Laura Wharton
Jerusalem City Councilor, adjunct lecturer in political science

How do you say George Floyd in Arabic?

George Floyd was killed a year ago by police in Minnesota. Protests broke out in more than 200 American cities, the police who killed him were fired and put on trial for murder, and the slogan, “Black Lives Matter”, has become known worldwide.  Racism, discrimination, and the problems of negligence in inner cities are back on the agenda in the U.S.

Five days after Floyd was killed, a completely innocent young Palestinian with autism named Ayad Elhalak was shot by the police. Demonstrations were held in Jerusalem. The police officers involved were not released from service and the trial is dragging on, despite witnesses and more than ten cameras close to the scene. Since then, several other young Palestinians have been shot, including a 15-year-old girl who was apparently hit by a stray bullet last week as the police opened fire on demonstrators in Sheikh Jarrah in Jerusalem.

Strife increased recently due to a series of poor decisions by the police and the Ministry of Internal Security, including the placing of barricades at a main entrance to the Old City during Ramadan and the ignoring of racist demonstrations in mid-town Jerusalem as police officers literally looked the other way. After heavily armed police broke into El Aqsa on the Temple Mount, riots broke out all over Israel. There were many cases of arson and stone-throwing by Arab youth, as well as numerous cases of Jewish extremists gravely exacerbating tensions by appearing, often armed, and yelling “Death to Arabs”. In many cases the police failed to intervene.

Many right-wing commentators in Israel have been harping on the word, “symmetry”. The violent outbreaks, they say, were not symmetric; the Arabs are to blame. Would anyone suggest there was asymmetry in the riots in the U.S.? Is it possible to talk about symmetry in the context of a minority protesting against injustices, prejudice, and racism by the majority?

Israel is a self-proclaimed Jewish (and democratic!) country, holding a majority of 80% of the population. Jews control more than 90% of the land, more than 90% of the judges, and virtually all of the police. They control 100% of the government ministries. Arabs are disproportionately overrepresented among the poor and the unemployed. How could there be possibly be symmetry in protests against racism and discrimination? How could anyone expect there to be equal representation in protests against police violence?

Many are likely to look back and confuse the rioting with the outbreak of the conflict with Gaza. This would be a mistake. The young rioters in Israel, Palestinian and Israeli Arabs, were not concerned with nor mentioned Hamas or Gaza; on the contrary, Hamas joined in the fray and opened its attack to garner attention and appropriate the demonstrations by trying to associate itself with them, not the other way around.

Israelis would do well to understand the context of the terrible outbreaks of violence in the cities. The riots were not an indication of a failure of “co-existence” but expose the limits of co-existence in the context of egregious inequality. Israel must do more to narrow the huge gaps in funding for education and in employment. It must address the deep-seated racism that is now being fed by a growing and increasingly dangerous extreme right.

Fortunately, huge networks for Jewish-Arab cooperation have developed all over Israel. They must be cultivated and expanded. Israelis must realize that simple “co-existence” is too low a mark at which to aim. All Israelis, Jews and Arabs alike, must be guaranteed rights and protection under the law. We don’t want any more George Floyds, or the local equivalents, nor the rioting that it is likely to spark.

About the Author
Dr Laura Wharton is a member of Jerusalem's City Council as a representative of Meretz and an adjunct lecturer in the political science department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Born in the U.S., she immigrated to Israel after receiving a B.A. in the government department of Harvard University and then served a full term in the Israel Defense Forces. She subsequently completed an M.A. and a Ph.D. at Hebrew University. For research that later served as the basis for her book "Is the Party Over? How Israel Lost Its Social Agenda" (Yad Levi Eshkol, 2019) she was awarded the Prime Minister's Prize in Memory of Levi Eshkol. She is a mother of two and has been living in Jerusalem for more than two decades.