By Israeli standards, the demonstration was small. Compared to 2011’s J14 movement protests, in which hundreds of thousands of Israelis took to the streets to demonstrate against rising economic inequality, this event only played host to several hundred people.
Still, Israel’s newspapers gave the Tel Aviv anti-war rally on Thursday reasonable space, as though it was its message that mattered most.
Chalk it up to the demo’s novelty value, in the face of overwhelming media support for the Gaza campaign.
Or, attribute it to an editorial desire for signs of opposition, in an increasingly anti-democratic political landscape.
Even The Jerusalem Post, the voice of Anglo Jewish conservatism, ran a bland feature on it.
The attention was a newsworthy event unto itself.
Buried in all the coverage, was a less-noted counter-demonstration that took place across the street, starring neo-fascist parliamentarian Michael Ben Ari.
Though counter-protests are common in Israel, this was a little different.
Not so much for its pro-war message, but how perfectly chants made at the demo exemplify the hatred undergirding contemporary Israeli politics:
“The people demand to expel leftists,” went one protest chant.
“You were born from the sperm of Nazis,” went another.
And so it continued: “Your mother fucks with Arabs, you sons of whores.” “80 years you’re terrorizing Jews, you whores. God will take you. I hope [with the next air raid] alarm you will be deaf and you won’t hear it.” “Leftists to hell! Get cancer in your body.” [Translations partially colloquialized from the original.]
By comparison, the words of MK (Member of Knesset) Ben Ari are almost tame.
Though he repeats the remarks about leftists being “traitors,” the crowd reserves its biggest applause for a fairly common pro-occupation slogan: “Let the IDF kick some ass.”
Rage filled, the protestors adopt the slogan and begin repeating it. If they had weapons, lord knows what they would have done.
For non-Israelis, such displays are hard to make sense of.
Accustomed to a vision of the country as a civilized Western state (albeit one at war,) there remains, nonetheless, a great difficulty in understanding the emotional appeal of the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians, and the ideological purposes it serves at home, separate from the actual conflict itself.
Dig into these quotes, and you’ll find a number of things that will help explain.
For one thing, they document as much hatred for other Israelis (albeit leftists) as they do for Palestinians.
For another, they help document a visceral example of racism towards Arabs, one that can’t be explained as a simple consequence of prolonged military crisis.
There is something deeper going on here, and it is not just about ethnic conflict. These Israelis are angry. Furious, in fact.
Most likely from poor backgrounds (and, from the looks of it, Mizrahim, or Middle Eastern Jews) they come from amongst the lowest rungs of Israeli society.
Their rage is as much a product of their economic and cultural disenfranchisement as it stems from ideological disagreement with the left, and rockets fired from Gaza.
Some of them live in settlements.
And some, most likely, live in Israel.
The Mizrahim constitute nearly half of the Jewish population. They are lower middle class and working class, though there are a few in leadership positions in government.
Formerly left-wing, they have grown religious and reactionary, discriminating against African Jews (from Ethiopia) and African migrants (mainly from Eritrea and Sudan), while they remain discriminated against, by Jews of European origin.
So if you want to understand what fuels Israeli support for government policies like those of Prime Minister Netanyahu, and his current campaign in Gaza, they are emotions like these.
Though they do not necessarily extend, in the exact same way, across the entire Israeli-Jewish population, such sentiments touch at the very core of the grievances that all Israelis harbour – be they Holocaust descended, or the product of conflicting relations amongst Jews.
Israel’s unfair social and economic system, and inter-Israeli racism, is the country’s biggest problem.
The transition to a full market economy, and ongoing discrimination against Jews of Middle Eastern origin, make it an extremely tense and unequal place.
The public sector is still shrinking.
The Palestinians are almost a sideshow, in comparison, and are used as scapegoats, to deflect it all, in a lot of ways.
The same now, with the African migrants too, who the government claims constitute and existential threat to the country, akin to terrorism and Arabs.
This is what the ongoing crisis with the Palestinians helps us manage, and why our politicians find it politically useful.
Though not an especially original insight, such rationalizations of Israeli society’s ill health speak reams about what is wrong with its political class.
This is how it governs. And, this is how it prevents any meaningful moves towards peace with the Palestinians.
Certainly, Netanyahu’s decision to go to war was made for instrumental reasons.
Fresh from presidential elections, America is in between governments, and is in no position to dictate new policy to Israel.
Equally probable is the idea that this campaign creates facts on the ground that a second Obama administration will have to respect, once it assumes office.
This may include a reoccupation of Gaza, and it may include a conflict with Iran.
Creating peace will not be a consequence of the US doing a better job managing its Mideast portfolio, though.
Israel’s problems are so deep that it begs the question as to whether any externally imposed solutions will ever prove effective.
Without a doubt, much has to be done domestically, to reform Israel’s political culture, so that how Israelis choose to treat each other does not have the same consequences for its neighbours.