The racism that has swept across Israel is devastating to behold. It is also an abdication of what Jews have prized for centuries: A sense of common humanity.
By Gilad Isaacs
For centuries Jews knocked on the door of Eurasian civilization. As they stood precariously on the doorstep they understood that crossing the threshold – being enveloped by the warmth and light within – would signify acceptance, normalization and safety. Sometimes they begged, sometimes they yelled; often they declared: “I am a Jew,” and continued in the vein of:
Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? [The Merchant Of Venice]
Most Jews did not wish to become something they were not. They were happy to remain Jews, and simply sought for others to accept them as such. Some of these Jews became Zionists, whose dream was more than land. They proclaimed that Jews would be accepted as equals if they had a state of their own; if they, as Theodore Herzl proclaimed, entered the “family of nations.”
Fast forward to today. In Israel, the most devastating casualty of the ongoing occupation has been this cherished notion of common humanity.
The racism that has swept across Israel is devastating to behold. Israelis maraud through the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv yelling “Death to Arabs”; a renowned Israeli scholar argues that the sisters, mothers and wives of potential Palestinian terrorists should be raped as a method of deterrence; Knesset members call for a war against all Palestinian people and the forced expulsion of Palestinians out of Gaza and the West Bank; the deputy mayor of Haifa is beaten; a Palestinian teenager is burnt alive; and the list goes on. These are not the misdeeds of rogue anti-social elements: This is a wave of hatred and violence that is committed or supported by large swathes of the Israeli public. Most disquieting is the celebration of Palestinian death and suffering, whether it be cheering from the hilltops of Sderot as bombs fall upon Gaza, or joyous outbursts from Israelis on social media.
Such enmity, and the justification of the hundreds of civilian deaths in the assault upon Gaza, is premised upon a profound “othering” of the Palestinian people, a disregard of the common humanity that Jews prized not so long ago.
Many Israelis would not actively identify with this open loathing, but they are no less a product of their society. In response to the killing of innocent Palestinians, an Israeli woman – whose generosity of spirit I respect – asked me, “Is anyone asking, though, why Saudi money wasn’t used to build shelters for the children of Gaza?” The blockade is the obvious answer, but the question really means: The fault is not ours, it is theirs; they choose to squander their money on attack tunnels instead of protective shelters for their civilians. They are not like us, they do not sufficiently love their children, Golda Meir said in 1972, and Netanyahu repeats ad nauseam.
Why then do Palestinian mothers weep?
Not all Israelis are guilty of this disregard. Yet, the depths of intolerance and hatred are arguably more evident when one witnesses the viciousness of the Israeli right’s reaction to those Jewish Israelis calling for an end to the carnage: Right-wing thugs stone antiwar protestors; the captain of a youth soccer team in Be’er Sheva writes on his Facebook page, “send left-wing voters to the gas chambers and clean this country of leftists”; Israeli journalist Gideon Levy is nearly assaulted in the rocket-battered southern city of Ashkelon; an angry mob, some (unknowingly) wearing neo-Nazi t-shirts, yell slogans such as “Death to Arabs” and “Death to leftists” while rampaging in coffee shops identified with the left, breaking things and beating people up. The list could go on. Whilst these might be the most acute manifestations of intolerance of difference, the mainstream is guilty of the same; they accuse those who speak out against the current atrocities of being “unpatriotic.”
Not only do many Israelis view the Palestinians as less than them, they also harbor – uncomfortably perhaps – similar sentiments about those that would abandon their brothers-in-arms and defend the “other side.”
That said, we must applaud the large number of Israelis who are prepared to demonstrate against the war, and the many more who sit at home profoundly shaken both by the attack on Gaza and by the hate on the streets. Despite the wartime closing of ranks, dissent is neither impossible nor uncommon.
The Jews are no longer knocking on doors to be let in. We have our own fortress now, bristling with arms. But the cost has been heavy; on the altar of nationalism and ethnic supremacy we have sacrificed the long-cherished ideal of common humanity. Israelis and Zionist Jews, and their most vociferous supporters, can no longer see themselves in the Palestinians. And what we are left with is the second half of Shylock’s speech:
And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villany you teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.
Gilad Isaacs is an economist and activist, he tweets from @giladisaacs.