More Israelis Are Coming Out as anti-Arab, Activists Warn, With Politicians Setting the Tone

What was once whispered behind closed doors is now being said openly in public, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s 2015 comments about Israeli Arabs voting in ‘droves’ seen as a turning point

A demonstration in Afula, northern Israel, against a home being sold to an Arab family, June 13, 2018.
Gil Eliahu

Last week, hundreds of Jewish residents of the northern Israeli city of Afula took to the streets to protest the sale of a home to an Arab family. On Saturday, members of a Bedouin family were barred entry to a public swimming pool in southern Israel because they had arrived during the afternoon hours unofficially designated for Jews. That was how they learned that Bedouin are meant to swim separately from Jews.

It wasn’t the first time Jewish residents had tried to block Arabs from moving into their city. Nor would it be the first time that non-Jews were denied access to a public swimming pool.

Yet those who track such incidents say something has changed in Israeli society.

“There’s always been racism against Arabs in this country – both at the grassroots level and the establishment level,” says Raghad Jaraisy, director of Arab minority rights at the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. “What’s different is that it’s out there now,” she adds. “What was once whispered about behind closed doors, people are no longer ashamed to say out in the open.”

Among those participating in the Afula protests, Jaraisy notes, were two prominent politicians: the city’s former mayor, Avi Elkabetz, and its current deputy mayor, Shlomo Malihi. And neither was shy about sharing anti-Arab sentiments.

“The residents of Afula don’t want a mixed city, but rather a Jewish city – and it’s their right,” Elkabetz was quoted as saying. “We will not allow the character of the city to change,” added Malihi.

Such proclamations from top municipal officials are becoming increasingly commonplace, says Jaraisy. Just three months ago, residents of Kfar Vradim were outraged to discover that Arab citizens had won bids for dozens of plots of land in the affluent Galilee town. In response, Mayor Sivan Yechieli suspended the bidding process, explaining it was his job to preserve the “secular-Jewish-Zionist” character of the town.

And then there was Construction and Housing Minister Yoav Galant, who told a Knesset committee earlier this month that the south of Israel was “under attack” not just from Gaza but also from the local Bedouin.

The public swimming pool in the community of Mabu'im, operated by the Merhavim Regional Council, June 17, 2018.
\ Eliyahu Hershkovitz

“In the past, it would have been considered preposterous for a government minister to use such language against citizens of this country in an official presentation,” says Jaraisy.

On second thought, though, she isn’t so surprised. “We already got a taste of this a few years ago when we tried to get the former mayor of Upper Nazareth to build a new school there for the growing Arab population,” she recounts. “He said to us that, as long as he is mayor, no such school would be built, because it would harm the ‘Jewish character’ of the city.”

Jaraisy believes it was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who legitimized such talk, when he famously warned on Election Day in March 2015 that Israeli Arabs were voting in their “droves.”

Seasonal tensions

Tzachi Mezuman, director of the Jerusalem-based Racism Crisis Center, says attempts to bar Arabs from Jewish towns go back a long way. He cites Safed Chief Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, who issued an edict in 2010 urging Jews to refrain from renting apartments to Arabs in the northern city.

“But in that case we were talking about someone who was known to hold racist views,” he says. “With Afula, we’re talking about a major city in which a former mayor and deputy mayor are saying these things.”

The Racism Crisis Center – an initiative of the Israel Religious Action Center, the advocacy arm of the Reform movement in Israel – was established 10 months ago to lend legal and other assistance to individuals targeted by acts of discrimination and racism. Since its launch, reports Mezuman, it has handled some 75 complaints – three-quarters of them from Arab citizens – on issues ranging from discrimination in customer service to racial profiling and physical attacks.

Among the complaints it is currently handling is one involving an attempt to bar Arabs from a Jerusalem swimming pool – in this case by charging them higher prices than Jews.

The Coalition Against Racism in Israel, which includes dozens of organizations engaged in fighting discrimination, received a complaint this week about another Bedouin family denied entry to a public swimming pool in the south. Family members were told over the phone that the pool was open, but when they arrived they were informed that it was closed when it was clearly open.

“We tend to see a spike in these sort of incidents at this time of year, when schools are out and there is naturally more contact between the Arab and Jewish populations,” says coalition Director Nidal Othman.

But adding to the usual seasonal tensions, he says, is the need that many politicians feel these days to tap into racist sentiments, with municipal elections just months away. “Always before elections, and we see this with national elections as well, there are many more incidents of racism,” explains Othman. The appearance of two local politicians at the recent protests in Afula should be seen in that context, he adds.

“We see this more and more – that Israeli politicians both feed off of racism against Arabs and, when they participate in events like this, they feed into it,” says Othman.

More exposure

A study published by the coalition last month illustrates – through a detailed list of examples – the extent to which the use of racist language among Israeli political leaders, as well as rabbinical authorities, has grown commonplace in recent years.

For Othman, there is a direct link between these findings and recent events. “When political leaders and rabbis, who are supposed to be role models, express such thoughts, they give legitimacy for others to act and speak in a certain way,” he says.

According to a survey published by the coalition three months ago, almost half of all Israelis (47 percent) believe racism has increased in the country since the last election in 2015. Of all the groups that suffer from discrimination, the survey found that most Israelis think Arabs and asylum seekers are targeted most. Next in line, in descending order, were Ethiopians, the ultra-Orthodox, the LGBTQ community, Mizrahi Jews, women, Russian-speakers and Ashkenazi Jews.

“I’m not sure the number of incidents of racism against Arabs has gone up a lot recently. But what is clear is that such incidents are getting more exposure – and that’s a good thing,” says Othman. “It’s because people are not as afraid as they once were to report such things.”