Grappling with intolerance at demonstrations: a dialogue

The authors of the following text both attended a demonstration on an issue that is close to their hearts, and it seemed to turn hostile towards them. What to do?

Grappling with intolerance at demonstrations: a dialogue

Mairav Zonszein:

The scene was both energized and serene on Kedem street in Yafo at sunset Saturday evening, overlooking the beach, as residants of yafo and others from around the country gathered to protest settlements, racism and discriminaiton in this largely Arab neighborhood south of Tel Aviv. Familiar faces from the neighborhood, as well as activists from Sheikh Jarrah and other places were in attendance, along with MKs Dov Khenin and Ahmed Tibi. As the march started, it felt really good to walk in unison against the destructive forces of both the settlers and the government that are damaging the fabric of this neighborhood.

But as the protest progressed, it became clear that it was in fact not a joint Arab-Jewish protest, but rather two separate protests with two different messages. Chants of Arab-Jewish solidarity against racism and fascism were overtaken by chants of “allah is great,” “death to Haredim” and “Haiber Haiber ya’Yehud” which references the slaughter of Jews by the prophet Mohammed in a village called Haiber.

As someone who has lived in Yafo, whose mail still comes here, who has felt at home here and often chooses to spend her free time here, I had a hard time with this. On the one hand, it is fair enough for the Palestinian residents of Yafo to have a protest and let loose their frustration, but it was disappointing that with Jewish Israelis marching alongside them, they did not feel the need to refrain from crying out chants that are hateful and hyper-religious.

Yuval Ben-Ami:

We share a few things when it comes to this dillema, Mairav. Like you, I have lived among Arabs in Jaffa for three wonderful years. Like you, I attended Saturday’s demonstration and found it both important and problematic. Like you, I could distinguish two different demonstrations, but the distinction is different.

In my view, one demonstration was made up of pragmatic protesters, both Jews and Arabs, who wish to maintain peace in Jaffa. These Arabs can clearly tell apart those Jewish Jaffoites who can be good neighbors to Palestinians (like you and I, as well as many older residents of the city) from the corrupt, politically motivated forces that have recently established the all-Jewish complex there and are helping West Bank provocators take over the streets.

The other group is made up mostly of yougnsters who are thrilled by the prospect of causing some havoc. I can understand them. For decades they have been isolated from the Palestinian national struggle, hearing their brethren singing such powerful chants on television and not being sure where they fall. I think it’s no coincidense that the Palestinian flags at this demonstration were huger than I’ve ever seen in the west bank. These people have something to prove, to themselves and to others.

These days, when Egyptian protesters climb on tanks and break curfews, the rebellious hearts of Jaffa feel further isolated. The settlers provide them with a reason to express nationalism and take to the streets. I’m saddened by this, because this is exactly what the settlers hope to create: unrest, I’m also saddened that rebellion in Palestinian context spills so quickly into a nationalist-religious context. Still, it must be noted that at least until I left the demonstartion, no one expressed violence. I felt fairly comfortable there as a Jew, perhaps a bit less so as a secular, non-nationalist individual.

We often come as non-nationalists to support Palestinian causes and are met with nationalism. Mostly I simply seek out people who seem to share my vision and ignore those who chant exclusiounary, intolerant content. I understand how anger (and in this case frustration) translates into intolerance. I don’t like tolerating intolerance, but I’d rather ignore it and keep supporting important causes than resign.

Do you feel that this demonstration went too far? Were you tempted to resign?

Mairav Zonszein:

I do feel that the chants went too far and ultimately made me feel uncomfortable, however they did not make me question my place there, as I feel, after several years of activism, that the more joint demonstrators there are the more people will see there is an alternative to exclusionary nationalism that does not demand the waiving of one’s distinct identity.

In the case of this protest, the chants referencing violence against Jews is unjustified and damaging, yet nevertheless, must be understood in its context. It is important to be sensitive and attentive to the dynamic of power, the imbalance between occupier and occupied, between privileged and repressed, in which it is almost a luxury to be pragmatic and calm. Indeed as you mentioned, Palestinians from Jaffa are in a difficult place vis-a-vis their national identity. How can we expect them to call out for coexistence when they have not yet had the chance to express their own self-determination?

For this reason, I think it is important for Jewish-Israeli activists and onlookers to recognize that there are different forces in this arena, not always ones we would like to admit or report about, but nonetheless, the reality. This should not discourage us from engaging in the important work of countering violence, intolerance and discrimination, but it requires an acknowledgement that perhaps, at this stage, we are in a position that allows us to get past exclusive nationalist rhetoric, whereas our Palestinian neighbors are not.

Yuval Ben-Ami:

Many of them indeed aren’t. I’m awed by those who manage to put themselves in a position that is primarily humanist, considering their situation. I keep in mind that there are always such people marching next to us in every crowd, though they are not neccesarily very loud. Let’s also remember that our presence there, in great numbers, renders any anti-Jewish statment silly at best.