On violence, soccer and occupation – how is Israel different?

End the occupation and the militarism, which are conspicuous in the democratic world today but not in its history, and this could be a pretty cool place.

I try not to go out of my way to write good things about Israel, but I also try not to go out of my way not to write good things about Israel, because, among other reasons, it’s important to remember that for all the justified criticism and condemnation, there’s something worth saving here. In that spirit, I want to take issue with a growing view that Israel is a violent society and becoming more so, and that this is proved by a recent series of scandalously violent incidents. My view is that Israel is not a violent society, certainly not in comparison with the only other country I ever lived in, the United States, and not in comparison with most other countries in the world, I don’t think, if you go by their entire history, not just the modern, post-conquest/genocide/slavery/racist/colonialist stage.

Friday saw yet another Israeli soccer brawl, causing the unprecedented cancellation of all weekend games. Right before that was IDF Lt. Col. Shalom Eisner’s bash-up of a West Bank bicycle protest, along with the ongoing hero/martyr treatment he’s getting from the mainstream right, not just the already violent extreme. Right before Eisner was the midday public orgy at Tel Aviv’s Bograshov Beach, with a woman said to be visibly mentally disturbed. A few weeks before that, there was the pogrom by a few hundred Beitar Jerusalem soccer fans screaming “death to the Arabs” and slamming Arab workers and customers around in the capital’s largest shopping mall.

Brutal and vile, all of it. Nevertheless, if we take these scandals one by one, none of them points to a uniquely malevolent streak in Israeli society. We’re not a gentle nation, but neither are we a sadistic one.

To start with soccer violence, while being fueled by what is, indeed, the definitive Israeli disease – anti-Arab racism – it is by no means unique to this country. In Europe, soccer violence has been far worse and it’s been fueled not only by anti-Arab racism but by anti-black and anti-Jewish racism and probably other varieties as well. (True, there’s also horrible anti-black racism in the stands at Israeli soccer games, but it’s not connected to violence like anti-Arab racism is because blacks, while generally looked down on by Israelis,  are not seen here as the enemy.) The most obvious context for Israeli soccer violence is not Israel but soccer, which has set off incomparably worse violence over the years in Europe and Latin America than in this country. By international standards, Israeli soccer violence is, at worst, normal.

The beach orgy in Tel Aviv – in which the mentally disturbed woman reportedly invited several young guys to have sex with her – shows a kind of sniggering machismo that is Israeli, but not just Israeli. As sickening as that show was, it could have happened anywhere. It can’t be blamed on the occupation or Likud or the Israeli mentality.

The other two incidents, the Eisner assaults and Betar Jerusalem pogrom, can be. They were peculiarly Israeli scandals, they both grew out of a long national tradition of Jewish domination of Arabs. Yet if I compare Israeli domination of Arabs to that of the Western powers over Muslims, blacks, Latinos and Asians over centuries of colonialism, not to mention their domination of weaker nations during the eras of conquest, genocide and slavery, or the domination of minorities and women in many Third World countries today, then neither Eisner, nor the IDF nor Israeli society as a whole are particularly brutal at all.

If we compare the IDF to other armies during war and occupation, then it just might be “the most moral army in the world.” As armies go, the IDF isn’t brutal – it’s war and occupation that are, and the IDF’s problem is that it spends too much time at war and occupation. And if Israel were to end the occupation and its militaristic approach to the Middle East – which is unlikely, but still possible – the IDF would become a peacetime army and the Eisners in it would be neutralized. Personally, Israelis are not violent (though they can be loud and at times surly). It’s Israel’s policy toward Arabs that’s violent, and if that policy changed, I think things would be pretty cool around here.

As for the Kach contingent among the fans of Beitar Jerusalem (and other soccer teams), even they, too, would be pacified to a great extent by an end to our war with the Arabs. And whatever violence remained in them would be owed at least as much to their being soccer fans as to their being Israelis.

The only peculiarly violent thing about this country is its policy toward the “natives,” and the best, most democratic, most peaceful countries in the world had the same kind of problem in the past, only worse. The difference between the “good” countries and Israel is that they either got rid of or vanquished their natives and, in the last half of the 20th century, decided to stop subjugating them abroad. So Israel is not particularly brutal or violent or bad; the only thing that keeps it from being a good country, which I think it was before the occupation, is that it still subjugates the natives at home while attacking them abroad. The problem is not what Israel is, but what it does, and that, as history has proven all over the world, can change.