Addressing Israel’s offensive in Gaza, John Kerry said: “Israel is under siege by a terrorist organization.” Living in Israel, I found the secretary’s comment baffling. In my city, Jerusalem, the sirens have sounded only three times. Tel Aviv and its vicinity has had it worse, with three dozen sirens or so over the last month. Yet daily routine has not been greatly affected. In the south, near the Gaza strip, things are different. With numerous rockets daily, life in some Israeli towns and villages has become what happens between one rush to the shelter to the next. This is certainly not acceptable, but it is not a siege either. In Jewish history, the archetypical siege is the Roman siege of Jerusalem, described by the first-century historian, Josephus, thus: “Throughout the city people were dying of hunger in large numbers, and enduring unspeakable sufferings. In every house the merest hint of food sparked violence, and close relatives fell to blows, snatching from one another the pitiful supports of life.” In Zionist history, the paradigm comes from 1948, when Jerusalem was once again stricken with hunger and want of basic supplies. Here is how one mother described it in a letter to her son who was fighting in the north: “Whoever doesn’t have food simply goes hungry. There’s no gas for cooking, people gather wood and cook in the street. Other than bread, (and this too only 200 grams per person daily) there’s almost nothing to buy…. Water is delivered in a carriage with an allowance of 1.5 cans per person for a week (can=eighteen liters), which is precious little. And as there is no fuel for cars, the water must be brought (from great distance) from wells.” Today, this description is more suitable to Gaza than to Israel.
But there is another siege haunting Israel today. This siege is internal rather than external, moral rather than physical. The murder of sixteen-year-old Muhhamad Abu-H’deir, burned alive by Jewish extremists on July 2, made headlines worldwide. But the context in which this crime was hatched receives less attention. The day before, as the three Israeli youths kidnapped and murdered three weeks earlier were being buried, hundreds of extremists gathered in Jerusalem under the banner “We want Revenge!” And their slogans clarified: “Death to Arabs” and “Death to Leftists.” As the mob marched to the city center, they pounded on store fronts, demanding Arab blood. A large group gathered outside McDonald’s shouting for its Arab employees to be brought out. Smaller groups roamed the streets looking for Arabs to abuse. A wave of racist violence has been washing the streets since then. Organized mobs of extremists have been marching through the streets of Jerusalem shouting racist slogans, calling, “Death to Arabs!” Like scenes taken from revolutionary films, they block cars and busses mid-street, checking whether there are Arabs inside. If found, they are assaulted verbally as well as physically. Many Palestinians refrain from traveling on the city’s light rail because it has become a regular venue for racist attacks.
Sadly, Jerusalem is not unique. An anti-war demonstration in Tel Aviv was attacked by hundreds of right-wing hooligans led by a rapper going by the nickname “the shadow.” Some of them were wearing the “Good Night Left Side” T-shirts popular among white-supremacist and neo-Nazi groups in Europe. A week later this violent scene recurred in Haifa, where right-wing hooligans assaulted an Arab deputy mayor and his son as they were approaching an anti-war demonstration. In Jerusalem’s old city, a mother and her two young children survived an attempted stabbing by Jewish extremists. Amir Shawiki and Ahmed Kasuani, twenty-year-old Jerusalemites, were less fortunate. Both were severely beaten by a Jewish mob simply because they were Arabs. Omar Diwani, a city bus driver in Jerusalem, was hospitalized after four young men assaulted him upon detecting his Arab accent. Dozens of similar attacks against Arabs and “lefties” have taken place recently in the streets, in cafes, in shopping centers, on busses and trains. Israel’s radical right is on the rise.
Jewish radicalism is not a new phenomenon. Its current incarnation traces back to Rabbi Meir Kahane, who, after forming the militant Jewish Defense League in the United States, emmigrated to Israel and founded the ultra-nationalist Kach party. Kahane advocated the forced eviction of all Palestinians residing west of the Jordan river, subordinating state law to Jewish religious law (Halakha), and revenge as punitive policy. Although strongly liberal on economic issues, his ethics were utterly collectivist: the moral agents were not individuals but nations. Any harm to a Jew was an affront to the nation, and revenge should be taken not necessarily on the perpetrator but on “the Arabs.” I vividly remember classmates of mine who, under his influence, would retaliate against random Palestinians following attacks on Israelis. Retaliation quickly morphed into preemption and then into naked aggression. In his short tenure in the Knesset, Kahane proposed outrageous legislation, such as revoking the citizenship of all non-Jews, or criminalizing sexual relations between Jews and Arabs. The core of his ideology was a militant form of Jewish supremacism, best expressed in the slogan frequently heard these days “a Jew is a soul, an Arab the son of a whore.” But with Kahane the medium was more significant than the message. Fusing populist rhetoric with strong-man authoritarianism, he appealed both to religious zealots and to underpriviledged Israelis. Playing on their resentment, he riled them against the “elites,” whom he portrayed simultaneously as all-powerful—controlling the media, the education system, and the courts—and as weak and degenerate. Weak in their treatment of the Arab enemy, and degenerate in their morality, which for him meant the loss of their Jewish fiber. His hostility toward Arabs, however, sometimes seemed second to his loathing of the left. These “fifth column” “destroyers of Israel,” as he biblically labeled them, were subject not only to derision but also to very thinly disguised threats.