It's a regular, scorching Saturday night in central Tel Aviv. The cafes are thronged, rocket threat or not. At Habima Square, a few dozen left-wing activists are protesting against Operation Protective Edge. Dozens of right-wing counter-demonstrators show up.
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The sides are separated by a thin line of police but the situation goes south fast. Everybody's yelling. Signs, some depicting IDF soldiers as terrorists, are torn down, eggs are hurled. Violence begins: people get beaten up.
Suddenly, a rocket siren wails. Everyone runs to the nearest shelter - the same shelter. Right-wingers and left-wingers crowd together, anger in their eyes, with only a single cop to prevent them from jumping each other.
The hiatus doesn’t last very long. Within a minute the boom of the rockets' interception (by Iron Dome) is heard and everyone goes back outside and picks up where they left off.
Now a mob gathers, composed mostly of angry teenagers, some bare-chested in the hot night, some (unknowingly) wearing neo-Nazi T-shirts, yelling slogans like “Death to Arabs” and “Death to leftists”. They quickly overpower what’s left of the leftist protest, then go on a rampage. They storm coffee shops identified with the left, breaking things, beating people up. Only after a long night and some injuries do they finally stop.
Welcome home to the Middle East
This happened last week, and again a few days later, in the same place: Habima Square, the starting point for all of the city’s political rallies ever since the "social justice" protests of 2011. Then, the square was nicknamed “the Israeli Tahrir”, a symbol of the maturing political discourse in Israel that – they said then – had finally overcome the partisan lines of left and right. Now at that same spot, the discourse has regressed decades, a stark reminder that calling for social justice is well and good, but this is the Middle East.
Such clashes also happened in Haifa. And in Jaffa this Monday. In Jerusalem, gangs of extremists attacked dozens of Arabs and Arab-owned businesses. In Tel Aviv, a quiet rally almost deteriorated into a lynch mob.
The scenes are all about the same - protesters, left and right, Jews and Arabs, hurling hate and sometimes tangible objects at each other while waving flags.
As the casualties of Protective Shield mount, something sinister is happening on the streets of Israel’s biggest cities. Israelis seem to have rediscovered violent protest, a phenomenon last seen during the second Intifada. As soldiers fight in Gaza, right-wing extremists have organized ad-hoc militias to fight the “war at home”.
Rapping for nationalism and hate
A spearhead of this growing movement is, almost comically, a rapper named Yoav Eliasi, known by his stage name “The Shadow.” Eliasi rose to fame along with fellow Israeli rapper Subliminal during the second Intifada. The two collaborators represented a new kind of Israeli hip-hop: angry, fiercely nationalistic and almost laughably dutiful.
The Intifada petered out and Eliasi’s career with it – until recently, using his Facebook page, he organized a group of outlandish rightwing activists under the name “The Shadow’s Lions” to disrupt and attack left-wing anti-war demonstrations. The group includes members of other extremist groups such as Lehava (which objects to miscegenation) and Kahane Chai.
“The radical left,” Shadow wrote on his Facebook page, are “the real enemy, walking among us.”
Coincidentally, Eliasi's comeback to public life coincided with the release of his new single, called “One Blood”.
Prior to the anti-war demonstration at Habima on July 12, Eliasi called on his “lions” to join him in breaking it up. They obeyed. Not long after he wrote to his followers: “Now, my lions, it is time to throw you another left-wing nobody in need of reeducation to chew on.” His post inspired dozens of enthusiastic replies calling for “death of Arabs” and “death of leftists”.
Ironically, some of his rampaging Lions wore t-shirts captioned “Good Night Left Side” with a drawing of a man throwing a bicycle on a left-wing activist. This T-shirt should be familiar to Europeans: it is often worn by neo-Nazis.
The graffiti had been on the wall
The rise of political vigilantism is sadly not limited to the Shadow or his minions. Nor did it come out of thin air. It follows years and years of waning support and for the left that can be traced back to the beginning of the Second Intifada, perhaps even earlier. During the past decade, Israel has undergone a deep process of right-leaning radicalization: the left now has less than 30 of the 120 seats in Knesset.
De facto, it is no longer legitimate to be left-wing in Israel. “Leftists” have become such pariahs that during the last elections then-Labor leader Shelly Yachimovich vehemently insisted that neither she nor her party (Labor, the party of Rabin and Peres!) are or ever were left wing.
The term “leftist”, in fact, has become a derogatory term barely distanced from “Nazi” in its offensiveness. Comedian Orna Banai was fired from an advertising campaign this week, after lightheartedly describing herself as a “weird left-wing Arab-lover.” Being a leftist is so taboo, that you can’t even joke about it.
What’s left of the Israeli left is these puny, slightly-pathetic, street demonstrations. Now, even that ineffectual means is threatened by extremist bullies, legitimized by the apathy of the silent majority and the blind eye of politicians who profit from hate.
This is what happens when people are told over and over and over again that the left is “the enemy from within”. It is only a matter of time before they want to “help” the army in its battle against Israel’s enemies. And it is that same pent-up energy, the energy of a frustrated and angry mob, that led to the kidnap and murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir.
On Tuesday, BBC reporter Feras Khatib was attacked on air, apparently by an Israeli. In the “war at home”, every Israeli can become an army of one.
Left-wing activists report feeling genuine terror. Any celebrity daring to murmur anything vaguely dovish gets vilified in the media and social networks. “The next Emil Grunzweig”, said one tweet this week, referring to the peace activist killed by a grenade at a peace rally in Jerusalem in 1983, “is among us - he just doesn’t know it yet.”
In the so-called “war at home”, it seems, the shadows are winning.