Facing increased right-wing violence, Israeli leftists learn to fight back

Attacks against Arabs in Jerusalem became routine this past summer and in Tel Aviv left-wing activists faced violence from the Right. ‘We don’t want to attack Baruch Marzel’s headquarters or anything, but we believe the victimhood of the Left must end here,’ one activists explains.

Thursday and Saturday nights in downtown Jerusalem have become terrifying. On those days, a group of youth gathers in West Jerusalem’s Zion Square, often next to a permanent pop-up stand manned by members of anti-miscegenation group Lehava. The youth meet there and then take to the streets chanting “Death to Arabs,” harassing and assaulting Arab cab drivers, women in hijabs and businesses that employ Arabs. Since they became active, fewer and fewer Palestinians have been stepping foot in this part of the city.

The few left-wing activists who dare to be out on the streets on these nights usually walk alongside the youth, quietly, documenting their actions and calling the police – but without getting involved, knowing full well that the violence could at any moment be directed at them. Recently, however, they decided to change their approach. Last Thursday, around 200 of them gathered in Zion Square to stand up to the violence.

That night marked the (temporary) crystallization of left-wing self defense groups in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and other cities in Israel. Not many could have known, but among those 200 protesters were a few dozen who came prepared for the possibility of a violent confrontation with right-wing extremists.

“It was the most significant left-wing event in Jerusalem since the protests in Sheikh Jarrah,” one veteran activist said.

“The collective, anti-racist presence was no less than amazing,” said Eyal, another activist from Jerusalem. “A month ago, you couldn’t imagine such an event; not just being defensive and under the radar, but attacking, marking territory, marking our enemies and saying loud and clear that they are illegitimate – that they have no place in the public discourse. It means coming out in numbers, coming with confidence, showing strength and being ready in the event we are attacked.”


“Let’s just say we came prepared. Definitely prepared. Out of 200 protesters, 40-50 knew how to respond. If the situation presented itself – they knew what to do. By interposing themselves and defending, not attacking or looking to fight. But they know very well how to if need be,” he said.

You can’t see it, but people here are ready to respond to violence. A protest against racism in Jerusalem. (Photo by Activestills.org)
You can’t see it, but people here are ready to respond to violence. A protest against racism in Jerusalem. (Photo by Activestills.org)

Taking back the streets

No confrontations took place that night. Members of Lahava didn’t arrive in Jerusalem’s Zion Square, instead spending the holiday evening in the Old City’s Jewish Quarter. But two weeks earlier, the confrontations were very real. A bus full of Lahava members from Jerusalem rode down to Tel Aviv in order to hand out anti-mysogination fliers on the city’s central Allenby Street. A group of left-wing activists, some affiliated with the trained self defense groups and others not, showed up and prevented Gupstein and his followers from getting off their bus.

Police intervened and separated the two sides, sending the busload of Lahava members on to the Tel Aviv Port, in what the activists perceived as an accomplishment. “We met an hour beforehand, we decided who would be in charge at the scene, and with the support of attorneys made an action plan,” one of the Tel Aviv-based activists who was there.

“Originally we didn’t even think to block them [from getting off the bus] — we just prepared fliers and were going to march alongside them in order to deliver a message that racist incitement is unacceptable,” the activist added. “We thought that if they went north of Bialik Street that we would back off, because that’s an area with more drunk people and others who might join them against us. But anywhere south of there, the chance that the street would back us increased. Looking back, I think the message that they have no place here was made very clear.”

The encounter with Gupstein didn’t happen by accident. There, just like in Jerusalem a week prior, a number of groups came together, organizations and independent activists who decided that they were going to stop turning the other cheek, to stop surrendering to extreme-right wing violence, and would start taking back their place in the public arena. For that reason, some of them decided to establish a few groups to train in self defense, seminars in active non-violence, action plans for protecting protests and planning for situations in which they might face violence on the street.

Some of those groups refused to be interviewed for this article, and most of the activists only agreed to speak on the condition that they not be identified, out of fear of harassment by police or right-wing activists. They also asked that some of their tactics not be revealed. But beyond their cloak of secrecy, who are these people who are for the first time in years organizing a strong response to the radical Right? How did they come together and what do they intend to do? In order to find out, and before I begin to detail the various groups, we need to take a quick look back at the events of this past summer.

‘Death to Arabs’

The wave of violence against Arabs began in Jerusalem on June 30, the day the funeral for the three kidnapped Israeli teenagers was held. Every day more than 1,000 people overran the streets, attacking Arab passersby. A few days later, Palestinian teenager Muhammad Abu Khdeir was murdered, leading to protests and riots in East Jerusalem. Those protests continue to this day, and include rock throwing and damage to the Jerusalem light rail.

“I’ve been in Jerusalem for 40 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this,” says Eyal. “At first it was every night, and then a few times a week, people walk through the streets, pulling out Arab drivers from their cars and assaulting them. They are on the hunt in the streets.”

The attacks led left-wing Jerusalem activists, who since the days of the protests in Sheikh Jarrah, have split and gone in different directions, to regroup for action. They formed internal communication networks and began organizing patrols in the more sensitive areas in the city center. When they could, they tried to physically protect Arabs who were being attacked. When they couldn’t, they would film, call the police and warn Palestinians from going to certain areas. “It wasn’t ideal, but if felt like the only option at that time,” Eyal told me in frustration.

With time the group grew and came to be known as the “Local Guard.” They were joined by activists and young people with diverse opinions. The group began organizing more straightforward briefings, and took upon itself to provide support during a weekly march for peace and tolerance, organized by the local bilingual school during the war. They were small marches that, despite not having any slogans, were attacked by young Jews and needed the protection of the “Local Guard.”

Alongside larger groups and coalitions, from the communist Arab-Jewish Hadash party to Labor and other organizations, these were the people who organized last Thursday’s protest in Zion Square.

Meanwhile in Tel Aviv, things developed quite differently. On July 12, right-wing extremists attacked the first anti-war demonstration in Tel Aviv, injuring several people. The police did not do anything. The incident gave incendiary rapper HaTzel (“The Shadow”) a public platform during the war,  which made it clear to Tel Aviv activists that such an event could not repeat itself.

“The violence that took place during that protest made it clear that the rules of the game had changed. It is unclear if they changed permanently or temporarily, but something happened,” said B, one of the demonstrators. “An immediate need emerged to meet before every protest, to plan what to do, think about how to prevent confrontations, where to stand, how we can form a partition that controls the attacks on us as well as those from our side who want to escalate.”

“When we form a tough, dense human chain and hold hands and don’t respond even when they spit in our faces or curse us, it sends a message that we do not back down, that we are confident, that we are providing protection and security to those who want to protest the war and would otherwise be too scared. People thanked us profusely for bringing them a sense of security.”

As the protests continued, the group used techniques such as human chains, organizers who maintained eye contact, lookouts, people in black who were spread out in the area and were ready to intervene when necessary, a system of safe dispersal and huge banners that formed makeshift protective boundaries around the protests. As someone who was at these protests, I can say – it worked. It really did provide demonstrators with a feeling of safety, and minimized the points of confrontation with the rightists.

Protecting a protest against the war outside Israel’s national theater in Tel Aviv.
Protecting a protest against the war outside Israel’s national theater in Tel Aviv.

No more Mr. Nice Guy

Beyond ad-hoc organizing before each protest, which included demonstrators who did not belong to any groups, the rising violence of the extreme right in the streets led to the establishment of several organized groups.

The anarchist “Achdut” group organized the “Black Guard,” which trained in self-defense and Krav Maga. Other activists established “Antifa 972” (no relation to the magazine), a shorthand for “anti-fascists.” At least two other groups, which asked not to be included in the article, also began training and taking part in self-defense activities.

The activists in each of these groups stress that there is no one organization, nor is there any attempt to build political power or a new movement. They also hope that this is not a new trend, but rather a need to respond and protect from new dangers that have become a reality for Palestinians and left-wing activists in the streets. All in all, including the Jerusalemites from the “Local Guard,” the members of the groups amount to approximately 100 people.

“The radical left didn’t have the experience or the militant spirit to deal with the fascist’s violence,” explains Yigal Levin from Achdut’s Black Guard. “That is why we brought people who know martial arts, and began free weekly lessons for any interested leftists. It wasn’t only the anarchists or communists who attended – even liberals feel like anyone who is seen as a ‘leftist” can be hurt now.’

“Just before the war, friends in the ‘Socialist Struggle’ group were beaten up at a protest. They were four against two rightists, and the rightists assaulted them. We don’t want this thing to happen again. We don’t want to be abused children – we want to respect ourselves. We don’t want to attack Baruch Marzel’s headquarters or anything, but we believe the victimhood of the Left must end here.”

Self defense training (Courtesy of ‘Solidarity’)
Self defense training (Courtesy of ‘Solidarity’)

Members of Antifa, one of the more active and well-known groups, preferred not to be interviewed for the piece, but sent a statement in which they wrote that they are a national group whose goal is to “be present when the bastards arrive, to protest them, to protect our communities and the communities with whom communities we are are in solidarity, and sometimes only to watch and document.” The basic principles of the group as described in their statement include being present everywhere there is incitement or attacks on oppressed groups or leftists, to fight against any form of racism, capitalism, occupation, sexism and more, to act directly with no assistance from the police or any arm of the state, to be in solidarity and unified – without internal leftist factionalism.

The group gets its inspiration from similar groups in Europe, where the violent struggle against fascism in the streets is a time-honored tradition. Even the name and the symbol of the group were copied from European groups, and there are many similarities in the rhetoric and tactics that were learned by activists who spent time abroad. In a video released by the far-right, anti-miscegenation group Lehava from the confrontation on Allenby Street, one can see several of the activists yelling “No Pasarán,” (“They shall not pass”), a slogan used by the Republican fighters against fascism during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s.

The European model. An ant-fascist protest in the UK. (Photo by Tim Buss/CC)
The European model. An ant-fascist protest in the UK. (Photo by Tim Buss/CC)

 A culture of force

The new mode of activity, especially the blocking of the members of Lehava in Tel Aviv, necessarily gives rise to dilemmas and controversies among the activists. Because these methods of organization are very new and not yet fully crystallized, the debate is in its initial stages, but it already addresses the questions of what is forbidden and what is allowed, what dangers emerge with more violent organizations, and what are the limits of discourse about the prohibited and the permissible within a political framework.

“We have here a group of people whose experience is one of persecution, and if it changes in the future — which is not the situation today — we will have to assess the meaning of violence exerted against the persecuted as opposed to violence against those who are not,” says Kobi Snitz, a veteran activist in radical leftist groups. “I look at the movements confronting the Right in Europe, and the picture is not pretty. I see enthusiasm arising from violence. There is a psychological or political phenomenon whereby achieving something by means of violence justifies more violence. We see this on a daily basis among soldiers serving in the occupied territories.”

“I have no qualms about what we did in the summer. It was right to get organized and defend ourselves, in addition to protection by the police, which had to defend us after the first demonstration for political reasons. We have to pay attention to what is happening in Europe, although there is a basic difference: there, the rightist groups are outside the law, whereas here, threatening the Left is institutionally supported by the authorities and the leadership.”

There are some among the activists who fear the rise of militaristic culture, which respects those who can deliver more protection, to come to a demonstration with more muscle, more presence, more “combat experience,” more “bravery,” and are apprehensive about the consequences of this situation and its influence on the culture of the Left. An additional question is who exactly is the enemy being confronted.

“I have no doubt that Benzi Gupstein (Lehava’s leader) is my enemy, a self-declared disciple of Kahane, but the question is who are the young people around him who shout ‘Death to the Arabs’ in Jerusalem. I am not seeking a fight with them. These are not people who come with the ideology of the hilltop youth. Often they are the products of distress, who feel marginalized by society. I went on patrols in the city with teachers who identified their students among them. I really do not want to push them into a corner and make them our enemies, but it is hard.”

“Focusing on the Kahanists as symbols of Israeli racism is somewhat problematic,” Snitz added. “The Kahanists do form a part of the racist infrastructure, the vanguard, but they are a fringe culture. Confronting extremists can lead to missing the rest. Preventing them from handing out flyers in Tel Aviv will not lead to accepting Arabs as kibbutz members, or to the revocation of the Law of Return, or to the cessation of searches at Ben Gurion Airport. These things do not originate with the Kahanists.”

But is the distribution of flyers such a threat that must be fought or forbidden, even if the content is racist?

“I do not think that democratic speech should provide cover for incitement”, says B., and many in the circles of the defense cells agree with her. “If these people come to manhandle Arab workers in restaurant kitchens, or to advance positions which were designated as illegal as early as in the eighties, then yes – there is justification for action. I am not necessarily saying that the police has to act –  prohibitions agains them can impact us too down the line, but personally I react with firmness when I see such things in my space.”

A sign as a protective wall, Tel Aviv.
A sign as a protective wall, Tel Aviv.

Getting ready for next time

Where is this movement headed now? We have seen that these groups, without exception, arose as a reaction to the events of the summer, what will become of them when the first rains come?

In Tel Aviv, a few activists arrived Sunday evening at the demonstration of the far right in Levinsky Park in south Tel Aviv,  positioning themselves discreetly around the demonstration in order to protect business owners and asylum seekers against potential attacks. In Jerusalem, the Local Guard continues its patrols, although the attacks against Arabs in the streets have substantially decreased since the end of the war. And what about organizing for defending the demonstrations of the Left?

“In case of a demonstration that has to do with the [occupied] territories – these groups will be there for sure, just as they were there in summer,” B. clarified. “If Lehava attempts to return to Tel Aviv, we’ll be there too. Personally, I do not feel that we have to go to places where we are not invited and try to save the world everywhere, but some people do go. Organizing in Europe always has a local character, of people defending the space in which they live, which I feel is the right approach.”

“The street in Jerusalem is not like that of Tel Aviv,” countered Eyal. “Here, everyone in the street is likely to be against you. Our goal is to brand racism as abnormal, as illegitimate. It has to be at the street level, and at the level of demands from politicians – at the municipal and national level.”

“In any event, although things have calmed down somewhat, we have really not returned to the situation before the war, which in itself was not idyllic. Arabs are still afraid to walk about in the streets and they ask us to accompany them to the post office or to the National Insurance Institute offices. I fear that the next wave, when it comes, will start at the point where the recent wave ended, and will be more violent and more dangerous. Our job is to at least change the starting point of the next round.”

After a version of this article was published in Hebrew, the Social Struggle movement wrote in response: “Contrary to claims by ‘Solidarity’ activists, our members, one of whom is a martial arts trainer, did not ‘turn the other cheek.’ The two people who were cowardly attacked from behind got a response before running away. The bottom line is that effective self defense is primarily dependent on the capacity to organize protests that are large enough in relation to their threats — independent, firm and level-headed organizing along with a serious political struggle to undermine the public’s support for the Right.”

This article was first published on +972′s Hebrew-language sister site, Local Call. Read it in Hebrew here.

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