Kahanism, Arab 'Occupation' and Violence: Far-right Stronghold Emerges Outside Tel Aviv

A focal point of ethnic violence last year, local leaders in Bat Yam insist Jewish-Arab tensions are a national problem but admit radicalization has taken hold of the city. How did it happen?

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Bat Yam.
Credit: Tomer Appelbaum, Hadas Porush, Alon Ron, Moti Milrod
Ran Shimoni
Ran Shimoni
Ran Shimoni
Ran Shimoni

“The Arab enemy is buying up apartments in the city and Bat Yam is slowly being occupied. Add to that the Holocaust of assimilation they are bringing to the city and there’s a disaster happening right under our noses.”

This message was shared over WhatsApp last September by Yaniv Shabtai, a 24-year-old resident of the Tel Aviv suburb. Two months later, on November 14, he acted: Together with his two friends, Yarin Sukar and Yehonatan Mazur, Shabtai assaulted two young Arabs in the city’s Eshkol Garden. The reason: They were sitting on a park bench with two young Jewish women.

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Shabtai, Sukar and Mazur punched and kicked the two Arabs (whose names are being withheld at their request). One of them, who suffers from ALS and uses a wheelchair, was stabbed in the head. Sukar even tried to shoot him in the head with a makeshift gun he had with him but instead hit one of the women in the leg. The intended victim told Haaretz that if Sukar hadn’t missed, he would have been killed.

When they were arrested two months after the incident, the suspects offered police investigators an unusual explanation for their behavior: There was no dispute or argument, they explained – it was all ideological. As evidence, Shabtai’s house was found to have stickers made by the Jewish supremacist organization Lehava saying. “Israeli women for the nation of Israel,” and messages were found on Mazur’s phone in which he writes about attacking Arabs for “revenge.”

Jewish rioters attack the Arab-owned Shawarma Sahar restaurant in Bat Yam, May. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Attack of Saeed Mousa during riots in Bat Yam in May.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Initially, the three were arrested on suspicion of attempted murder with nationalistic motives, but in the end, just two weeks ago prosecutors charged them with aggravated intentional sabotage for nationalistic reasons. Sukar, who exercised his right to remain silent during questioning, had been arrested in the past on suspicion of joining disturbances during last May’s intercommunal violence. He isn’t the only one.

During the rioting, which occurred during Operation Guardian of the Walls, Bat Yam was the most prominent Jewish city to experience violence. The images captured on camera of the attack of Saeed Mousa, who last week attempted to take his own life, capture the state of affairs at the time.

Among 10 adult defendants in the attack, seven are Bat Yam residents. Municipal leaders have insisted at various times that the violence is not unique to the city. But in private conversations, municipal employees, including senior officials, say they’re worried. Last May’s violence was the result of a long process of extremism taking hold in the city.

“The city has Otzma Yehudit activists, Kachniks and Lehava people – more than in other places,” one right-wing activist confirmed. “This is a city with a lot of strength, from our perspective.”

Shlomi Kenzy, one of the best-known activists in Bat Yam, is a municipal employee who openly identifies as a Kachnik and was documented being present at Mousa’s attack. After the attack in Eshkol Garden he called to his followers on Facebook to pray for the release of one of the defendants. More recently he revealed that together with other activists he had opened a synagogue “in the name of the lions of the land, father and son Rabbi Meir Kahane and Rabbi Binyamin Zeev Kahane, may God avenge their names.” The synagogue occupies space in an unapproved building in the city center.

Arab-owned hookah bar in Bat-Yam pictured after the intercommunal riots in May. Credit: Hadas Parush
Indictments filed against three suspects in the attack of Saeed Mousa, June. Credit: Hadas Parush

An investigation by the organization Democratic Bloc found that at that synagogue and in several other locations around the city, Torah classes have been given by Bentzi Gopstein, founder of Lehava, and the Kahanist former MK Michael Ben-Ari. There have also been memorial gatherings for the late Meir Kahane. One of the highest-profile religious figures in this connection is Eliyahu Nataf, who gives Torah classes around Bat Yam. A Facebook page dedicated to his sermons contains content on Jewish-Arab relations, with the latter called “Arabushim” (a derogatory term for Arabs).

“Often the incitement in the Torah classes at some of the city’s synagogues is no less than those at mosque sermons,” asserts one senior city official. “The guys from Bat Yam that ran riot [last May] came from these people – even the rabbis couldn’t get them to return home. We have a good population here and there are a lot of Jewish-Arab friendships, but there’s also hate that has grown in response to terror attacks. Unfortunately, there are those who are poisoning the wells instead of educating for coexistence.”

Even before Meir Kahane traveled up and down Israel in the 1980s in search of supporters, Bat Yam was recognized by right-wing extremists as fertile ground for planting their messages. A Jewish city with a strong rightist bent (72 percent of its votes went to parties of the right in the last election) with a small Arab minority.

Residents of the Amidar neighborhood call on their neighbors not to sell apartments to Arabs.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

However, on a day-to-day basis, the two populations go about a shared life: The Arab residents of nearby Jaffa and Ramle often come to Bat Yam for work or leisure.

Rawan Bisharat, a social activist who lives on the Jaffa-Bat Yam border, says Arabs who come to the city enjoy themselves and prefer to ignore the sociopolitical aspect.

“There is no politicization of this story,” she says, “Arabs come to spend time in the city and live there only for social and economic reasons. They find themselves in Bat Yam more than in North Tel Aviv. The way they spend time there is more appealing to them, and also cheaper.”

Not far from these places of entertainment stands a memorial to Helena Rapp, a 15-year-old girl who was murdered by a Palestinian terrorist on Bat Yam’s seaside promenade in 1992. Time hasn’t healed the wound. Even then, the city was shaken by rioting and street fights between Jews and Arabs. “Everyone remembers it,” says one resident.

In recent years, the contact between the two populations is no longer limited to places of entertainment. The rising cost of housing, among other things, has caused more Arabs to move from Jaffa to Bat Yam. Most of them settle in the older and mostly religious Amidar neighborhood. Nevertheless, no one would claim that Bat Yam is a mixed city: Of a population of 128,000, only 900 are Arabs.

In spite of that small number, many of Bat Yam’s Jewish residents have the sense that their city is being “taken over.”

A right-wing protest in Bat Yam. "The Holocaust of assimilation in the city is spreading among us like a malignant cancer!"Credit: Moti Milrod

“They’re coming here, to religiously traditional neighborhoods and don’t behave as they should,” says one local resident. “They play music on Shabbat, slam the brakes on their cars. There are girls who won’t go out at night without an escort, God forbid.”

Another resident told Haaretz that “it’s getting really scary here. I’m scared to go to the park with the kids. Last Friday, there were gunshots, no one is talking about it.”

In response to the coexistence that has been thrust upon them, the Jewish residents of the Amidar neighborhood have called on their neighbors not to sell apartments to Arabs and have appealed to the city to deal with the matter. Last June, there was even a conference that included Bat Yam’s chief rabbi, Eliahu Bar-Shalom, which discussed “Arab’s purchasing homes in the Amidar neighborhood” and “the issue of Jewish girls with Arabs.”

“This isn’t unique to Bat Yam’s residents,” says one local. “In Tel Aviv, Givatayim and even Ramat Hasharon you’ll fund people who don’t want their neighborhoods becoming Arab.” He adds: “Here, unlike those other places, it’s actually happening.”

Five days before the Eshkol Garden attack, Tzvi Yehuda Ezra, who heads the Bat Yam office of Lehava, posted on Facebook, “Bat Yam! The time has come to wake up! The Holocaust of assimilation in the city is spreading among us like a malignant cancer! The time has come to stop this craziness! The Arab enemy is buying up apartments in the city and slowly Bat Yam is being occupied.”

The post was an invitation for a tour of the city by Gopstein as part of a campaign to create a “plan to save the city of Bat Yam from terrible harm.”

Ezra, who spoke with Haaretz, denies that messages like these led to the attack, but he feels the need to defend them. “Those boys aren’t connected with Lehava, they’re supporters, like thousands of others around the country,” he says.

Bat Yam educators say the rhetoric voiced by teenagers has grown more violent since Operation Guardian of the Walls.

“Conversations with them always come back to the May riots and to ‘what the Arabs did to us,’” says one educator. “You have to understand that from their point of view, the Arabs suddenly turned on them. These weren’t Palestinians from the West Bank or Gaza, but their neighbors from Jaffa. Then and now, there are many who are inciting them and telling them they have to ‘defend their homes.’”

Adds a teacher from the neighborhood, “I think that there are young people who feel a sense of mission – that they need to fight this. To be right-wing is a very strong part of individual identity here. There are parents and older siblings who inflame these youths.”

In response, the Bat Yam Municipality said: “Tensions between Jews and Arabs have grown in recent years and reached a peak during the events of Guardian of the Walls in a number of sites and towns all over the country, and caused damage to the fabric of Israeli citizens’ shared life. We saw this from Jerusalem to Acre, from Tel Aviv and Bat Yam to Haifa.

“We rely on the police to respond to complaints that are made occasionally concerning residents being harassed on the promenade by young Arabs. The city will use all the tools it can to maintain the residents’ quality of life. At the same time, the government must undertake a nationwide program that addresses the root of these problems in cooperation with local authorities.”

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