Why the U.S. Media Barely Covered Brutal Right-Wing Race Riots in Tel Aviv

Several weeks back, Israel was rocked by a night of right-wing race-riots targeting African refugees in Tel Aviv. The thuggery was frightening – refugees were attacked, African-owned businesses and stores were vandalized and a community was forced to hunker down behind closed doors in fear for their lives.

Perhaps more disturbing still was that the riots, which began with an anti-immigrant demonstration, were incited by Israeli politicians representing the increasingly influential hard-right. They fired up the crowd, calling the refugees “infiltrators,” and a “cancer,” and accusing them of violence and rape. It was a classic example of “othering” – eliminationist rhetoric that led directly to action by the xenophobic crowd.

While a small number of people carried out the violence, they represented the views of many Israelis. A poll released this week found that 52 percent of respondents agreed with the characterization of African refugees as “a cancer,” and a third condoned violence against them.

The story received very little coverage in the United States. Worse, some outlets that did report on the riots advanced the rioters' narrative that African refugees were responsible for a massive wave of street violence, despite the fact that crime statistics don't bear out the claim.

Recently, Middle East analyst MJ Rosenberg appeared on the AlterNet Radio Hour to discuss the Tel Aviv riots, the stand-off over Iran's nuclear program and how the Israel lobby helps narrow the discourse around Israel in the United States. Below is a lightly edited transcript of the discussion (you can listen to the whole interview here.)

Joshua Holland: MJ, I want to talk to you about some issues you’ve been writing about. But first I want to talk a little bit about the discourse here in the United States. I’m one of many people who believes there is an Israel lobby. I’m not sure why that’s even controversial. And among other things, it works to kind of narrow the range of acceptable discourse on Israel and Palestine. You are a former AIPAC staffer, right?

MJ Rosenberg: Right. To defend myself that was way back in the '80s. In fact I was a pretty happy AIPAC staffer. I even left there on good terms. I have to say in those days it’s not so much my politics were different, AIPAC was different then. The policies weren’t nearly as reactionary then as they are now.

JH: From your inside perspective on that organization, what did you see as far as their tendency to call out criticism that they think is illegitimate or beyond the pale?

MR: They consider all criticism of Israel illegitimate. It’s all beyond the pale. I suppose their definition would be if by some miracle someone like Joseph Lieberman made a statement critical of Israel it would be legitimate. When I worked there in the '80s, back before everyone had computers, they had a big war room where all they did was assemble every bit of data on members of Congress, on candidates, but also on writers, celebrities – anyone in the public eye.

In those days they would just put them in these folders. They always had at hand all this negative information -- what they considered negative information -- to tar people as being anti-Israel or even anti-Semitic. That stuff would be given to reporters if something came up. They were either initiated on their own to give to reporters or some reporter called them because they had a treasure trove of information.

They still operate that way. In those days they did it directly; now they have former staffers and people who are close to the organization in the blogging world and political world who do it for them. They do it so much. When you read that someone is anti-Israel they’re the ones putting it out there. They’ve got the data.

JH: You recently got into a huge kerfuffle over your use of the term “Israel-firster.” The charge comes up again and again – we hear talk about these “anti-Semitic tropes,” which is something that if you hold up to the light in just the right way, and maybe squint your eyes a bit, is vaguely reminiscent of some antiquated anti-Semitic narrative.

At the time, I wrote that we live in a pretty rough-and-tumble political environment where you can call the president an illegitimate Manchurian candidate, you can call Democrats socialists or Republicans wing-nuts. But there isn’t really a derogatory term that’s acceptable for these advocates of the Israeli right. Perhaps that’s the best way to put it. I wonder: isn’t all of this a reaction to this group calling itself “pro-Israel?” Aren't you pro-Israel?

MR: Yeah, I’m pro-Israel. I’m pro-Israel in the sense that I want the country of Israel to live and thrive in security. What they mean by pro-Israel is do you support all the policies of the government of Israel -- except for a peace government like the Rabin government -- but every other government and every policy all the time.

The reason I coined the phrase Israel-firster is because to me there’s no other way to describe it. The same people who call Obama terrible names, or Bush terrible names, will defend everything Netanyahu says or does. So what is it? Go to the AIPAC convention. They sing the Israeli national anthem. It couldn’t be more blatant. They support candidates for office based not on what’s good for the United States, but what‘s good for Israel.

The way they defend that is to say, 'what’s good for Israel is good for America.' As George Washington would tell you, no two countries have the same interests. It’s an absurdity. Nobody would say that we have identical interests with Canada, or the UK, let alone Israel. That’s the way they get around it, by saying, 'yes we offer everything that Israel wants, or does, but that’s because if it’s good for Israel it’s good for America.'

I don’t want to say Israel; I shouldn’t really. AIPAC isn’t about caring about Israel. It’s supporting the occupation, supporting wars in Iran and Iraq, supporting the right wing in Israel. Half the Israeli population, according to polls, are against Netanyahu and are against those policies. AIPAC, and the lobby which includes other organizations as well, only support the Israeli right.

I remember I was working on Capitol Hill when Rabin was prime minister and was pursing his peace policy. AIPAC pursued a parallel policy of its own to try and undermine Rabin. It was so bad that Prime Minister Rabin tried to get this former AIPAC staffer Steve Rosen -- who was later indicted for espionage -- Rabin went in and asked AIPAC to fire him. 'He’s working against my policies,' he said. When it’s peace policies, then AIPAC suddenly keeps its distance. Of course that’s not an issue now.

JH: I should note, MJ, that you once wrote that they really were "Netanyahu-firsters."

Speaking of our discourse, I want to talk about an issue that came up recently that’s gotten very little coverage in the United States. There were a series of violent race riots by right-wing Israelis against African immigrants in Tel Aviv. This was a big deal. I was looking at the US coverage and it was amazing at how little attention these riots received. The Christian Science Monitor ran a piece, the New York Times wrote about it on its blog, and some papers actually took the side of the rioters, in a sense, framing the issue as related to “African violence,” which is a pretty dubious claim as far as I can see. Tell us about what happened and what it says about Israeli society today. [Editor's note: several days after this interview was conducted, the New York Times did run an article on the violence in Tel Aviv.]

MR: Israeli society in general is becoming increasingly paranoid about everything, which is strange because Israel as a country is militarily more powerful and its people are more secure than probably ever before. There’s not terrorism or anything like that anymore, thank goodness. Yet there’s this real string of paranoia stirred up by Netanyahu. He’s always talking about the Holocaust. He says this is just like 1942, which was probably the worst year in Jewish history. He’s always invoking those kind of tropes and it’s causing a lot of xenophobia. They’re afraid of foreigners. You know, 'the whole world is against us.'

Now you have these refugees from Africa who have made their way to Israel through the Sinai desert. These are mostly Sudanese. They’re black people, and they are what the right here calls “illegals.” What they actually are is refugees, which is something Jews should be able to relate to. They move, for the most part, into Tel Aviv where there’s work for them. All of a sudden the word has gotten out that these people are responsible for crime. Statistically it’s been proven that that’s not true. There’s crime in Tel Aviv -- very low by our standards -- but the crime is not associated with Africans. But it led to this kind of a rage almost reminiscent of the 1940s or 1950s here in the South. It’s when they started grabbing black people in the streets and just would beat them up.

Then – and here’s something that hasn’t happened much here in probably 100 years -- politicians, right-wing politicians from both the Likud and Kadima parties, which are the two biggest parties, started denouncing the Africans and the Sudanese. They said 'they’re a danger to Israel,' and called for rallies in south Tel Aviv, where they are. You have mobs of right-wingers who look sort of like soccer mobs, the mobs that you see in Europe after a soccer game, where they go marching in with lots of young thugs, and start grabbing people on the street. They’re chanting, “go back to Africa,” and, “death to the Africans.”

Netanyahu condemned it in kind of a half-hearted way. It’s really huge and unusual for Israel. It would be unusual in a lot of places now, including here, but in Israel it’s a huge story. People are really upset by it. I don’t want to in any way imply that most Israelis are happy about this. Many Israelis are appalled by it. It’s the biggest story in the country right now, and you will only be able to read about it if you read the Israeli press. This is a common thing. When there are bad things going on inside Israel -- the way they treat the Palestinians and in this case the way they’re treating these poor African refugees from loathsome regimes who wind up in Israel -- these stories are … I don’t want to say suppressed in the United States, but it’s striking how much coverage they get in Israel itself and how a paper like the New York Times is too scared to touch it.

I have to say they’re afraid to touch it. The reason is when an American outlet talks about Israel in any way that’s negative, or reports on anything negative about Israel, they will be inundated with complaints from powerful people who will tell them, “why are you picking on Israel?” They always say, “why is it that China is doing all these things and you’re not writing about that?” Of course, they do. You even see it in the blogosphere too, the intimidation. If you aren’t utterly secure in your position in the media then you don’t mess with Israel. More to the point, you don’t mess with the people here who are Israel’s enforcers.

It’s a strange deal. One of the reasons there is so much more free discourse in Israel is that they don’t have an Israel lobby over there! There’s no AIPAC. I mean there’s an AIPAC there to work with American congressmen who come over there, but they don’t try to enforce orthodoxy amongst Israeli politicians. If Haaretz tried to open up a branch here, AIPAC would shut it down. Just look at the “liberal” cable network MSNBC and how little coverage they give to the Middle East.

JH: It really is remarkable how this story has almost disappeared.

I should point out that the Israel lobby is not a Jewish lobby. It includes very powerful Christian evangelical groups. CUFI for example. What does CUFI stand for again?

MR: Christians United for Israel.

JH: Most American Jews tend to skew leftward a bit and are obviously an influential group in Democratic politics. But on the Republican side you have these very influential groups associated with the Christian Right who are just as big of a part of the Israel lobby as AIPAC. I just want to make that clear.

I want to turn to Iran for a minute. Earlier in the show, we were talking to Heather Hurlburt about how disastrous a military strike on Iran would be. The military sees it that way. The military and intelligence communities’ views on that are very much at odds with conservative politicians.

You recently wrote, “To put it simply there would be no Iran hysteria were it not for the Israel lobby.” And you suggested that domestic lobbying groups are actively trying to kill a deal – they’ve been negotiating some sort of settlement to this standoff in Baghdad. You’re suggesting that they’re trying to kill a deal that might actually ease tensions over Iran’s nuclear program.

MR: AIPAC is getting its cues from Prime Minister Netanyahu, who either wants a war or wants to maintain the illusion that he wants a war. It’s hard to imagine that he wants it, but he acts like he does. That’s the message he gives to AIPAC, which is pushing more sanctions.

The new line from Netanyahu, which I saw Howard Berman, the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee repeat, is 'zero enrichment in Iran.' The Iranians seem to be willing to make a deal. That came out clearly at the beginning of these negotiations. What was our response when it seemed like the Iranians were ready to make an offer? We immediately said -- Hillary Clinton and other people in the administration said -- we will not consider lifting any sanctions. How do you negotiate with people when you’re telling them that no matter what they do we are going to continue the sanctions?

The sanctions are sponsored by AIPAC and written in their offices, then delivered to members of Congress, and passed by Congress. There are even new ones going into effect in July. So no matter what you (Iranians) do, we’re going to keep the sanctions on, which is causing your people to suffer.

I’m sure in the president’s heart of hearts he wants a deal, him being the kind of guy he is. The fact of the matter is since pretty much the beginning of his term he has never said no to AIPAC on anything. His only goal now is to get reelected. He doesn’t want a war, but he’s playing a dangerous game. He doesn’t want a deal, because AIPAC will be on his case and they’ll be saying they’re going to support Romney. He doesn’t want war and he doesn’t want peace. He just wants to keep Netanyahu happy so that he doesn’t bomb before the election. The Iranians aren’t stupid. They see that we’re not serious.

JH: Just so folks understand, Iran is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which guarantees signatories the right to refine uranium for nonmilitary purposes. By saying that they won’t be accepting any enrichment whatsoever -- that is by rejecting the idea that Iranians can enrich for non-military purposes -- they’re basically killing the deal, because one thing Iranians agree on is that they have the right to enrich for purposes other than making weapons.

MR: Yes, and I’d like to also make the point that Israel is not a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and they have 200 nuclear weapons. And that won’t show up in the news stories either. It’s pretty amazing.

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