Alex Stein
Writer, translator and tour guide based in Jerusalem

Fighting racism in Jerusalem

Erev Purim in the Shuk saw Jerusalem at its best. Packed with dressed up revellers, the DJ playing an uplifting mixture of Middle Eastern and Subcontinental music, everyone friendly and full of joy for the most unique and challenging of Jewish festivals. There’s nothing like Machane Yehuda when it transforms itself into a giant, free nightclub, providing a tantalizing glimpse of what Jerusalem could be like all the time, if only it could overcome its voices of intolerance.

The next day, I went with my girlfriend, a friend visiting from America, and an Egyptian friend and his four-year-old son to the celebrations for children at Safra Square. Those of us without children then headed off towards Mea Shearim.

I’m glad my Egyptian friend didn’t come with us. A few minutes later, at the entrance to Mea Shearim, we saw around half a dozen teenagers, mostly in knitted kippot, marching down the street chanting ‘Death to the Arabs’ and ‘Revenge on the Arabs’ over loudspeakers. As if that wasn’t enough, they were followed by another six teenagers in ‘Kahane was Right’ t-shirts.

“What are you doing?” I asked. “What’s your problem?” was the response. I explained that what they were doing constituted racist incitement, and that, contrary to the slogan on their t-shirts, Kahane hadn’t been right. After checking that I was Jewish, they trotted out the usual rhetoric, asking what I would do if someone was trying to kill me, and what would happen if Israel disbanded its army, as if that had anything to do with the issue at hand.  

None of our interlocutors seemed to be over the age of 18 (although one of them pretended that he had killed lots of Arabs during the Second Lebanon War and Operation Cast Lead), and one ten-year-old pointedly asked me what I did with cockroaches. I knew that nothing I could say would change their minds, but that wasn’t the point of the exercise. The point was to register my opposition, to make it clear that some people objected to racists marching through the streets, even if it was Purim.

It was only a few minutes later, having conducted the post-mortem, that I remembered the first group, which had been even more threatening (if that was possible) than the ‘Kahane was Right’ cohort. After some discussion, and despite knowing that it was unlikely to make a difference, we decided to call the police. I was pleased that they took the complaint seriously, even though I doubt they caught the inciters afterwards.

Later that day, walking solo towards the central bus station, I was on the phone to my Egyptian friend telling him how pleased I was that he hadn’t come with us to Mea Shearim, when I saw one of the Palestinian workers in Machane Yehuda holding his nose while an Orthodox Jew yelled abuse at him, before turning and running off into Makor Beruch. The worker abandoned his trolley full of empty boxes and walked back in the direction of the market with a couple of friends, at which point a drunk, non-Orthodox teenager appeared from the other side of the road and started yelling abuse at the workers and calling me an “Arab lover”. At one point he pushed me, although thankfully a friend of his saw sense and dragged him away. “Are we not humans too?” one of the workers asked me.

Someone had called the police, and an ageing policeman turned up a few minutes later, not that he had any hope of finding the culprits. I told him what I had seen in Mea Shearim; he wearily blamed it all on Purim and poor parental guidance. I sympathized with him and his thankless task.

What I saw was among the worst outbursts of racism I have seen since coming to Israel nearly eight years ago (Yom Yerushalayim runs it pretty close), and it was certainly worse than anything I had come across during my 25 years in Britain. The causes which contribute to this racism are well known – a generation scarred by the Second Intifada, urban poverty, the politics of resentment – but this does not mean that we should brush the problem under the carpet. Nor does the fact that anti-Semitism in surrounding countries may be more severe justify our indifference. And it’s true that many opponents of Israel think we’re all racists anyway, and see little difference between – say – me and the Kahanists, but this shouldn’t make a difference either. We need to set our own standards, and we need to show zero tolerance towards all expressions of racism.

My girlfriend, born and raised here, is more used to what we saw than I was. She said that she had got used to it as something unpleasant but unavoidable, a kind of permanent background noise. She was pleased by the way me and my friend reacted, that we weren’t prepared to grudgingly accept it and insisted on taking action. This is the only way forward. Encouragingly, a recent Coalition against Racism poll found that 95 percent of the population are concerned about racism in Israel. In the absence of longer-term, systematic solutions, let’s start by registering our opposition to racism whenever we see it.

About the Author
Alex Stein is a writer, translator, editor and tour guide based in Jerusalem. He is one of the founding editors of the Tel Aviv Review of Books. His Substack is
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