In Israel, racism and extremism are exploding. It began shortly after the kidnapping of three Israeli boys—Naftali, Gilad and Eyal—in Gush Etzion, that led to the assault in Gaza which has seen over 1,000 killed. A Facebook page calling for the murder of Palestinians went viral. In one photo, a soldier posed broodingly with his gun, the word "vengeance" written on his chest. In another two teenage girls smiled happily with a banner that read: “Hating Arabs is not racism, it’s values.”
A few days later, at the boys' funeral in Modiin, Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu fanned the flames. “May God avenge their blood,” he said to the gathered mourners. “Vengeance for the blood of a small child, Satan has not yet created,” he tweeted later.
Bibi got his wish. Over the weeks that followed, videos began to emerge almost daily of right-wing mobs roving across cities from Jerusalem to Beer Sheva, waving Israeli flags and screaming “Death to Arabs!”
Many ended in physical assaults. Last Thursday two Palestinian men were attacked on Jaffer Street in West Jerusalem as they delivered food to a grocery market. The following day two more Palestinians, Amir Shwiki and Samer Mahfouz, were beaten unconscious in the Eastern part of the city by a gang of 30 young Israelis wielding sticks and metal bars.
Pro-Israeli and Pro-Palestine demonstrators clash in Haifa
Nationalistic Israelis have also turned on Israelis who disagree with them. Photographs have even emerged of pro-war protestors dressed in t-shirts with “Good Night Left Side” prints, a slogan usually used by European neo-Nazis. Violence from these groups has reached unprecedented levels. Last week in Haifa, a city usually presented as a model of liberal co-existence, an anti-war rally was attacked by 700 people carrying weapons.
The worst is reserved for Palestinians. Four weeks ago in East Jerusalem, a group of Israeli men, acting in revenge, poured gasoline down the throat of Mohammed Abu Khdeir and burned him alive. For some his death, just like Jamal’s, was an aberration, an act without precedent from some mad fringe of Israel’s far-right. “What have we become?” an Israeli relative of mine asked that evening, shocked that somebody with “Jewish values” could commit such a crime.
But while the recent spate can be partly seen as a visceral reaction to the tragic killing of the three boys, this kind of violence is not really that new. Take the story of Jamal Julani. He was walking along a street near Zion Square when a group of young Jewish Israelis, one as young as 13, kicked him in the head over and over. "A Jew is a good soul, an Arab is a son of a bitch," overheard one bystander.
There were hundreds standing in Zion Square that evening in September, but nobody, not even a duty officer on the scene chose to intervene. When paramedics did arrive, it took ten minutes of defibrillation and constant CPR to restore the dying boy’s pulse. He had been so badly beaten that police at the scene had assumed he was already dead.
“Abu Khdeir’s murderers are not 'Jewish extremists’” said an editorial in Haaretz, Israel's left-leaning newspaper. “They are the descendants and builders of a culture of hate and vengeance that is nurtured and fertilized by the guides of 'the Jewish state'."
"When you translate it into English you realize how horrific it is, but in the Israeli context there's nothing shocking about it."
Israel has never been the kind of free and open society it has tried so hard to project. Racism did not begin with the murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir or the beating and attempted lynching of Jamal Julani. “Zionist doctrine has always pushed society in a very particular direction,” the academic Marcelo Svirsky told me. But it is getting worse. “There is a phenomenon happening right now across Israeli cities that I have not seen before, having lived in Israel for 25 years.”
One of the most striking aspects of this “phenomenon” is how young the people taking part appear to be. Those posting on social media, running amok in lynch mobs, and crashing leftist rallies with sticks, chains, and brass knuckles are, for the most part, young people—many in their mid-20s, some in their teens.
Three weeks ago the activist and journalist David Sheen published an article on Storify called “Terrifying Tweets of Pre-Army Israeli Teens” after he searched the word “Aravim,” Hebrew for Arab, into Twitter. What he found was a harrowing amount of morbid bile presented in the form of grotesque selfies from teenage girls.
Other quotes included "I spit on you, you stinking Arabs," "From the bottom of my heart, I wish for Arabs to be torched," and "Arabs may you be paralyzed & die with great suffering!"
What is going on? For anyone familiar with Israeli politics, the answer should be obvious. In the past month alone the stream of racism coming from politicians and religious authorities has been relentless. Take Avigdor Lieberman, the Foreign Minister, who called on Israelis to boycott Palestinians who don't support the war. Or take Ayelet Shaked, the Jewish Home party politician and member of the Knesset (Israel's national legislature) who recently called for the murder of Palestinian mothers. “They should follow their sons,” she said. “Nothing would be more just.”
“Those words the girls said are not in any way strange to the discourse in Israel,” Sheen told me. “When you translate it into English you realize how horrific it is, but in the Israeli context there's nothing shocking about it.”
"Price Tag attacks" on people taking action against settlers have grown in number without the police really trying to stop them. Vigilante patrols led by extreme organizations like the state-funded Lehava have cropped up across the entire country to stop Jews and Arabs from having romantic relationships. Perhaps the biggest victims of this fanaticism have been refugees from sub-Saharan Africa. Locked up in detainment centers, they’ve faced abuse from almost every part of the Israeli establishment. From the hundreds of Rabbis banning Jews from renting apartments to Africans, to politicians like Eli Yishai, the ultra-orthodox Interior Minister who in 2012 said “until I can deport them I’ll lock them up to make their lives miserable.”
“Both governments under Netanyahu have been responsible for inciting racism,” Svirsky said. “They’ve put in place a long list of anti-equality and anti-Palestinian legislation in all areas of life. That’s why it’s become normal in political discourse to express extreme ideas toward Palestinians. The obsession with a state only for Jews has brought Israeli society into a racist abyss.”
"Half of all Jewish Israeli high school students said Arab-Israelis should not receive the same set of rights as Jews."
For Israeli youth, things might have gotten marginally better in 2013 if a proposal by the left-wing Zionist party Meretz to have anti-racist education included in schools hadn’t been voted down by the Knesset. The bill had been submitted by the Arab-Israeli MK Issawi Freij after a theme park in Rishon Letzion admitted renting out its facilities on separate days to Jewish and Arab schools to “avoid conflict.”
Issawi’s fear that racism was growing in Israel’s schools echoed what others had been saying for years. In a recent study by Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, half of all Jewish Israeli high school students said Arab-Israelis should not receive the same set of rights as Jews. Of those who identified as religious, half said the now familiar slogan “Death to Arabs” was legitimate.
In 2010 a group of concerned teachers sent a petition to the education ministry explaining precisely these fears. “We cannot remain silent in light of the increasing presence within the walls of schoolhouses of expressions of racism,” they said. “We see ourselves as educators who must issue a warning. The prevalence of racism and cruelty is growing among young people in Israel.”
According to Sheen many Israeli teachers, particularly those who teach civics, have become afraid to even broach the issue of human rights in the classroom. Earlier in the year Adam Verete, a teacher who dared to call the IDF an “immoral army,” was hauled before a tribunal and later fired after a pupil complained about his “extreme leftist” views. “They can't even bring up the topic without inciting in their students rage and racism,” Sheen said.
Of course, militarism and nationalism have always been part of the Israeli education system—embedded in history books, on maps on the walls, in cartoons of Palestinians on camel backs—but under Netanyahu’s watch, things seem to have gone further. The first major change of the former education minister Gideon Sa’ar, a man who described teachers as “lifelong draftees,” was to enlarge a program designed to inspire even more enthusiasm for the army.
“Service in the IDF is not only an obligation but a privilege and a social value,” Sa’ar said at the time. “The connection between the school system and the IDF will become stronger in the context of the program that I initiated." The budget for civic education, a rare space for critical debate on Israel and its “democratic values,” was cut in favor of an orthodox Jewish studies curriculum. Heritage tours to Hebron were introduced as a way of increasing support for settlements and the idea of Greater Israel. And whatever passing reference to an alternative Palestinian narrative that remained in school textbooks was quickly removed.
“During the 1990s and early 2000s there was some kind of attempt to be more factual,” Nurit Peled-Elhanan, a professor of language and education at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem told me. “There was an effort to be more academic and scientific, to speak about Palestinians, even if the ideology was the same. Today it’s back to simplified stories and sheer indoctrination. It’s going backward.”
Right wing Israelis chanting joyfully about how there are "no children left" in Gaza
Though Israel remains a multicultural place, for the most part Palestinians and Israelis live deeply separate lives. Within the 1948 borders just five non-segregated schools are available for young children to meet and learn about one another. Within the occupied territories, physical barriers introduced after the Second Intifada mean contact is almost non-existent.
“There used to be so many more casual opportunities for Israelis and Palestinians to get to know each other,” Sheen said. “Now you have a whole generation—the terrifying-tweets cohort—that has never even known a Palestinian.”
Beyond the physical barriers the mental walls are perhaps even stronger. “I grew up without knowing any Palestinians,” Peled-Elhanan said. “All I had to do was cross to the other side of the city but the thought never occurred to me. This was the kind of education we got—that Palestinians, if they exist at all, exist as an obstacle.”
Israel likes to use its status as the region’s only European-style democracy to fudge criticism of its occupation and siege. Usually this works. There is, particularly in the Jewish diaspora, a monumental gap between how Israel is represented and what is actually happening. But in the present conflict, with over 1,000 dead in Gaza and youngsters pouring through Israel in violent mobs, these delusions may finally be coming undone.
For those who live in Israel and do not support the war or the right-wing government, it is becoming more difficult to voice an opinion, and some people are weighing their options. “Two nights ago there was a big protest in Tel Aviv,” Sheen said. “A long-time leftist was holding up a sign that said ‘flee while you can.’ In conversations I’ve had with hardcore activists, everyone has said they are preparing an escape plan. For people who have children or want to have children, this is no place to raise them.”
Keep up to date with developments in Gaza with the VICE News dispatches, Rockets and Revenge