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How Israel’s right-wing camp exploits nationalism

Once again freedom of expression is crushed under the wheels of nationalism

Yossi Mekelberg

Published: Updated:

Israel of the last few months has been plagued by hatred along political and ethnic lines, which undermines Israeli society. Freedom of speech and expression is sacrosanct in any country claiming to be democratic, particularly in times of conflict. Regrettably and opportunistically the right-wing camp in Israel is exploiting the wave of nationalism during the war to intimidate those who criticize the government’s use of excessive force or call for peace.

The Arab minority in Israel is specifically targeted for verbal hatred and at times physical violence. The extreme nationalists in Israel harbor this hatred at the best of times, but feel they have the legitimacy to unleash it even more viciously in times of war. It reached such an extreme level that the Israeli Prize laureate and renowned scholar on Fascism Zeev Sternhell, asserted that Israeli democracy “…has become increasingly eroded, until it reached a new nadir in the current war.” He warns that this erosion carries the hallmarks of fascism. This warning is chilling, especially considering that it comes from someone who survived an attack by an Israeli settler from the occupied West Bank. Prof Sternhell was reportedly targeted by the settler a few years ago due to his prominent position among the left in Israel a few years ago.

Violence from the extreme-right in Israel against the peace camp and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is not new. Decades of constant incitement led on occasion to physical attacks and the murder of those who believe in dialogue and co-existence. In the current atmosphere in Israel, unless the entire political system and especially the government sends a clear message that this thuggish behavior will not be tolerated, further violence against the peace camp or minorities is lurking around the corner.

It is worth reminding ourselves that the country was shocked in the past by the callous murders of innocent people for their political beliefs or for just being Arabs. More than 30 years ago in the aftermath of the 1982 Lebanon War, a grenade was thrown at a group of Peace Now demonstrators in Jerusalem killing Emil Greenzweig, a teacher and a peace activist. Nearly eight years later, a group of Palestinian laborers were shot at point blank by a Jewish extremist. And of course one cannot forget the murder of Prime Minister Itzhak Rabin by another Jewish terrorist. Rabin’s only crime was negotiating peace with the Palestinian leadership. These are only a handful of examples of violence that occurred in an atmosphere of incitement. The sources of incitement do not arise from the fringes of Israeli society, but can also be found in politicians serving in the government. By not condemning such behavior, it can only be seen as condoning it or being complicit by staying silent.

For too long I believe there is unacceptable tolerance in the Israeli society toward chants of “death to the Arabs.” Such chants rather common in football matches and in demonstrations. Calling the members of the peace camp ‘traitors’ and ‘collaborators’ during political demonstrations or in the social media became an extremely disturbing feature of the political debate in Israel. The events of this summer polarized the Israeli society even further. As horrific as the murder of the three young Israelis by Palestinians in the West Bank was, and though it deserves the strongest condemnation, the Israeli society was also tainted by the sickening murder of an innocent young Palestinian, as a revenge attack. The poisonous atmosphere created by the vitriolic language of pointing fingers at the Palestinians as a group for the murder of the Israelis, breeds those who eventually will take the law into their own hands and harm Palestinians at random.

Badly bruised

The debate around Gaza deteriorated into constant incitement on the social networks and in demonstrations against the left in Israel. The intimidating behavior is also directed against journalists. One of Israel’s most prominent liberal journalists Gideon Levy was mobbed in a visit to the rocket hit town of Ashkelon. He was accused by the mob surrounding him of calling Israeli air force pilots murders, distorting his legitimate criticism of the role the pilots played in bombing Gaza and killing many civilians. A senior politician of the Likud Party called for him to be charged with treason. Whether one agrees with Mr. Levy’s opinions or not is beside the point, the intimidation of a journalist for expressing his honest opinion leaves Israeli democracy badly bruised and leads one to question the likelihood of its long term survival as a free society.

Once again freedom of expression is crushed under the wheels of nationalism

Yossi Mekelberg

Debate over the last few weeks has sunk to the lowest common denominator, orchestrated by Israeli ministers who questioned the loyalty of Arab-Israelis to the state of Israel simply because the latter protested against the way Israel conducted the war in Gaza. Thus it is not surprising then that according to evidence presented by the liberal NGO The New Israeli Fund, since the outbreak of the bloodshed in Gaza, many dozens of Palestinian-Israelis have been sacked by their employers for opposing the war on social networks. The posts varied between accusing Israeli for committing war crimes, posting disturbing images showing what the effects of the IDF’s assault on Gaza and some more extreme material. Once again freedom of expression is crushed under the wheels of nationalism, regardless of the fact that it is in contravention of employment laws prohibiting the firing of employees for their political views.

It is easy to dismiss all these manifestations of jingoism as mindless and isolated expressions of frustration by individuals with little importance or impact. I beg to differ very strongly. Unless those who use this venomous language, and physically attack their political rivals are brought to justice in line with the law of the country, the state sometimes inadvertently and at other times deliberately legitimizes this behavior and hence must be regarded culpable. If in the past members of the government or the security forces could protest their innocence by claiming that they were caught by surprise, this cannot be a legitimate defense any longer considering the viciousness of the present levels of incitement and past occurrences.

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Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

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