For years, there were Arab villages and neighborhoods where police didn’t tread. Some of these neighborhoods were full of violence, gangs, and drugs. Last year, after a high number of murders occurred within a few weeks in Arab areas, there were Arab protests across the country demanding more policing from the Israeli government. People complained that they were afraid for their lives. But Israeli society was willing to tolerate Arab violence, as long as it stayed within the Arab community.
For years, there were Ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods where police didn’t tread. Supreme Court rulings about public space and gender remained unenforced; even state-affiliated ambulances were sometimes stoned, especially if they included a visible woman paramedic. Throughout the pandemic, Ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods have been allowed to violate virus rules with impunity. Police were being actively instructed not to enforce laws there, or sometimes, even making unofficial deals with ultra-Orthodox leaders, whereby if they only violated the laws up to a certain point, no police would come. Many Israelis sitting in their home under lockdown were outraged. But little was done about it. On Lag Baomer, an Ultra-Orthodox gathering at Meron was allowed to proceed in violation of health and safety guidelines -and tragedy occurred.
For years, there were extremist settlement outposts where police didn’t tread. The outposts themselves, established in violation of Israeli law, were allowed to remain there and expand. Sometimes some of the extremists would damage Arab property or throw stones at Arabs. If the IDF sent in people to do policing, they got stones thrown at them as well. A few months ago, a Palestinian was killed at such an outpost, under murky circumstances, in the middle of the night, by a person who was not supposed to have access to a gun, since they themselves had been under investigation for a different incidence of anti-Palestinian violence. The settlers claimed that the killing was an act in self-defence. The police closed the file. No investigation was ever carried out. But as long as this violence remained in small, remote outposts, it seemed so far away.
Each of these cases was an existential threat to the Zionist dream: If Zionism is Jewish sovereignity, then giving up that sovereignty is a threat to that dream. In each of these cases, Israel gave up on sovereignity over a part of its territories. In some ways, the biggest threat is when Israel gives up sovereignty within its borders, as is the case with Israeli Arab and Ultra-Orthodox territories, as opposed to outposts, which are technically not within Israel’s official borders.
Over the past few days, we’ve seen the culmination of this trend: Arab and Jewish mobs beating each other up and smashing each other’s property. The police are nowhere to be found. They don’t know how to deal with this situation. They’ve gotten used to letting the mobs get on with it -after all, it was just an Arab/Ultra-Orthodox/extremist settler incident. It would blow over by itself. Except that, now, these riots are happening throughout the country, and it’s not clear that they will blow over by themselves.
These riots are an existential threat to Israel: The basic definition of a state, is that it has a monopoly on violence, which it uses to protect its citizens from internal violence (crime) and external violence (invasion by foreign forces, etc.). If Israel not only cannot protect its citizens from this bout of violence, but doesn’t even know how to properly (which also means avoiding the use of excessive force) deploy police in order to try to protect its citizens, then it has failed its basic function as a state.
If Zionism is defined as Jewish statehood, then this can be seen as a threat to the “statehood” part of that equation. Israel is showing itself as incapable of carrying out the basic tasks it needs in order to exist as a state.
This is the culmination of a long process. It’s time to start undoing that process.