In 15 years of political activism, and about eight as a journalist, I cannot remember a time when people around me were so afraid to speak their minds. Not Jews, anyway, and definitely not in Tel Aviv.
Palestinians in the occupied territories always knew that stepping up against the occupation, even with the most nonviolent of tools, could end with their detention for prolonged periods of time. Palestinian citizens, too, are under constant supervision by the Shin Bet, and any university student or public servant taking part in a demonstration knows that he or she is likely to get a threatening phone call from authorities.
But Jews were usually the ones to enjoy more of a feeling of democracy. Sure, one could get arrested while demonstrating, maybe beaten up by police, especially in times of severe escalation of violence in the territories, but it was always generally the feeling that if you wanted to, you could go to a demonstration in Tel Aviv (or elsewhere within the 1948 borders) and get back home unharmed.
That all changed recently, on the evening of July 12, when a group of several dozen extreme-right activists, some of them wearing T-shirts with neo-Nazi designs, attacked a peaceful demonstration against the carnage in Gaza and the targeting of civilians on both sides — and for a cease-fire and peace. The right-wingers announced in advance that they would be coming to physically assault us in the protest. However, police paid no heed to the warnings, nor to the threats made on the scene when the protest began, nor to our requests that the very few police officers present would call for backup and try to physically separate the two demonstrations.
When the air raid sirens wailed in Tel Aviv that evening, we knew one thing for sure: The thugs in front of us were more dangerous than the rapidly approaching Hamas-fired rockets. While the Iron Dome intercepted the rockets, by the evening’s end one leftist activist was injured and hospitalized, an independent journalist had his video camera stolen and dozens of others were hit, pushed, thrown to the ground or had eggs thrown at them. Two local coffee shops were vandalized as the right-wingers suspected that demonstrators were hiding inside.
Now, I’ve been shot at, beaten, arrested and spent two years in prison for conscientious objection, but this brutal attack by dozens of bullies chanting, “Death to Arabs” and “Burn the leftists” — just two weeks after a young Palestinian boy was torched to death — was one of the most frightening experiences I’ve ever encountered.
One of the organizers of the mob, a local rapper dubbed “The Shadow,” later took to social media to express his pride in having given peace activists a lesson that nowhere can they protest in safety, not even in Tel Aviv, and mentioned how police on the scene showed their support for his actions. Not a single attacker was arrested, by the way, despite the fact that the attacks took place right in front of trained riot policemen. An official police representative later explained this by saying that “no one pressed charges.” Violent threats toward leftists by “The Shadow” and others continued on social networks and in the comment sections of media outlets in the days to come, creating a very real and physical fear among many activists.
But to understand that Saturday night attack, one must look at the ongoing process of delegitimization of Palestinian citizens and of the Jewish left by prominent politicians over the past few years. The first extreme wave of anti-democratic legislation came upon us in 2009, following Operation Cast Lead, when the public discourse started framing anti-war protesters and human rights NGOs as “traitors in our midst.”
Since the three kidnapped Jewish boys were found dead, the incitement by our leaders has grown considerably worse. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and almost everyone around him called for revenge on Palestinians. Knesset member Yariv Levin, the coalition whip, silenced Physicians for Human Rights director Ran Cohen on a live news broadcast as Cohen was citing reports on the situations in Gaza. Levin also accused the news team of allowing “anti-Israeli lies and propaganda“ on the air. Miri Regev, head of the Knesset’s Committee for Internal Affairs and a former spokeswoman for the Israel Defense Forces, called Knesset member Jamal Zahalka a traitor and a terrorist for criticizing police, and had him forcefully removed from a committee session. Knesset member Ayelet Shaked used her Facebook page to quote lines from a writer who justified the killing of Palestinians.
And so, while organized gangs have, in the past two weeks, been patrolling the streets of Jerusalem and other cities, attacking Palestinian citizens on a regular basis, as Palestinians feeling helpless are forming “civil defense” brigades to protect themselves and on occasion attack Jews themselves, and as leftists fear making their voices heard, the government is nowhere to be found. No leader is stepping up to try and end the civil unrest and the internal violence. Instead, all we get from the national leadership is more incitement, more anti-democratic legislation, such as the latest bill passing, making it more difficult for Arab parties to enter the Knesset.
The fighting in Gaza is likely to come to an end soon. If not now, then within a week or two. The results of rising tensions within the Israeli society, however, might be here to stay for the long run. And that is extremely dangerous.
Haggai Matar is a journalist with +972 Magazine, co-editor of its Hebrew sister-site Local Call and a political activist.