In Israel, Arabs and Jews alike recoil from mob violence

Heidi Levine/AP
Jacob Simona stands by his burning car during clashes with Israeli Arabs and police in the mixed Jewish-Arab city of Lod, Israel, May 11, 2021.

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Arab-Jewish relations have, in recent years, seen a mix of setbacks and progress in Israel. Discriminatory laws have been passed and anti-Arab rhetoric employed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing allies. But there’s also been an unparalleled surge of Arab integration in universities, in the workforce, even in politics.

Yet in an instant, the progress seems potentially undone by synagogues burned, Muslim cemeteries desecrated, lynching-style attacks, and ugly street fights that erupted in response to a new round of intense Israeli-Palestinian strife that spread like wildfire from East Jerusalem to Gaza and now, Israel’s heartland.

Why We Wrote This

The never-seen-before internecine mob violence in Israel is prompting horrified Arabs and Jews to ask: How much hard-won progress will be undone? Will it be possible to heal?

In Israel’s 73-year history, images of this kind of hands-on combat between Arab and Jewish citizens have never been seen.

Mohammad Darawshe, a veteran activist who has sought to foster Arab-Jewish relations, sees what’s happening as an existential threat. The violence this week kept him from traveling through a Jewish town to pay a Ramadan visit to his sister.

“It’s frustrating because you feel a lifetime project is under threat,” he says. “The whole concept of ‘Shared Society’ based on the principle that Jews and Arabs can figure out a proper mechanism of living with each other. All of that is … under attack.”

Sitting on his parked motor scooter, a young man with a reddish beard, a Palestinian citizen of Israel, shares screen shots of text messages posted by Jewish extremists. Their texts call for others to join them against their Arab neighbors in the unprecedented internecine clashes ripping through the country.

One calls for burning mosques; another declares war on the young man’s mixed Arab and Jewish hometown of Jaffa, an ancient port that is now joined with Tel Aviv.

“We’re coming today with knives to search for Arabs, be a man and come with your family, I want to see Arab blood spilled on the street,” reads one of the messages, read aloud by N., who asks to be identified only by his first initial.

Why We Wrote This

The never-seen-before internecine mob violence in Israel is prompting horrified Arabs and Jews to ask: How much hard-won progress will be undone? Will it be possible to heal?

He looks down and says, “It feels like we are seeing the dismantling of Israeli society. … It’s as if we are tribes that have divided and are headed toward civil war.”

Next to him a group of his friends are gathered. They are talking about the violence the night before: an Arab taxi driver wrenched from his car and kicked and beaten by a Jewish mob just a few miles from where they sit; and to the north, a Jewish teacher in Akko, another ancient port that had been a mostly peaceful mixed city, beaten by an Arab mob so badly he’s in critical condition.

They wonder what the coming night might bring. They voice hope the riots will eventually calm down, if someone could tamp down on the extremists fueling them. 

Recent years have seen a mix of setbacks and progress to Arab-Jewish relations in Israel. On the one hand, discriminatory laws have been passed and anti-Arab rhetoric employed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his allies. On the other, an unparalleled surge of Arab integration in universities, in the workforce, in politics, and a much-celebrated beating back of the common enemy of COVID-19 with the help of front-line Arab health care workers.

Now, in an instant, the progress seems potentially undone by synagogues burned, Muslim cemeteries desecrated, lynching-style attacks, a shooting death, and ugly street fights that erupted in response to a new round of intense Israeli-Palestinian strife that spread like wildfire from East Jerusalem to Gaza and now, Israel’s heartland.

In Israel’s 73-year history, images of this kind of hands-on combat – and at such a scale, no less – between Arab and Jewish citizens have never been seen. Nor has the response: Israel’s Border Police dispatched and patrolling mixed Arab-Jewish cities throughout Israel; a state of emergency declared in Lod, a mixed Arab-Jewish city east of here that has become the epicenter of the unrest.

Worse than the rockets

Both Jewish and Arab citizens appear shaken far more from this violence, what it might portend and the scars it might leave, than from the incoming barrage of Hamas rockets from Gaza that has sent millions in Israel – from its southern border all the way to its central metropolis of Tel Aviv – into bomb shelters and stairwells this past week. Scores have been killed, mostly in Gaza.

According to some reports, the Israeli army is preparing to try to end the fighting in Gaza citing, unusually, one startling threat: the possibility that the Jewish-Arab clashes could spread further than they have already, from Bedouin towns in the south, to central locations like Jaffa and Lod, and further north, including the Galilee.

Amir Tibon, a reporter for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, took to Twitter after a family member was injured so badly from stone throwing in Lod that he ended up in intensive care.

“No law, no police, no security,” he said. “This violence is a greater danger to the country than all of Hamas’ rocket arsenal – there is no Iron Dome against anarchy and civil war.”

Khalil Hamra/AP
Palestinians inspect their destroyed homes following overnight Israeli airstrikes in the town of Beit Hanoun, in the northern Gaza Strip, May 14, 2021.

Among those calling for calm has been Reuven Rivlin, Israel’s president, an Arabic speaker who has been a leading voice for coexistence.

On Thursday, he wrote in Israel Hayom, Israel’s most widely read newspaper: “I call on all the rioters – stop and do not make things worse, we are one society, one country. You cannot say I am a citizen but against it, and you cannot say I am any more of a citizen.

“It’s time to calm the public. Religious leaders, local leaders, ministers, Knesset members – we all need to wake up to the same country, the same jobs. These things are getting worse, and God forbid, we could lose what we have created – the State of Israel.”

Existential threat?

Mohammad Darawshe, a veteran activist who has sought to foster Arab-Jewish relations, sees what’s happening in the streets of Israel as an existential threat. As of Thursday he had not left his home near Nazareth in 24 hours. Normally he would have visited his sister in a neighboring village for Ramadan, but it would mean traveling through a Jewish town to get there.

“I’m not willing to offer myself up as a victim by going through a Jewish town,” says Mr. Darawshe, director of Planning, Equality and Shared Society at Givat Haviva Educational Center and a recent candidate for parliament.

Among those leading the violence from the Jewish side have been a mix of extremist young men, some bused in from West Bank settlements, others connected to a racist group named Lehava and a network of racist soccer fans who call themselves La Familia. On the Arab side are mostly disaffected young men.

“It’s frustrating because you feel a lifetime project is under threat, the whole concept of ‘shared society’ based on the principle that Jews and Arabs can figure out a proper mechanism of living with each other,” Mr. Darawshe says. “All of that is … under attack.”

Activists coined the term “shared society” to replace “coexistence” after the last major internal Arab-Jewish crisis, which took years to climb down from, when Israeli police officers fired on Arab protesters, killing 13 in October 2000.

Those killed had been protesting in solidarity with their Palestinian counterparts in the West Bank and Gaza in the opening days of the Second Intifada, or Palestinian uprising. For some Israeli Jews, the rioting stoked fears that an internal rebellion against the state was brewing. 

The killings then were a wake-up call to Mr. Darawshe and others that more than “coexistence,” the goal should be fully integrated lives based on equality. And this week’s brutal violence is an alarm, he says, that much more is needed on behalf of shared society and against the idea, promoted by Mr. Netanyahu, that the economic integration of Israeli Arabs is enough.

“We need to change strategies to include large-scale social integration but also political integration and leadership,” he says.

Ironically, the internecine violence erupted soon after an Islamist Arab political party had been in the midst of unprecedented contacts with Jewish parties to form a new governing coalition. Those contacts were put on hold amid the Israeli crackdown on protests in Jerusalem.

Israeli Arabs, 21% of the population, occupy a delicate position as they are both Palestinian by nationality and Israeli by citizenship. They push back on those who question their loyalty to the state. A recent Israel Democracy Institute poll of Arab citizens found that the highest percentage ever – 77% – said they feel they are a part of the state and share with it a common destiny.

Despite gains, there is growing backlash to the fundamental inequality of access to resources and opportunity that Israeli Arabs have long known, especially among the younger generation who have been active in demonstrations in the past year, most recently over events in Jerusalem.

The trigger for Arab citizens who have joined in the clashes may have been Jerusalem, but the grievances go much deeper.

The fundamental issues of housing and fears of eviction faced by Palestinians in East Jerusalem resonate for residents of Israeli Arab towns and mixed Jewish Arab cities. In places like Jaffa, gentrification has caused tension as many of its mostly working-class Arab residents are being priced out by luxury hotel and condominium projects. Another fault line: Jewish nationalist groups setting up enclaves inside mixed cities.

Dina Kraft
An Arab boy puts up a sign given to his family by a Jewish neighbor in Jaffa, Israel, May 13, 2021. The sign says, in Arabic and Hebrew, "We live together."

Fight for reconciliation

The fight for housing rights has been central to Neta Weiner, a Jewish member of an Arab-Jewish rap group in Jaffa called System Ali. They rap in Hebrew, Arabic, Russian, Amharic, and even Yiddish – a tribute to the city’s diversity.

Amid the riots and rocket fire this week, band members have been among those rushing into their respective apartment building bomb shelters – among the only shelters in the country where both Arab and Jewish families shelter in the same space. On a WhatsApp thread they have started writing the lyrics for a rap about this period.

Members have diverse political backgrounds, voting across the map. “But,” says Mr. Weiner, “we are together in this, and we are frightened for each other’s families and for our lives. But also we are a source of comfort for each other.”

At the cafe where N. and his friends have gathered, Gily Agar, a Jewish psychologist who lives across the street, comes by to give them a sign she made that says, in stenciled Hebrew and Arabic letters, “We are Living Together.”

In the middle, a pair of hands hold a heart.

She then walks down the street delivering the same signs to other Arab businesses and families. Her personal gesture was echoed across the country Friday with Jewish-Arab solidarity rallies.

“I’m ashamed at how some Jewish people behave and the polarization and the violence,” she says. “It’s not how most people think. Some extremists make us feel unsafe and unwelcome, on both sides.”

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