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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.

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