Following Operation Protective Edge, many cities around the world have witnessed demonstrations sympathizing with the people of Gaza. Tel Aviv had a few as well. Haggai Matar, a leftist activist, participated in one on July 12:
The right-wingers announced in advance that they would be coming to physically assault us in the protest. However, police paid no heed to the warnings, nor to the threats made on the scene when the protest began, nor to our requests that the very few police officers present would call for backup and try to physically separate the two demonstrations.
When the air raid sirens wailed in Tel Aviv that evening, we knew one thing for sure: The thugs in front of us were more dangerous than the rapidly approaching Hamas-fired rockets. While the Iron Dome intercepted the rockets, by the evening’s end one leftist activist was injured and hospitalized, an independent journalist had his video camera stolen and dozens of others were hit, pushed, thrown to the ground or had eggs thrown at them. Two local coffee shops were vandalized as the right-wingers suspected that demonstrators were hiding inside.
Now, I have been shot at, beaten, arrested, and spent two years in prison for conscientious objection, but this brutal attack by dozens of bullies chanting, “Death to Arabs” and “Burn the leftists”—just two weeks after a young Palestinian boy was torched to death—was one of the most frightening experiences I have ever encountered.
Matar captures the sense of terror and isolation that many Israeli radical leftists have felt in recent weeks. The brutality of the right-wing was condemned in mainstream media, but the event itself marks a dangerous trend in Israeli society.
The radical Jewish left is not a new phenomenon. It has existed from the very beginning of the Zionist project. Be it the Bund in Europe; communist and academic parties and groups in Mandatory Palestine; or the Israeli Communist Party, the Mizrahi Black Panthers, or Mazpen in the state of Israel, all these minority groups have asked critical questions about Judaism, Zionism, and Arab-Jewish relations. In the recent decade the Israeli radical left—as tiny as it is—has come to encompass a variety of groups. Some belong to Arab-Jewish parties, like the more established Hadash, the much smaller Da’am party, and the Palestinian nationalist party, Balad (a tiny minority of Jews also identify with this group).
Other leftist groups are NGOs or organizations concerned with specific causes, such as human rights violations in the West Bank and Gaza, including B’Tselem, Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, Machsom Watch, Yesh Din, and Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity Movement. Some radical activists confront the IDF directly as they demonstrate with the Palestinians (Anarchists Against the Wall), while others, who might not define themselves as radicals, are soldiers who document acts of abuse they witnessed during their military service (Breaking the Silence). Radical groups also focus on Israel proper: Hithabrut-Tarabut takes up the plight of Bedouins living in unrecognized villages, among many other causes, while Zochrot commemorates sites and places destroyed in the 1948 War. Activists and organizations also offer services to African labor migrants in Israeli cities, who suffer racism and persecution. Other radicals, albeit unorganized, are artists, filmmakers, and academics (mostly, although by no means exclusively, from the humanities and social sciences).
A recent and highly interesting phenomenon is the emergence of the new Mizrahi left. Radical Mizrahis active in such organizations as Achoti and the Mizrahi Democratic Rainbow critique both the radical Ashkenazi left and the old Zionist left for overlooking poor Mizrahi Israelis. They criticize both Ashkenazi and Zionist leftist groups for too easily categorizing, and consequently dismissing, Mizrahi Israelis as religious, violent, and politically conservative and thus neglecting social issues for which the right-wing has actually provided some answers (like the underrepresentation of the Mizrahim in hegemonic Israeli institutions).
Radical leftist views are voiced across social media and websites (many activists have vibrant Facebook and Twitter accounts), academic publications, and at times, the press. Haaretz, loyal to the liberal line, publishes accounts from the West Bank, as well as opinion columns about Israel and Palestine, by famous radicals Gideon Levy and Amira Hass, as well as other original voices and talented columnists and journalists like Uri Misgav, Zvi Barel, and various guest writers. Other websites that have gained much respect include the English-language +972 Magazine and its sister Hebrew-language site Local Call, as well as Haokets (The Sting), a site dedicated to social, Mizrahi, and political affairs.
Many organizations collaborate with Palestinians or are Arab-Jewish by definition. But there are significant differences between many radical Israelis, on the one hand, and Palestinian, pro-Palestinian, and anti-Zionist activists in America and Europe, on the other hand. The former have families in Israel, and care deeply for Israelis who hold different ideas from their own—these are their family members, neighbors, and friends. Some believe that many of their pro-peace actions actually save the lives of Israeli soldiers. In addition, the state is always present in their lives; they send their children to Israeli schools, and are themselves products of an Israeli education system that often cultivates nationalist values (values often very different from their own personal views).
During the past weeks, the radical left has faced a very solid Israeli consensus across the Zionist left, center, and right. Most Israelis, including the mainstream media, would argue that Hamas started a war with Israel; that its shooting rockets at Israeli towns necessitates a violent response; that Hamas uses civilians as human shields and therefore it is not the IDF’s fault if civilians are killed; that even Egyptians take the Israeli side; and that only a resolute military action will end Hamas’s power, destroy its rockets, and bring peace to the region. Many members of the Zionist left and center who condemned the brutal lynching of the sixteen--year-old Palestinian Muhammad Abu Khdair or called for helping children escaping from Syria support the shelling of Gaza.
Facing this largely unified mainstream position, the radical left is active. Leftist writers inform the public (at least those who are interested to listen) about the civilians killed and wounded in Gaza, providing photos and videos; activists chronicle racist attacks on the net and in the public sphere against Arabs; and journalists and writers pen op-eds, petitions, academic articles, and blogs. They organize anti-war demonstrations despite facing violence by extreme right-wingers. These angry right-wingers offer a variety of locations to which Jewish radicals and their Arab friends might be sent: Gaza, Mosul, Syria, Israeli military courts, and rarely—but not as rarely as one would hope—the gas chambers. As the Israeli public has become accustomed (or tried to become accustomed) to sounds of warning sirens across their cities, expressions of sorrow over the deaths of women and children in Gaza are considered synonymous with national treachery in some circles. Most dangerous, the Palestinian citizens of Israel, many of whom organize the major antiwar protests, are encountering unprecedented waves of racism.
I, like many of my friends, am devastated these days. I do not personally know most of these radicals or participate in their events; I do not always share their views. But we need to learn more about the leftist margins of Israeli society, and we might start with the sites mentioned in this post. (A more amusing way is to visit the Israeli version of Campus Watch, the Israel Academia Monitor; whoever the site condemns, look up.) Or, if you want to be shocked or moved (or both), read “the open condolences letter to the family of Mohammad Abu Khdeir and the Palestinian people” drafted by Mizrahi poet and novelist Almog Behar and signed by fellow radicals. This is the second paragraph (translated from Hebrew by Idit Arad and Matan Kaminer):
Our hands shed this blood, and we wish to express our condolences and our pain before the family of the boy Mohammed Abu Khdeir, who are experiencing an unthinkable loss, and to the Palestinian people. We oppose the occupation policy of the government. We are against the violence, racism and incitement which exist in the Israeli society. And we refuse to identify our Jewishness with it, the Jewishness which includes the words of the rabbi of Tripoli and Aleppo, the wise Hezekiah Shabtai who said: “‘Love thy neighbour as thy self’ (Leviticus xviii). This love of one another does not only refer to the love of one Jew or Israeli to the other, but to loving our neighbours, those who are not Jews. It instructs us to co-exist with them through love, and pursue their safety and welfare. That is not only what common sense tells us, but also the holy Torah, whose ways are pleasant ways, and she commands us to go about our life in such a way, despite and in the face of the acts of state and the words of our official representatives.
[This piece originally appeared in a special weeklong series on the Stanford University Press blog, and is reposted here in partnership with SUP blog. The entire ten-part series can be found on the SUP blog.]