Every day since Israel’s 37th government was sworn in last December, a new image or issue has captured the attention of the country’s center-left public. Two topics stood out in recent days: efforts to exclude women from public spaces, especially public transportation, and the horrifying violent incident during which 16 police officers beat a Palestinian detainee from East Jerusalem and allegedly branded a Star of David into his cheek. Added to these are the recent comments by Israel’s minister of national security, Itamar Ben Gvir, who made clear on live TV his views that Jewish rights take precedence over those of Arabs.
Other images that have recently floated through the public consciousness include the violence experienced by 18-year-old Amitai Brilliant at the hands of police officers at a protest in Tel Aviv; the murder of 19-year-old Qosai Mi’tan by a settler in the village of Burqa; the protests by women in Handmaids Tale costumes against Israel’s new regime of suppression and exclusion.
Startling headlines emerge at a whirlwind speed: denial of funding to Arab municipalities, revocation of health insurance for elderly Ukrainian war refugees, and laws tailor-made for specific politicians that seek to formalize cronyism and corruption.
It seems all the evils have suddenly burst with a vengeance from the rightwing messianic-settler and ultra-Orthodox box. There is a sense that suddenly the lust for Jewish supremacy, patriarchal control, and queer exclusion knows no bounds.
Is this truly the case?
Undoubtedly, we have witnessed a frightening escalation over the past six months. The libertarian worldview of the judicial overhaul’s proponents has combined with the expansionist ambitions of the settler right and the religious fundamentalism of the ultra-Orthodox parties, creating a monster of epic proportions.
But when I read about the violence towards a Palestinian detainee at the hands of 16 police officers and witnessed the (profoundly important) public outcry in response, I couldn’t help but think of similar past cases that generated no interest or public discourse.
In 2019, I worked at the human rights organization HaMoked, and I especially remember a complaint we filed with the Police Investigation Unit due to severe violence against a Palestinian minor at the main Jerusalem Police Station. Amir Abu Sbeih, a 17-year-old from East Jerusalem, was taken from his bed in the dead of night and assaulted at 4 a.m. at the police station. The abuse he endured included having his head slammed against the walls and floor, and being kicked while lying on the ground – all while blindfolded, with both his hands and feet cuffed. His two interrogators did nothing about the violence, leaving him without medical care, though Amir complained about the beating and despite the injuries to his face. During my time at HaMoked, we dealt with other similar cases that also garnered no public response whatsoever.
I think these days about the Saharonim and Holot detention centers, which were used between 2007-2018 for the arbitrary detention of asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan for periods of one or three years, though the detainees were accused of no crimes beyond escaping murderous regimes and attempting to apply for asylum in Israel.
I think of the bus routes in Geula and Mea She’arim, where the separation of female and male passengers has been the norm for many years. Women sit in the back, of course. I recall the billboards in Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods that have been around for as long as I can remember, reminding “immodest” women that they are not welcome in those parts.
I remember the water cannons used against the Balfour protestors in 2021 and the arrests of demonstrators who refused to accept a corrupt prime minister who would not vacate his seat despite the several criminal investigations against him.
All these examples predate the criminal government we are now rising against. And while we are certainly witnessing a worrying escalation, it is also apparent that the foundations for what we now see were diligently laid down for many decades.
So, what has changed? Where did the Pandora’s box feeling come from?
Perhaps what has actually changed is…us. The bluntness with which things are now developing, the uninhibited and unapologetic radicalization, are yielding counter-responses.
For the first time, people in the Israeli mainstream are speaking about settler violence, horrified that no one is even trying to stop the lawbreakers burning entire villages and terrorizing whole communities.
For the first time, we are truly shocked by the pace at which the ultra-Orthodox female exclusion worldview is seeping into our secular public spaces. For the first time, we’re hearing about a Palestinian arrestee who was beaten up by cops and allegedly had a symbol of Jewish supremacy literally etched into his body. And we’re shaken to our core by what these crimes mean for the future of our home. And for its present.
This awakening is of utmost importance, and it holds some potential. We can take strength from it and maybe even a little hope. Because without seeing things for what they are, there is no chance of fixing them.
Things here have been on an accelerating course of deterioration for years. Now, we all know that. Now we see how this country treats any non-Jew, even if it is an elderly Ukrainian refugee with cancer. Now it’s clear that empathy is for Jews only. Now we know what sort of public space this government wants to establish for us women.
There is no time to process these horrors. We must accept reality for what it is and act determinedly to end the occupation and apartheid, establish a proper asylum system, and build a new regime where everyone lives in security, equality, and with full rights.
Yalla – let’s get to work.