Israel is currently involved in two wars. The first, the external one, is immediate and inescapably consuming. The Gaza engagement has continued relentlessly for the bulk of the summer; it is being fought openly not only militarily, but also diplomatically and politically on the ground, in the media and in the international arena. The second, the internal one, is latent and mostly subsumed from the public eye. The war against the racism and intolerance which is festering rapidly below the surface in Israel only commands public attention sporadically — most recently around the marriage of Morel Malka and Mahmud Mansur — although this threat has grown by leaps and bounds as the Gaza operation has progressed. No concerted effort, however, is being made to fight the mortal dangers it poses. While Israel is struggling to defend itself against fundamentalist-fueled enmity from abroad, it is doing very little to safeguard itself from the fanaticism that is being bred in its own backyard.
It is all too easy to ignore the war taking place inside the country when rockets and bombardments keep unsettling civilian populations on both sides of the divide with no end in sight. But the two wars are intrinsically intertwined: they constantly fuel one another, providing all the more reason why the battle to safeguard Israel from external threats must be accompanied by a vigorous campaign to eradicate the rising bigotry that threatens to destroy it from within. The prospects for short-term as well as lasting accommodation depend as much on the capacity to maintain the essential values of Israeli society that have guided it throughout its existence as on the ability to deflect the physical danger on its borders. Now, therefore, in the midst of ongoing violence, is precisely the time to engage in the battle for Israel’s normative survival — without which any military achievement will remain hollow.
For the past decade — and especially during the last five years — ultra-nationalist sentiments have gradually infiltrated into Israeli public discourse and gained traction in decision-making circles. Despite multiple warnings about the nefarious effects of persistent ethno-religious barbs aimed not only at Israel’s Arab minority, but also at progressive groups who have consistently sought to uphold the principles embedded in the country’s own Declaration of Independence, precious little was done to prevent growing incitement or to punish its perpetrators in the form of “Price Tag” hooligans and their ancillaries. Sadly, these forces gathered momentum just prior to the present Gaza war and have gained further legitimacy as it has progressed.
The kidnapping and murder of Naftali Frankel, Gil-Ad Shaar and Eyal Yiftah unleashed an ugly wave of racist acts. Jewish mobs in Jerusalem hounded Arabs, destroyed their property and beat up helpless bystanders. Throughout the country, slogans calling for “death to the Arabs” were smeared on walls, disseminated on social networks and broadcast repeatedly on the airwaves. The rash of intolerance culminated in the horrific assassination of the Mohammed Abu Khdeir by Jewish fanatics who remain unapologetic to this very day.
Since the beginning of the present Gaza entanglement, the situation has deteriorated even further. An integral part of this confrontation is the systematic dehumanization of the other. Within Israel, barely a day goes by without several incidents of Arab-bashing (many of these are recorded by the Coalition against Racism, which reports that fully 45% of the posts on the war are racist and an additional 45% constitute incitement). New groups (most notoriously, “The Shadow”) demand the extradition of Muslims while unabashedly spouting hatred for anyone who defends their fundamental human rights. The Organization for the Prevention of Assimilation in the Holy Land (<em>Lehava</em>-The Flame), not only protested at the wedding of Morel and Mahmud, but also abused their court-ordered right to demonstrate by repeating the mantra calling for death to all Arabs. At the same time, elected officials and rabbinical authorities advocating boycotts of Arab businesses and open discrimination of minorities continue to pedal their poison with impunity.
Every person who has attempted to question government policy during the fifty days since the beginning of the Gaza war can attest to the viciousness (physical and verbal) with which they have been greeted. Dissenters rounded up by the police outnumber those investigated for racist provocations. Human rights groups, B’Tselem for one, have been mercilessly hounded. And the treatment meted out to Palestinian citizens of Israel and their elected leaders (notably Member of Knesset Hanin Zoabi) — no matter how reprehensible their comments — has been totally at odds with fundamental democratic precepts.
Wars, especially those targeting civilian populations, hardly encourage tolerance. But they should not be used as a cover for the proliferation of the worst forms of discrimination and bigotry. One of the most basic tenets of open societies — that freedom requires restraint and liberty is not boundless if it constrains that of others — is consequently compromised. While the right to spout the vilest expletives is protected, incitement to violence against particular individuals and groups is allowed to flourish unfettered.
Open societies pride themselves on their capacity to demarcate boundaries — between free speech and incitement, between the right to association and subversion, between protest and civil resistance. These differences define the essence of the rules of the democratic game. Without borders — physical, legal and normative — no free society can sustain itself over time. With few exceptions, this challenge is not being met in Israel at this time.
The Netanyahu government has not yet decided whether and how to intervene in the war to defeat racism and to restore the values of equality and dignity for all citizens of the country. The bulk of the struggle is being borne by civil society organizations which promote a variety of activities to bolster pluralism, defy prejudice and strengthen a shared society. Spontaneous acts of sympathy and support for victims of racism are constantly visible. But unlike the newly installed President of Israel, Reuven Rivlin, who has courageously condemned the pattern of “crossing the line between freedom of expression and incitement,” officials have refrained from taking action against those (even in its own ranks) who revel in besmirching minority groups and opinions and fuel the flame of intolerance. This inaction is a sign of weakness: the barrage of rockets can no longer provide an acceptable cover for deferring action.
The few measures that are being set in motion center on education. A set of four compulsory lessons aimed at combating racism has been prepared by the Ministry of Education. Plans for the design of a more comprehensive program are now being weighed. Given the alarming extent of racism recorded among Israeli youth, these long overdue educational tools are hardly sufficient to grapple with the widespread intolerance that permeates Israeli society. An all-out campaign to change public discourse is needed.
Thus the most important instrument in the war against racism is immediate government action. A comprehensive policy shift is in order, one which makes it abundantly clear that any provocation against individuals or groups on the basis of their religion, ethnic identity, national origin or gender will henceforth be dealt with unequivocally and swiftly. The Minister of Justice, Tzipi Livni, must oversee the full implementation of the Penal Code (especially paragraph 144b which explicitly prohibits racist acts and publications) and tighten legislation against hate crimes without further delay. No person, association or group can be exempt from the full force of the law in these matters. Only a countrywide initiative may establish the normative benchmarks for Israeli society and begin to alter the parameters of inter-group acrimony infesting the country.
The Gaza war has ignited an equally momentous conflagration at the heart of Israeli society. The war against racism and intolerance must be conducted with at least as much determination as that guiding the military engagement. The responsibility for this undertaking lies first and foremost with the government. Failure to meet this challenge now will mean that, regardless of the military outcome, civil security will continue to be imperiled.