Coming Home to Roost

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There was a race riot in Tel Aviv on Wednesday evening. Shops wrecked, people beaten on the street, car windows smashed, and black people cowering in their homes as the mob banged on their doors and the bars over their windows. Army radio called it a “pogrom. (Click here for photos.)

The riot was instigated by mainstream Knesset members at an earlier anti-African refugees rally attended by 1,000 people. Deputy Speaker of the Knesset Danny Danon from the Likud shouted: “The infiltrators must be expelled from Israel! Expulsion now!” Miri Regev from the Likud declared, “The Sudanese are a cancer in our body.” Michael Ben Ari from the far-right National Union party exclaimed “There are rapists and harassers here. The time for talk is over.”

The violence was preceded by weeks of incitement by Government ministers. Interior Minister Eli Yishai has been making headlines almost every day with statements such as “We must put all these infiltrators behind bars in detention and holding centers, then send them home….” Deputy Knesset Speaker Danon wrote on Facebook that “Israel is at war” and the “Infiltrators are a national plague.” As author Peter Beinart wrote in a column yesterday, “A reviled, powerless minority discussed in the language of war and disease? Where have my Jewish ears heard that before?”

Recently there have been several incidents of Molotov cocktails thrown at African homes and businesses in Tel Aviv, and 11 young people were arrested for attacking refugees with clubs. This follows a vicious multi-year campaign by the government demonizing African asylum seekers that I described in a previous blog post on March 10.

Unfortunately, this type of vigilante violence is becoming pervasive in the West Bank as well. Jewish settler violence against Palestinians is skyrocketing and becoming routine. They act with impunity as few ever get prosecuted. This week settlers were caught on video shooting Palestinians while nearby Israeli soldiers passively looked on and did nothing to stop them.

To understand what it is like to be in the middle of the violent passions being stirred up, read this column from Haaretz reporter Ilan Lior for an eyewitness account of what it was like to be caught in the Tel Aviv riot.

It started as a legitimate protest, and then it went out of control. The masses understood the message: the time for talking is over – it’s now time to act.

I have been a journalist for ten years. I’ve covered terror attacks, funerals, car accidents, and protests. I’ve seen fury, frustration, despair, and sadness in a variety of places and forms. But I’ve never seen such hatred as it was displayed on Wednesday night in the Hatikva neighborhood. If it weren’t for the police presence, it would have ended in lynching. I have no doubt. Perhaps a migrant worker would have been murdered, perhaps an asylum seeker, or maybe just a passerby in the wrong place at the wrong time.

It started as a legitimate protest. South Tel Aviv residents objected to the government’s policy, or more accurately, the government’s lack of policy. Over the course of a few years, tens of thousands of Africans have made their way into the neighborhoods of south Tel Aviv. Residents call them infiltrators, others call them refugees or asylum seekers. The Africans have made life in south Tel Aviv hellish, according to the residents.

A demonstration of hatred took place on the stage. One after another, residents took the stage to tell horror stories of violence perpetrated by the infiltrators. Some called for extreme action and even violence. “Bibi, I’m taking the law into my own hands,” warned one of the residents. Protest organizers, among them a city councilman, Shlomo Maslawi, attempted to tone it down and calm the crowd. We must not turn to violence, they said.

The Knesset members were not interested. Believe it or not, they fanned the flames. “The Sudanese are a cancer in our body,” said Miri Regev, (Likud). “All the left-wingers that filed petitions in the Supreme court should be embarrassed – they stopped the expulsion,” she added.

Michael Ben Ari joined in on her incitement. “There are rapists and harassers here. The time for talk is over,” said Ben Ari (National Union), exciting the crowd. He also pointed a finger of blame at the left-wingers, and “tzfonbonim” (Israeli slang for affluent, stuck-up residents of north Tel Aviv).

Regev and Ben Ari did their part. The protest went out of control. The masses understood the message: Talk is over, it’s time to act. Now is the time to take the law in to our own hands, to get violent, to release our rage. Some members of the migrant community passed by, scared, while others say they were afraid to leave their houses. The protesters, they believed, are just waiting for the right time to strike.

Just moments after Ben Ari’s speech, I found myself in a surreal situation. “You’re a left-winger that throws rocks at soldiers at checkpoints,” one protester called at me. “You’re a traitor, we’ll finish you,” threatened another. I tried to explain that I was a journalist, and not a left-wing activist, that I’ve never protested at checkpoints, nor thrown a rock at anyone. I told them that I came to give a voice to the residents’ calls, to their struggles, and to pass the message on to those who make decisions. No one listened.

The situation started to deteriorate very quickly. The threats became more intense, hands were thrown in the air, one of the protesters pushed me, another snatched my notepad and threw it in the air. “You’re making a mistake,” I said, desperately trying to stop the carnage. Border Patrol officers saved me, escorting me off to the side. “I recognize you. I’m a bus driver. I saw you throw rocks at soldiers at a checkpoint last week,” said one woman, running amok. “You’re mistaken, they’re deceiving you,” I answered. “I’ll get you,” she threatened, in front of the uniformed officers.

A short time after, she was joined by another protester, then another, then another. The officers decided they needed to get me out of there, and fast. They began to push me down Hahagana street. “Faster, they’ll murder you,” the frightened officers told me. I looked behind me. Hundreds of people had begun to chase me. It was clear to me that the small police presence would not be able to deal with the masses. Some of them caught up. One grabbed my shirt, and ripped it, while threatening to murder me. For the first time, I saw true hatred in the eyes of another person.

The officers pushed me into a patrol car, in an attempt to protect me. The patrol car became the center of the chaos. The masses surrounded it, protesters banged on the doors and windows, rocked the car from side to side. “Traitor,” they yelled.

The hardship of south Tel Aviv residents is real. No one denies that. These are weak neighborhoods, forced to take on a population with nothing, engaged in a daily struggle for survival. But that’s only part of the story. On Wednesday, everyone with black skin was labeled an enemy. These Knesset members are largely responsible for turning the words into acts. They cannot shake off that responsibility. The harsh violence against passersby that happened to have black skin is a direct result of their wild incitements. The incitements on Wednesday are the start of a slippery slope. It is best to stop it as early as possible. If the public leaders and neighborhood officials won’t take responsibility, someone could pay with their life. The writing is on the wall, in black and white.

The Transformation of an Israeli Soldier

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This column is part of a series of narratives that offers insight into the Israeli Palestinian conflict. This story is drawn from the archives of Combatants for Peace, an organization of former Israeli soldiers and Palestinian militants who are committed to non-violence and ending the occupation. In the past month I have posted several other narratives here, here, and here.

The narrative below is from Chen Alon who is a theater director and lecturer at Tel Aviv University. Chen served for four years in the Israeli army and then for 11 years as an operations officer in the reserves. Later, he refused to serve in the occupied territories and as a result served time in jail. The turning point for him was when he was ordered to participate in the demolition of a Palestinian home because it lacked a building permit. For background on this aspect of the occupation, click here to read a recent post.

 

My grandfather immigrated to Palestine before the Second World War because he was a Zionist.  He was the only member of his family to escape the gas chambers of Poland, and so I was brought up with the belief that Zionism literally saved my family. It was not a theoretical concept. I believed that our Jewish state was surrounded by enemies who wanted to destroy us and that men like my father, who fought in the 1967 war, were there to protect us. However, when my father came back from the Yom Kippur war in 1973, he was deeply psychologically damaged and from a very young age I was exposed to his trauma. I went into the army wishing to fix things, but instead I got locked into the same cycle.

I was drafted in 1987 at the beginning of the First Intifada. I call myself an “occupation scholar” because I was sent everywhere and did everything. The most difficult thing of all was the arrests.  One night I remember we had to meet an agent from the security forces to find a wanted terrorist.  My men surrounded a house and as we entered with our flash lights I saw people sleeping on mattresses all over the floor. Then I saw the agent wake someone up and take them to the jeep. It was a 10-year-old child. ‘Can this be the wanted terrorist?’ I asked myself.

Then, in 2001, came the Second Intifada, when Palestinians used arms, not stones. I knew as a reservist I would now be called to respond with tanks, not batons. The strategy was to siege and block everything. The Palestinian villages became like prisons, with one main exit in and out. On one occasion I was at a roadblock being asked to allow a taxi full of sick Palestinian children, who didn’t have a permit, through to the hospital in Bethlehem. At the same time, I got a phone call from my wife who told me she was having problems picking up our three-year-old daughter from kindergarten. So there I was, standing on a sand blockade talking to my wife, while sick Palestinians were waiting in the car, and suddenly I couldn’t bear it any more: on the one hand being a kind, devoted father, and on the other hand being so callous with these people. Were these children nothing more than potential terrorists? My children were human, and yet we had dehumanized the Palestinian children. I began to realize that in the de-humanizing of the other, you begin to de-humanize yourself.

That night we got the order to demolish a Palestinian house. I presumed it must belong to a terrorist, but in fact we were demolishing it because the owner had built an illegal balcony. This is how a civil legal mission becomes a military operation. We came with two platoons, a bulldozer and three tanks, and not surprisingly the operation deteriorated into a fierce battle, with the local Mosque calling people to defend the house and to rise up against the Israeli invasion. It was a crazy situation. I knew from then on that this was the last time I could do such a thing. And when I heard about reservist officers and combatant soldiers refusing to serve in the occupied territories, I signed their petition. Over the course of two years we became very active trying to convince Israeli society that the occupation was wrong. We wanted to initiate civil disobedience.

When I decided to publish my name as a refusnik, I went to warn my parents because I knew it would be a big scandal. My mother’s reaction was to say, ‘Isn’t that dangerous?’ I thought this was strange because in the army I’d been under constant attack and in far more danger. There is a common thought in Israeli society that Palestinian mothers care less about their children – and the proof is that Palestinian mothers send their children to commit suicide attacks. And yet Israeli mothers are willing to sacrifice their children in exactly the same way by sending their children into the army. The mindset is no different.

Then one day I was in Ramallah telling my story to Palestinians and a person in the audience asked me directly, ‘Are you asking us to forgive you?’ I said, ‘No, I don’t forgive myself, nor do I ask for forgiveness.’ For me, telling my story is not about asking for forgiveness but about taking responsibility. This is not just about words and emotions – it’s also about action. I will only be able to achieve self-forgiveness by creating alliances with Palestinians, and this means being allies in a non-violent struggle against injustice and oppression. Israelis need to take responsibility for the Nakba of 1948, just as the Palestinians need to take responsibility for the crazy strategy of suicide attacks.

Strange Comrades: Gershom Gorenberg and Israeli Singing Star Noa

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What would the Talmud say about the suppression of public debate over Israeli policies in the American Jewish community? This is the question posed by Israeli historian Gershom Gorenberg in “An Open Letter to American Rabbis” in the May/June issue of Moment Magazine. Gorenberg , who made aliyah 35 years ago, wrote “The Unmaking of Israel,” a highly readable book chock full of facts that make a powerful case that the occupation of the West Bank is destroying Israeli democracy. But in this Letter, he shifts his attention to America and expands on a theme that Peter Beinart focused on in his recent book, “The Crisis of Zionism” – the stifling of criticism in the American Jewish community about Israeli government policies. But Gorenberg uses an interesting twist, drawing on a Talmudic text to illustrate that healthy debate is an essential part of the Jewish tradition and that limiting debate undermines that heritage.

Along similar lines, a controversy has recently erupted around the Israeli singing star Achinoam Nini, also known as Noa, for her participation in an alternative Yom Hazikaron (Memorial Day) commemoration on April 24th. Last weekend she posted a moving column which illustrates what can happen to public figures in Israel today who dare to act contrary to the expectations of the right-wing ideologues. (I attended the event where Noa performed and wrote about it in a short blog post on April 25.)

I wish it were possible for every rabbi and Jewish communal leader in America to read these columns by Gorenberg and Noa. It might lead to more open and informative conversations.

And Now for Something Completely Different

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Are you ready for something esoteric? I promise Israel will not be mentioned in this post.

Recently I saw two related items of interest that I want to share.  The first, a column in Salon.com, is an excerpt from a book authored by Dr. Mario Beauregard, associate research professor at the Neuroscience Research Center at the University of Montreal. The excerpt describes near-death experiences (NDEs), profound mystical encounters that thousands of people each year experience due to advances in resuscitation techniques used during medical crises such as cardiac arrests. Research has shown that roughly 10%-20% of people who are resuscitated report having NDEs – lucid experiences where they retain their full consciousness, memory, emotions, thinking processes, and sense of vision and hearing – despite being clinically dead.

Dr. Beauregard, while providing in his Salon.com excerpt a brief overview of what a typical NDE consists of, concentrates on one aspect of many NDEs: out-of-body experiences. This is a phenomenon where people who are comatose or clinically dead are able to see and hear from a location above their bodies what is happening around them. This is impossible according to our modern conception of reality and might sound like science fiction to those who are not familiar with NDEs. Yet databases compiled by researchers contain large numbers of accounts from people who report this experience – and Beauregard describes in detail just two of the many accounts that have been independently verified as accurate.

The research into NDEs at hospitals and academic centers has stirred intense controversy. The scientific revolution of the past 400 years has developed a materialist worldview: reality is explained through physical observation and mathematical formulas. Ineffable religious expression and spirituality have no place in this paradigm. Research into NDEs by respected medical and academic investigators is a direct challenge to this scientific paradigm and thus has engendered a harsh reaction.

Beauregard describes some of the attempts to develop medical explanations for the out-of-body phenomenon, all of which so far fail when thoroughly analyzed. The passions aroused by this debate can get intense – you know you are striking foundational beliefs when the dialogue gets heated.

The second item of interest is a related blog post by a good friend, Nancy Evans Bush, who has been involved with NDE research for three decades. She weighs in on this debate in a dispassionate manner, trying to broaden the dialogue and opening the door to more than one worldview. Nancy is an insightful writer and a joy to read, no matter what her topic.

These two columns offer a partial glimpse into an unusual area of human experience. If you would like more information, please send me a message thru the contact page on my blog’s website and I’ll be glad to send you more links to this fascinating area of research.

How this debate plays out over the coming years – and what future research shows – could have a significant impact on religious life and how we conceptualize our world. The ramifications could be enormous.

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