Anti-Israel Protests Go Viral - and Violent - in U.S. and Europe

Social media have spawned a leaderless generation of Muslim extremists across Europe and the U.S.

Noah Smith
Noah Smith
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Arab-American demonstrators march down Woodward Avenue waving U.S and Palestinian flags as they protest against Israeli military strikes on Gaza, in downtown Detroit, Michigan July 13, 2014.
Arab-American demonstrators march down Woodward Avenue waving U.S and Palestinian flags as they protest against Israeli military strikes on Gaza, in downtown Detroit, Michigan July 13, 2014. Credit: Reuters
Noah Smith
Noah Smith

Fallout from the hostilities between Israel and Hamas is spreading across Europe and the United States. Protests about the conflict have flared up, much like they did during past battles, increasingly turning confrontational, notably in the United States, Israel’s staunchest ally.

Although the violence from Palestinian supporters at pro-Israel rallies in Los Angeles and Boston has not approached the seriousness of recent incidents in Paris and Berlin, many community leaders on both sides have noted an upswing in the level of vitriol and frustration reflected in the rhetoric emanating from the pro-Palestinian camp.

The violence in Los Angeles on Sunday occurred when four pro-Palestinian activists allegedly attacked pro-Israel activists at a rally held outside the Wilshire Federal Building. A federal police officer fired a shot at the suspects’ vehicle as they attempted to flee.

This comes on the heels of a recent court verdict sending an anti-Semitic vandal in L.A. to jail for three years; actor Gary Oldman’s comments in “Playboy,” which were construed by many as anti-Semitic; and a contentious divestment vote at UCLA and formal challenges against free Israel trips offered by Jewish groups to student leaders, which inflamed tensions.

Speaking about the overall nature of this past week’s U.S.-based Israel-Palestinian rallies and the state of anti-Semitism in the wake of Hamas rockets fired at Israel and Operation Protective Edge, Oren Segal, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, said that the pro-Palestinian narrative has been ”more vicious than I recall in many years.”

Segal noted that rhetoric tends to get more radicalized as a conflict carries on, and that the “level of vitriol has been higher than expected this early in the conflict.”

While Holocaust analogies have become commonplace in the pro-Palestinian activist community, Segal pointed out that this time around, the ADL has also noticed more placards and chants that say “Death to Israel” and signs that refer to Jews, not Israelis. “It goes beyond criticism of Israel,” he said.

Segal postulated that a possible reason for the increase in radicalized sloganeering was due to social media and the speed at which people can communicate and share news, images and rallying cries.

Salam Al-Marayati, President of the L.A.-based Muslim Public Affairs Council, also identified social media as playing a pivotal role in the atmosphere surrounding the current round of rallies and activism. Discussing supporters of the Palestinian cause in the U.S., Al-Marayati said that they feel “prevented from discourse in civil society,” owing to their belief in the Palestinian narrative.

“The only channel they find is Facebook pages and on the streets. There is no channel toward civic engagement, there’s no congressman that wants to meet on this issue, so that’s all that’s left,” he said.

“You have these brawls because there’s a leadership void at the national level. Because there’s a void in the proper way of discussing this issue, you leave it to people to handle it like this,” he said, referring to U.S. policy makers and government officials.

Al-Marayati also identified the powerful images coming out of Gaza and the deteriorating humanitarian situation there as another key catalyst.

He added that he did not support the suspects involved in the incident in L.A. on Sunday, nor did he support public demonstrations on this issue in general, since people tend to get “overly emotional,” and pointed out the impossibility of controlling who attends.

“We are always concerned about saboteurs – they come in and the whole event is ruined,” he said, without making a connection to the incident in L.A.

Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, attended the L.A. rally. He characterized the mood of the pro-Palestinian demonstrators as “very hostile,” and said that there had been a shift in tactics.

“Pro-Arab groups are becoming more confident and more astute. Their rhetoric crosses the line and they are not interested in truth. There is a conflict there [Israel/Palestine], but they’re only interested in hurling symbols in the face of Jews, that’s their main strategy. I noticed this in Paris, and now, here,” he said, referring to the pro-Palestinian community’s propensity to apply Holocaust symbols to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, casting Jews as Nazis.

Hier also pointed to a lack of leadership within the Muslim community as a reason for the escalation.

“When you become a spiritual leader, you have to have some courage, otherwise try another profession. When a synagogue is attacked, when a school is attacked, we should be able to find dozens and dozens of imams condemning it,” he said, referring to recent attacks in France.

Although protests and event connected to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have been more contentious than in past years, Jay Sanderson, president & CEO of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, does not see this trend extending into everyday life. He called the incident on Sunday “isolated,” and made a clear distinction between recent anti-Semitic acts in Europe and the situation on the ground in L.A.

“I think in L.A. there is tremendous support for Israel among many communities. Our relationship with every community is as strong as it has ever been, except for radical elements,” he said. According to FBI statistics, hate crimes against Jews have constituted the majority of all religious-based hate crimes in the U.S. over the past 10 years, constituting 60-70% of all religious-based hate crimes. Overall, race-based hate crimes perpetrated against blacks were the most common during that same period. The most recent FBI statistics point to a 7% decrease in anti-Semitic attacks between 2011 and 2012.

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