How a Toxic Mix of Austerity and State Racism Led to Violent Riots in Israel

The occupation has certainly contributed to Israeli hate and racism, but so has the country's widening gap between rich and poor.

For many years, peace activists in Israel have used the slogan “The occupation is killing us all” to try to convince their fellow Israelis that, no matter how “quiet” things may be, Israel cannot keep the violence of occupation confined to the Palestinian territories. They have been making the case that the ongoing occupation cannot do anything but corrupt Israel and turn its own society more intolerant and hateful.

Recent events in Israel suggest that this prophecy has been fulfilled. Starting in the spring with riots in the poor, South Tel Aviv neighborhood of Hatikva and reaching new heights with an attempted lynching of Arab youths in the heart of Jerusalem, more and more people have been wondering if Israeli society is flowering into a hateful and fascist culture. The phenomenon may, however, have deeper roots than a recent rightward shift, or even the 45-year-old occupation, even as its current manifestation is deeply connected to it. A major factor, generally overlooked, is the widening gap between rich and poor in Israel--a country not historically acclimated to the neoliberalism the US has been exporting for years, though Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been a strong supporter of neoliberal policies throughout his political career.

In Hatikva, the targeting of African migrants, who had entered Israel illegally, was a large-scale event. It featured not only physical attacks on the migrants, but also shocking hate speech from political leaders. And these were not fringe figures, either. Miri Regev, a Knesset member from Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud coalition, told the simmering crowd: “The infiltrators are a cancer in our society. All the leftists who filed High Court appeals [against deportations] should be ashamed of themselves. We will not let them thwart our attempt to protect ourselves, our children, our women and our work places. We will continue to protest every day until the last of the Sudanese infiltrators returns to his country."

Regev wasn’t just caught up in the moment. She is a trained speaker, having served for years as the spokesperson for the Israel Defense Forces before entering politics. And she was just going a step further than her leader, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who had said the previous week that African immigrants were “…threatening the fabric of Israeli society, its national security and its national identity" and that if it wasn’t stopped, "60,000 infiltrators are liable to become 600,000, and lead to the eradication of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state."

Is it any wonder that an already angry crowd, incited by falsified statistics purporting to show that African migrants were responsible for escalated crime rates in South Tel Aviv, would turn violent?

The people on the street, the people of the Hatikva neighborhood, are a struggling lot. A mix of Jews of Middle Eastern descent (Mizrahim), immigrants from the former Soviet Union, and poor Ashkenazim (Jews of European descent), these are poor Jewish workers whose politics tend to lean toward the right. They are Jews, which gives them some amount of status in Israel, but it is privilege which, like for poor whites in the United States, feels very thin and insecure, and yet is something they will react to being threatened. They have more than nothing, but they don’t have much, and this has always been a recipe for targeting an even weaker sector of society.

If the riots in Hatikva were a shock to many Israelis, the attempted lynching in Jerusalem’s Zion Square must have seemed all too familiar. It is the sort of thing that people thought was confined to the occupied territories, and especially for more liberal-minded Israeli Jews, it is usually thought of as the actions of the settlers, not Jews who live behind the Green Line (the unofficial border of Israel as it existed from 1948-1967). The difference in most Israelis’ perceptions of this incident is that it happened in Israeli territory, in West Jerusalem.

A gang of Jewish youths, some or all of them of ultra-Orthodox backgrounds, descended upon several young Arabs, attacked them and beat them, one to within an inch of his life. Most Israelis, and Jews around the world, reacted with appalled shock at the incident, but there were also some who supported the actions, or at least defended them as the inevitable result of Jews having faced Arabs “who want to kill us” for so many years.

In fact, the attempted lynching mirrored a growing phenomenon in the occupied territories: attacks by settlers on Palestinian people and property called “price tag” attacks. These are meant as reprisals for perceived leniency by the Israeli government and the occupation regime in the West Bank toward Palestinian residents. A recent study by Natan Sacks and Daniel Byman in Foreign Affairs demonstrated that the price tag attacks are also directed at Israeli security personnel and even at settler leaders who are seen as too willing to compromise. And the trend has been growing for some time.

In both the Hatikva and Zion Square cases, the attackers were inspired by example. In Hatikva it was the inflammatory rhetoric of right-wing leaders; in Zion Square, it was the example set by radical settlers. But in both cases the seeds of the violence were sown by larger trends in Israeli society.

Some of those trends are obvious and have been apparent for some time. The rise of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, which is essentially a fascist party representing, largely, Jews from Russia and other former Soviet states is the one most often noted. The occupation itself, with its need to demonize Arabs in order to subjugate them is another. And, to be sure, the fact that Israelis constantly hear words of hostility from Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran or some other group increases insecurity, defensiveness and anger. Israeli leaders consistently play up and on these fears, and no one practices this more than the current government.

But there is another factor that is often overlooked, and that is the increasing gap between rich and poor in Israel, and the dismantling of Israel’s social safety net. Israel is a country that was built along a democratic-socialist model, and it maintained that identity for the first four, arguably five, decades of its existence. But after massive inflation hit the country in the late 1970s, economic reforms, including budget cuts and increased privatization of public services took hold. These were moderate at first, but in the past decade, they have accelerated rapidly.

The result has been a decrease in services for poor and working-class Israelis, while at the same time, the richest Israelis have expanded their wealth at the expense of the very same classes they are depriving of services. In other words, the poor are poorer and the government is taking less care of them.

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) explored these issues in a major report issued this past July. This coincided with the one-year anniversary of the so-called “J-14” social protests in Israel, which protested precisely these economic policies and disintegration of the social safety net. The report’s author, Tali Nir, states that, “The reduction of social services violated the rights of Israeli residents to education, health, housing, employment, and welfare, and led to a dramatic widening of social gaps.”

ACRI does not, in this report, connect these phenomena with the increase in violence by some of Israel’s marginalized sectors against those in Israel even more marginalized than them. But it cannot be ignored as a major factor in the increase in resentment in Israel. Benjamin Netanyahu made no secret of his passion for privatization and de-regulation during his days as Finance Minister, so there is little chance of a major shift in this trend. And that same government is busy terrifying Israelis about Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas and the Arab Spring. Though there have been minor changes in response to the protests in Israel, security concerns have been effective in limiting the social change movement thus far, as Israelis do not wish to be perceived to be attacking their government in a time of heightened tensions.

Under these circumstances, the violence against Africans and Palestinians is far from surprising. Indeed, it seems likely that the conditions inflaming that violence are likely to continue. And so will such incidents

Mitchell Plitnick is the former director of the U.S. Office of B'Tselem and former co-director of Jewish Voice for Peace.