The voting stations have closed and the results of this year’s mayoral elections have finally been determined. But regardless of who actually wins as Mayor in each city countrywide, all of Israel’s citizens risk losing because of the politics of division that have been raging throughout the election campaign. Like abandoning bonfires in a drought-dry forest, we cannot underestimate the terrible risks that the hate and fear-based campaigning poses in such a divided society as Israel’s.
“It’s us or them,” screamed one of the posters plastered around Tel Aviv-Jaffa. The choice is presented as between “the Hebrew city” or “the Islamic Movement in Jaffa”. Pictured on the right is a Israeli flag flying; on the left is a young man, his face and head covered in a Khafiya and a green headband with Arabic letters on it, holding a Palestinian flag. In other words, Jaffa’s Arabs – citizens of Israel – must be viewed, and treated, as an enemy to Jewish Tel Aviv.
Another election campaign ad decries “Hundreds of cases of assimilation in Ramle and no one cares”. A fair-faced lass with black hijab and a Mona Lisa gaze is pictured with the Shabbat candles and Kiddush wine behind her, and the words: “This Could Be Your Daughter”. It is clearly intended to evoke and stoke deep Jewish fears of communal erosion and demise through a trickle-out process of intermarriage, with Arab men as the main threat.
The Power of Fear
These campaign ads go straight for fear’s jugular, triggering Jews’ centuries-old fears of annihilation. Now it is allegedly the Arab minority within Israel, as a whole, which threatens to destroy Jewish Zionist Israel, whether through overt violence or more covert means.
These messages are clearly meant to push people to the wall, rigidifying the divide Jews and Arabs. Such propaganda stokes Jewish fears and Arab citizens’ frustration for being presented as the perpetual enemy within. This is more than dirty politics. It is fear conditioning to mobilize group cohesion and a fight, not flight, response.
Consequences, Intended or Unintended
Rhetoric has consequences. Consider how nationalist propaganda played a central role in mobilizing fears and electoral support for the politicians who led Yugoslavia into the wars of the early 1990’s, resulting in Yugoslavia’s destruction, 140,000 dead, ethnic cleansing, concentration camps, crimes against humanity and some 4.4 million refugees and internally displaced persons. The indictment of former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic blamed his manipulation of media for fanning exaggerated fears and hatreds between the multi-ethnic groups of Yugoslavia, thereby giving him the support base needed to attain and maintain power.
It could never happen to us! Such election messages in Israel today will not necessarily lead to a civil war tomorrow, but Yugoslavs also never ever imagined that they would find themselves in a such a horrific genocidal war. “We were part of Europe! We didn’t know who was who, and didn’t care. It’s all the fault of the nationalist politicians. We hosted the world Olympics just a few years ago!” These were the sentiments Yugoslav refugees would tell me over and over when I worked with them during the war in the mid-1990’s.
Yes, the Yugoslav example shows the most extreme consequences of such hate speech, but we need to be acutely aware of the risks incitement poses, including those of lesser degrees. Neither Biblical heritage, historical experience, legal boundaries nor social-moral norms provide foolproof guarantees that Israelis are inherently safer than others from that slippery slope. Each can be manipulated to the purpose of the user. The risks are all the greater given how the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict perpetuates tensions between Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens. This is not about a specific party, but about clarifying what are legitimate rhetorical means to power.
We must not underestimate the power of both politicians and regular people to demand and take part in shaping a politics of inclusion, whereby all of Israel’s citizens can feel greater mutual trust and belonging.
A different “This could be your daughter” poster went up on the billboards of Kfar Saba. But instead of threatening intermarriage between Jews and Arabs, this one showed a young girl scientist hard at work in a science lab, evoking every parent’s hopes for their daughter’s smarts and success.
And in Tel Aviv-Jaffa the “us v. them” message did not go unchallenged. “In the campaign ‘It’s Us or Them’ they are trying to create walls between Jewish residents of Tel Aviv and Arab residents in Jaffa – people like me…” said Lisa Hanania, a member of a local Jaffa party that campaigned for shared society. “We need to break down those walls. We can’t let the politics of incitement take over the discourse in our city. We need to stand for shared living, and against separation and racism.”
The message one of the counter-campaigns promoted? “It’s us and us.”
As we wake up to the day after the elections, we have to ask ourselves what will Jewish-Arab relations be like in the aftermath of this campaign’s fear-mongering propaganda? What are its costs, and what work will have to be done to repair the damage?
We need to wake up to the dangers of the politics of incitement. It’s up to us and us — politicians and people, Jews and Arabs, you and me — to determine whether the dividers or the bridge-builders will win out in the long-run.