On Habima Square

One of the most alarming outcomes of Operation Protective Edge is the feeling that racism and the violent silencing of any leftist criticism is openly embraced by many Israelis and tacitly supported by the police and right-wing leaders.

And so the dynamics of radicalization, short-sightedness, and the gradual unmooring of Israel from reality are set in motion.

“You live in a cluster of taller buildings that protects you,” my friend Freddy wrote, trying to cheer me up on Gchat the day sirens and echoes of explosions began filling the air of Tel Aviv. In the old apartment building where I live with my partner there’s no bomb shelter, as is the case in many buildings around town. Every time a siren goes off, the tenants quickly gather on the first floor of the shared stairwell, some of them insisting on an underwear-only costume. “If you get hit there’s no question God really wants you dead.”

Two years ago, when Operation Pillar of Defense began and the first rockets since the 1991 Gulf War were launched on Tel Aviv, I was vacationing in Istanbul with a friend, busy crunching small fried fish on the banks of the Bosphorus and watching the bombings on a screen from my hotel room. This time, in the line of fire, I found that, for an adult inhabitant of Tel Aviv, the fear of being hit by a missile is a very strange feeling. When you hear the first sirens, your body naturally tenses up and you cringe but then you remember you’re like a citron wrapped up in the ultra-sophisticated Iron Dome rocket interception system. In a moment you’ll get back to your business, while on the other side of the fence dozens of civilians are getting killed every day. Considered from this angle, the rockets directed at the center of Israel from the besieged Gaza begin to seem more like a desperate attempt to draw attention to an ongoing catastrophe. In the first three days of the war I sat and watched television alone, never leaving the house.

In Israel, during wartime, all reality programs (apart from the most popular, “Big Brother”) are put on hold, and the leading channels begin screening twenty-four-hour emergency broadcasts. This is, in a way, a blessing for people who live alone—it gives one the feeling of hosting an endless parade of guests in one’s living room. Military commentators and ex-generals—most of them currently making a living from security consulting or the arms trade—chat for hours on end, demanding fantastic and insane operations in Gaza. Women are mostly unseen on these broadcasts, “leaving it to the experts.” Palestinians, dead or alive, are also generally absent from these Israeli emergency panels.

Occasionally a journalist from Gaza is brought on, only to receive a scolding as soon as he begins to describe the horrors in Gaza, followed by a demand that he apologize for the actions of Hamas. The prevailing attitude in the studios—“this is no time for criticism” and “we need to support the troops”—is both understandable, given that almost everyone in Israel has a family member or acquaintance serving in the army, and a complete abdication of journalistic responsibility. And so the dynamics of radicalization, short-sightedness, and the gradual unmooring of Israel from reality are set in motion.

When the first reports came in about dead children in Gaza, the military commentators in Israel talked about it mostly as a “public diplomacy” problem that needed to be addressed by PR experts. When Shira Geffen—the wife of writer Etgar Keret and a filmmaker whose work I don’t especially admire—asked at the screening of her film in the Jerusalem Film Festival that everyone stand for a moment of silence in memory of the four Palestinian children who had been killed that morning, an uproar broke out. Many members of the audience left the cinema hall.

On Saturday, almost four days after the first rockets were launched on Tel Aviv, I dragged myself out of the house for the first time. As I walked down the streets towards Rabin Square, where Yitzhak Rabin had been assassinated in 1995, I noticed that a few things had changed in the three days I spent tucked away in my home. The police sirens had been changed from one cadence to another, after people had complained about mistaking them for rocket alerts and having to run into a nearby stairwell every time a police car or ambulance went by. The cars I passed were all using the two-tone French version, giving my walk a slightly Parisian air. The entrances to most buildings were left wide open so that, if sirens went off, the few passersby on the street could take shelter. This gave me an opportunity to peek into the entrances of some “old-money” buildings on King David Street, which I had always been curious about. (Later, we were all informed that the tenants from one of the expensive new building projects in the north of Tel Aviv had refused to let the inhabitants of the neighbouring blocks enter the building and hide in their state-of-the-art shelter during a siren, fearing that the poor might steal the furniture and accessories placed in storage.) On the streets themselves, an amazing number of parking spaces had opened up, since the normal crowd of suburban partygoers had stopped coming in to Tel Aviv on weekends. The exposed sidewalks, with their blue and white stripes signalling that parking was permitted, inexplicably lifted my spirits.

When I walked back up Chen Boulevard, I discovered that Habima Theater Square was hosting the first, modest demonstration against the war, which included a few dozen people, mostly activists in the Jewish-Arab Hadash and Da’am parties. Unlike the relatively minor objections to the demonstrations that were held against the Second Lebanon War and previous Gaza operations, which consisted mainly of scolding and insults from passing cab drivers, this demonstration met with an organized and wild group of right-wing thugs, who tried to break it up with shouts and threats. It was quite astounding to discover that this group—which included all the racist, volatile organizations erected in Israeli society over the last few years under the indirect encouragement of Knesset members and senior ministers, such as Avigdor Lieberman, Naftali Benett, and Ayelet Shaked—was led by Yoav Eliasi, a.k.a. The Shadow, one half of the popular rap duo Subliminal and the Shadow, which had reached the top of the local charts in the early 2000s. At the height of their career, the duo had advertised a chocolate milk brand for children. In 2004, the two went on a concert tour in the US that was also a public diplomacy effort organized by the Israeli foreign ministry.

A siren suddenly went off, and I turned to go back home. The demonstrators on both sides ran into the stairwells of the surrounding buildings where, I later learned, the right-wing protesters started beating up their left-wing counterparts. The fights continued in my neighborhood café and the surrounding streets, with almost no intervention, and no arrests, by the police. (The Shadow later published a post on Facebook in which he commended the officers who had “really sympathized.”) The location of this display of hooliganism was painfully symbolic. This was the same square and café where, three years earlier, the famous Tents Protest—against the country’s economic and social inequality—had begun, and 400,000 people had participated in the largest demonstration that had ever taken place in Israel. At the time, there was much criticism of the fact that the protestors, in their attempt not to alienate right-wingers, had avoided mentioning the settlements and the occupation. Now, during the war, it felt as if everything that hadn’t been said three years earlier was making its way to the surface. Organized attacks by right-wingers on antiwar demonstrations repeated themselves in Haifa, Jerusalem, and, a week later, again in Tel Aviv.

Every time Maccabi Tel Aviv, the soccer team of the Tel Avivian bourgeoisie, concedes a goal, the fans of the rival team break out in an ecstatic chant of “Tel Aviv is up in flames.” The national grudge held against Tel Aviv, the wealthy, relatively left-leaning city, is a longstanding fact of Israeli politics that dates back to the days before the state was inaugurated. In 2002, the Public Security Minister at the time, Uzi Landau, dubbed the Tel Avivians “the People of Cheese and Wine.” Every time people in the south or the north of the country find themselves forced to sit in bomb shelters, a news reporter is quickly sent to a Tel Aviv café to show just how oblivious the Tel Avivians are.

One of the most alarming outcomes of Operation Protective Edge is the feeling that racism and the violent silencing of any leftist criticism is openly embraced by many Israelis and tacitly supported by the police and right-wing leaders. Demonstrators against the war are dubbed “left-wing extremists” in the news studios, and are so placed in the same category as the right-wing extremists who rally for a transfer of the Arab population and call for revenge against all Arabs and Jews who protest against the war. A few days after the fighting in Gaza began, the Israeli Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, called for Israelis to boycott businesses owned by Arab-Israelis who did not support Operation Protective Edge. In Jerusalem, the deputy mayor suggested changing the name of the historic Azza (Hebrew for Gaza) Street in the Rehavia neighborhood to Protective Edge Street.

In the second week of the war, I sat in a café in Jaffa on another Azza Street, whose name thankfully no one in the Tel Aviv Municipality had suggested changing yet. I was meeting with my friend Asaad, a Middle Eastern History student at the University of Nantes and a translator of Israeli nonfiction books into Arabic. After chatting a while in Hebrew, we tried exchanging some sentences in Arabic, though my use of the language had become very limited since I’d stopped taking Arabic lessons. I asked Asaad about Shachar, my Arabic teacher from Jaffa and a close friend of his. Together they used to arrange Arab study trips to cities in the West Bank—Jericho, Nablus, and Bethlehem.

“Didn’t you see his Facebook status updates?” Asaad asked me. “Shachar has become disillusioned.”

The process of becoming “disillusioned” is a phenomenon that has characterized the Israeli center-left since the failure of the 2000 Camp David Summit. It is associated with the idea that “we offered them everything and they didn’t want it.” Every war more and more people from the left and center become “disillusioned” with the “dream of peace,” ignoring the fact that Israel has continued building settlements and keeping up a policy of deliberate harassment toward Palestinians. The “sober” point of view that is the result of this process is a faithful reflection of the opinions sounded in the TV war studios, and the announcement of “disillusionment” by this or that public figure is a familiar media event. One of the most recent was Aviv Geffen, a pop singer and the brother of Shira Geffen, the filmmaker who had called for a moment of silence at the Jerusalem Film Festival. When I got home, I looked at my friend Shachar’s despairing Facebook updates. Asaad had left a message trying to understand how he could have changed his views; Shachar had given short and dry responses. I considered also leaving an emotional comment on Shachar’s wall, but I was afraid he would unfollow me on Twitter.

Last week, two hundred right-wing demonstrators, organized in advance by the same groups that hit the antiwar demonstration on Habima Square, gathered around a town hall where the wedding of Moral Malka, a Jewish-Israeli, and Mohamad Mansour, an Arab-Israeli, took place. The demonstrators, most of them teenagers, attacked guests with detonators and racist football chants. In response, Yair Lapid, the Finance Minister and one of the leaders of the secular-liberal flank in the Parliament, criticized the demonstration but said that he too would be troubled if his son chose to marry an Arab. More and more Israelis, frightened and hopeless, are willing to make openly racist and xenophobic declarations. The chances seem slighter than ever that the kind of deep change necessary for Israel to recognize its significant responsibility for this situation will take place.

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