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Israel’s violence syndrome

Rising attacks with the explicit or implicit collusion of the authorities are yet another sign of the retreat of Israel's democratic vigor
Rabbis for Human Rights activist Moshe Yehudai, who the NGO says was assaulted by a group of masked settlers in the northern West Bank on October 16, 2019. (Rabbis for Human Rights)
Rabbis for Human Rights activist Moshe Yehudai, who the NGO says was assaulted by a group of masked settlers in the northern West Bank on October 16, 2019. (Rabbis for Human Rights)

The month of successive Jewish holidays is finally coming to an end. For too many, it was punctuated by various forms of violence which, if not for two brazen attacks on IDF soldiers by Jewish militants over the past weekend, might have actually passed below the radar of large segments of the public. What explains this broadening pattern of public violence? Who has it affected? What does it mean for Israelis and for their faltering democratic system of government? Is the rhythm of continuous violence that has accompanied the season of celebration and festivities also due to subside? Ungrounded aspirations aside, should no steps be taken to contain this most pernicious challenge to individual and collective civil rights in the country, Israel’s liberal trappings might fade even farther, and with them many of the fundamental liberties of its citizens.

Five distinct forms of political violence have surfaced in Israel during the past month. The first, and most familiar, has gone on for quite some time almost without comment: assaults on the property and bodies of Palestinians across the Green line by Jewish zealots bent on intimidation and harassment. Such incidents have recurred since 1967, but they tend to escalate in the wake of Palestinian violence against Israelis or at certain clearly determined times. The Jewish holiday period, which overlaps the olive harvest, is particularly notorious in this regard. This year is no exception as, once again, Palestinian villagers have seen parts of their crops set on fire and others pillaged, while the olive-pickers have been harassed and others bodily attacked. Despite strong condemnation from human rights organizations and some opposition groups, such violence is largely either belittled or condoned. Its victims, Palestinian peasants, are after all the embodiment of the “enemy” and therefore worthy of little sympathy.

The second form of violence, as so poignantly illustrated by the injuries sustained by Jewish civil rights activists from attacks either by settlers or security forces ostensibly charged with maintaining order in the occupied territories, has also sadly become the norm in recent years. In the Jordan valley, in Susya, and also at key olive-harvest sites, Israelis who have come to aid their neighbors have found themselves the object of extremist and oftentimes official wrath. The assault on four members of Rabbis for Human Rights a few days ago is only one case amongst many. Jewish fanatics rarely distinguish between Palestinian rivals and their Jewish supporters. For them, they are two sides of the same coin (they embody the opponent who “only understands force”) and therefore deserve similar treatment.

The third manifestation of violence is of a different sort: it is the kind that springs up from the absence of law and order and affects the physical security of exposed civilians. Tens of thousands of Arab citizens of Israel have been protesting for over a month against the violent lawlessness that has taken over their lives. In a series of demonstrations throughout the country they have come together to demand official protection and to insist on a plan that would enhance their personal security. Their calls have been greeted by a mixture of accusation and derision. The problems they describe have been turned against them to underline their questionable commitment to Israel as a whole and to the rule of law. The fact that close to 80% of the murders in Israel have involved Arab citizens is used to corroborate the built-in violence in Arab society. And the request for official action has, at best, been ignored. It’s as if Palestinian citizens of the country, given what many consider their dubious loyalty to the state, cannot be believed when they cry out for assistance in maintaining a modicum of security in their own community.

The experience of Arab society in Israel is not unique. During the past few months, angry public outbursts by citizens of Ethiopian extraction have been greeted in a similar manner — especially when these have entailed demands for protection against police discrimination and even brutality. Over the holidays, some key activists were, once again, harassed and charged while their concerns were systematically denigrated. They, much like those protesting the foot-dragging of the Attorney-General on the Netanyahu files, dissent from the government and are therefore unworthy of basic protection.

A fourth, particularly opaque and therefore unusually pernicious, form of violence, is exercised against women and the gay community. Gender-based violence, however widespread and ongoing, is often hidden behind a veil of secrecy because it usually occurs in private places and is systematically under-reported. It surfaces when women are killed — usually by their partners. When this happens among Arab citizens (in about 50% of the cases), it is often attributed to cultural causes (“honor” killings) and the perpetrators are pursued half-heartedly if at all. When the victims are Jews (Michal Sela and Maria Tel-Baruch this past week), after the standard phrases are enunciated the opprobrium subsides — leaving the impression that the victims might have been less innocent of provocation than it appeared at first sight.

The fifth and final variety of violence — and the only one that has evoked categorical condemnation, is that committed by Jews against soldiers. On the eve of the last day of Sukkot, after a full four weeks riddled with various forms of violence, Prime Minister Netanyahu finally saw fit to denounce the actions of the militants who attacked troops near Yitzhar and purposefully destroyed IDF property: “I want to stand by the IDF soldiers and commanders who are working around the clock to defend the security of all Israeli citizens without exception”. An intriguing condemnation indeed: the only group defended against undue violence is the military; by intimation others adversely affected by acts of violence — civilians all — do not deserve similar backing.

Israel is not the only country currently experiencing spiraling civil violence. Spain, Chile and now Lebanon provide just a few samples. Its internal violence is also not the most extreme: what has been taking place in Hong Kong is much more encompassing. But Israel has been undergoing a worrisome spike of diverse civilian-rooted violence which can no longer be overlooked. This wave, regardless of the distinct etymology of its components, contains several common features. First, all the forms involve — with the notable exception of attacks on the IDF — either the explicit or implicit collusion of the authorities. This is overtly the case for attacks on Palestinians and their Israeli supporters, a bit less so (albeit perhaps equally forcefully) for attacks on minority groups within the country, and more circumspectly (although no less definitively) for degrading gender-based violence.

Second, therefore, a clear hierarchy of victims has therefore been created, with soldiers and some (Jewish) women being the least acceptable and the others progressively viewed as bearing some responsibility — and thus culpability — for their own immiseration. This list inevitably becomes a handy means to separate between government proponents and its critics, creating a political asymmetry which flies in the face of the basic notion of civic equality.

Third, these attitudes and the distinctions they draw between various types of citizens inevitably impinge on civil rights. Indeed, in free societies condoning, or in extreme cases encouraging, violence by those close to the ruling coalition is nothing short of a gross infringement on civil liberties and on the foundation of democratic life. At risk are not only freedom of speech and freedom of association, but also the right to protest against perceived inequities with impunity. The basic right to security — to live free of fear of assault because of political beliefs or ethnic, national, religious or gender identity — may be at stake. Violence neglected, purposely ignored or selectively upheld is a sure prescription for discrimination and can easily spill over into ungovernability.

Above all else, the entertainment of violence in one form or another is a direct affront to one of the most essential precepts of democratic government: the resolution of disagreements through deliberation, debate, compromise, adjudication and regular trips to the ballot box. The use of force is thus completely antithetical to the democratic ethos and its presence — especially when exercised unequally by those in power — cannot but weaken its foundations.

The current violent cycle in Israel constitutes yet another sign of the retreat of its democratic vigor. Reversing this pattern — easily accomplished by a government truly mindful that it is meant to serve all citizens and groups equally — is both overdue and essential. The end of the holidays may hopefully usher in such a new and more equitable ruling coalition which will put this issue at the top of its agenda.

About the Author
Professor Naomi Chazan, former Deputy Speaker of the Knesset and professor (emerita) of political science at the Hebrew University, is co-director of WIPS, the Center for the Advancement of Women in the Public Sphere at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.
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