civilians killed by the Israeli army. Six months later, however, these tragic deaths are almost forgotten, chiefly because the powerful propaganda of the Israel lobby is able to explain them away with a well-rehearsed narrative: “Israel only wants to live in peace with its neighbors, but the Palestinians hope to kick us all out of the country, so we have no choice but to retaliate.” Zionist hasbara (public diplomacy in Israel) can be even further condensed, distilled down to just six words: “They hate us for our equality.”

Within Israel, however, the messages emanating from the government have been nothing if not the diametric opposite of these platitudes. Anti-Palestinian incitement has always existed in Israeli politics, but in 2014 this racist discourse took a sharp turn for the worse. When three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped and murdered by Palestinian militants in June, Israeli political leaders did not call for the criminals to be caught and convicted. Rather, they demanded that mutilation and mass murder be visited on the general Palestinian population.

Prime Minister Netanyahu called for vengeance, and his coalition partners called for ethnic cleansing and genocide. Government faction whip Ayelet Shaked wrote: “Who is the enemy? The Palestinian people… are all enemy combatants… this also includes the mothers,” while ruling party faction leader Moshe Feiglin wrote: “The civilian population will be concentrated” and “Gaza will become part of… Israel and will be populated by Jews.”

Other public figures were even more specific, calling for sexual violence. A top Israeli academic announced that terrorism could only be averted by threatening to rape the mothers and sisters of Palestinian militants. The leader of the largest religious Jewish youth group in the world called for the Israeli army not only to kill at least 300 Palestinians, but to bring back their foreskins as war trophies. The Jerusalem councillor in charge of the city’s security implored Jewish youth to “commit acts of Phineas,” a coded call to kill Palestinians and the Jews who befriend them. (Phineas is a reference to the Biblical figure who is said to have murdered an interracial couple in the middle of love-making by skewering their intertwined genitals, some rabbis say.)

As the incitement to violence by top Israeli leaders ramped up, so did the racist attacks by regular Israeli citizens.  Vigilante assaults on Palestinians have been the most common type of attack. A third of all Palestinian bus drivers working in Jerusalem for Israel’s largest bus company Egged have left their jobs since the summer, because racist attacks on them have become a daily occurrence. Hardly any Palestinians venture into downtown Jerusalem at night anymore, for fear of being attacked by gangs of Jewish thugs who patrol the streets, looking for Arabs to assault. In July, Israelis kidnapped a Palestinian teenager, forced gasoline down his throat, and burned him to death from the inside out. The suspects later told police they were inspired by the acts of Phineas.

Another type of racist assault that has become increasingly common in Israel is attacks on Africans. Incitement against the 50,000 non-Jewish Africans who have sought asylum in Israel in recent years, including top government officials comparing them to cancer and Ebola, has made them a popular target for racist ruffians in Tel Aviv. Locals report it is not uncommon for Israeli youths to throw dog feces at African mothers nursing their babies. In January, an Israeli man stabbed a one-year-old African baby in the head and later explained to police that he did it because “they said that a black baby, blacks in general, are terrorists.”

A third type of racist assault that is occurring with increasing frequency in Israel is attacks on public spaces which are shared by Jews and non-Jews. There are fewer than 10 integrated schools in all of Israel in which Hebrew-speaking and Arabic-speaking students learn together in the same classrooms, yet these have continuously been targeted with Hebrew graffiti reading “End the miscegenation,” “There is no coexistence with cancer,” and other racist messages. In November, Israelis vandalized the only mixed school in the Jerusalem area, torching schoolbooks and the first-grade classroom.

Increasingly, Jewish Israelis who protest the racist incitement and assaults are also subject to verbal and physical attacks on the streets of Tel Aviv and other Israeli cities. Although these pale in comparison to the threats against Palestinians, Africans and other non-Jewish groups, many of these liberal Israelis are now afraid to express themselves in public or even on the Internet, for fear of losing their friends, their jobs, or worse. Increasing numbers of Israelis are applying for second passports and job opportunities abroad, despairing over the direction the country is headed in and their inability to bring it back from the brink. Instead, they are seeking to save themselves and their families.

Despite painstaking efforts by mainstream media gatekeepers, word of Israeli incitement and racist attacks against non-Jews is finally starting to seep out. Outside observers who had previously assumed that Israel’s war with Palestinians is based on age-old enmity and an intractable battle over land are starting to wonder if a Zionist drive for ethno-religious purity might actually be a main cause of the conflict.

Last year, the European Union announced it would specifically label goods made in Jewish-only settlements in the occupied West Bank, to distinguish them from other Israeli products. In recent months, one European parliament after another has voted in favor of officially recognizing the “State of Palestine”: Sweden, Ireland, Portugal, Spain and the United Kingdom.

In North America, progressive churches and labor unions have started supporting the BDS movement to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel until it treats all citizens equally, ends its military occupations, and solves the problem of Palestinian refugees. With anti-racist advocacy in the United States experiencing a resurgence, communities of color are re-establishing ties with global allies, including Palestinian activists.

The visions of average Americans for the future of Israel and Palestine are also starting to shift. A survey published earlier this month by The Brookings Institution found that a third of all Americans want Israel and Palestine to be a single state with equal rights for all, regardless of race or religion.

Asked which alternative would be preferable if the option of separate sovereign states of Israel and Palestine proves to be impossible, 71 percent of Americans surveyed (84 percent of Democrats and 60 percent of Republicans) said they would prefer that it become a single democratic state. Of the Jewish Americans and Jewish-Israeli Americans surveyed, 61 percent expressed the same preference; only 34 percent said they would rather Israel discriminate in favor of Jews and against non-Jews.

Though they have traditionally been one of the Jerusalem’s strongest sources of support, even Jewish Americans are starting to question the narrative of the Israeli government. A Pew Poll published in the fourth quarter of 2013 found that half of U.S. Jews think that Israel is not making sincere efforts to bring about peace with the Palestinians.

In recent years, fearful of losing these last bastions of unqualified international support, Israeli leaders turned to American marketing managers for guidance. The advice of these ad executives was to re-brand “crazy” Israel as “sexy” and “cool.”

To make Israel seem sexy instead of brutal, conventionally attractive Jewish Israeli women would be chosen to represent Israel, sometimes wearing elements of Israeli army uniforms, and often in various states of undress. To make Israel seem cool instead of racist, token Jewish African-Israeli success stories would be said to represent the rule in Israel, when they are only the few exceptions that prove the rule of state racism towards people of color.

I delineated these two tactics, called “sex-washing” and “black-washing,” respectively, in a series of lectures at Florida colleges in October. Israel’s strategic use of sex-washing and black-washing are misogynist and racist in and of themselves, to be sure, but they also harbor deep internal inconsistencies. The woman who best embodies the overlap between both campaigns, the first Black Miss Israel, perfectly illustrates this contradiction. During her hasbara tour of the United States in February, Yityish Aynaw used her limelight to defend Israel’s persecution of non-Jewish African refugees.

As the government rounds Africans, who have committed no crime except for requesting political asylum, off the streets of Tel Aviv into desert detention centers, Aynaw smeared them as rabid rapists, one of the oldest and most disgusting anti-black tropes. Israeli police statistics show that African crime rates, including for violent crimes, are far lower than those of native Israelis.

Likewise, just as Israel’s black-washing strategy contains the seeds of its own anti-blackness, its sex-washing strategy also contains the seeds of its own sexism. Top Israeli politicians smear all Palestinians and Africans as potential domestic abusers, while a long string of sex criminals and alleged sex criminals oozes out of their own ranks: multiple ministers, multiple directors of the Prime Minister’s office and the Prime Minister’s driver and multiple candidates for president and the former president himself, among others.

Rampant rape culture is not confined to political elites in Israel. Studies conducted in 2011 and 2012 found that 20 percent of Israeli men admit to having forced a woman to have sex, and 61 percent of Israeli men do not consider that forcing a woman to have sex constitutes rape—if she is a previous acquaintance.

The government makes no effort to combat this horrific phenomenon, for which it is at least partially culpable. Just the opposite: it multiplies the misogyny by promoting Jewish Israeli women as sex objects for its own political ends.

On one hand, the government markets the sexual availability of Jewish Israeli women in order to entice a male and mainly non-Jewish audience outside of Israel to support the state. On the other hand, inside the country, state-sponsored groups conduct witch-hunts against the few Jewish Israeli women that have the courage to date non-Jewish men, despite the avalanche of social pressure bearing down on these couples.

These developments may be disturbing, but sadly, they are not unique. In fact, sex-washing was used as a tactic by the official organizations of the Jewish settlement enterprise in Palestine even prior to Israel’s existence. As dramatized in the 2011 British mini-series The Promise, the Yishuv trained Jewish women to court the British soldiers stationed in the country and use their wiles to convince them of the merits of the Zionist idea to establish a Jewish state. At the same time, the Jewish leadership condemned those women who struck up real romantic relationships with non-Jews and ostracized them as race-traitors. Many of these women were threatened and physically attacked, and some were even murdered by anti-miscegenation syndicates.

Israeli historian Daniela Reich first brought these facts to light in her masters thesis “Between National Mission and Social Ostracism,” and she fleshed them out in an interview I conducted with her over the summer, just days after an ultra-nationalist mob protested a Jewish-Muslim wedding near Tel Aviv with chants of “Death to Arabs!”

With every passing day, far-right Members of Knesset are further emboldened, vying to enshrine state-sponsored discrimination in Israeli law, as it already is, de facto. With progressive parliamentarians only holding one-seventh of the seats of the nationalist camp—and this number is likely to drop even further in the next Knesset—there seems to be no force in Israeli society that can hold back this frightening tide.

If a coalition of foreign forces finally musters up the courage to call out Israeli leaders on their rampant racism, it will require the ability to see through the state’s deceptive propaganda campaigns. Israel’s friends must realize that the government’s cynical use of Jewish women and people of color are not reasons to shield the regime from judgment, but rather to ramp up criticism of it and demand it end racist incitement and protect all populations, regardless of religion or gender.

AlterNet, January 9, 2015