Opinion

Case of 7-year-old Who Was Raped Reverberates With Atlanta-style Racism

The testimonies of residents in the ultra-Orthodox settlement in defense of the accused, Mahmoud Qatusa, are some of the only glimmers of light in this affair

Lahava activists protest outside the village of Deir Qadis in the West Bank, June 2019.
Oren Ben Hakoon

When I contacted him about his client Mahmoud Qatusa from the village of Deir Qadis, attorney Darwish Nashef said, “Leo Frank – look it up on Google.” Frank was a young Jew in Atlanta, Georgia. In 1913 a jury convicted him of the murder of Mary Phagan, a 13-year-old white Christian girl who worked in his family’s pencil factory, where he was the superintendent.

Who knows what kind of miserable wages she received, like all the girls and other employees. There were rumors that Phagan had also been raped. Witnesses spoke about the alleged sexual perversion of the Jewish owner. While the trial underway, people lined the street and cried, “Hang the Jew.” He was sentenced to death by hanging. All his appeals, up to the Supreme Court, were rejected.

>> Read more: The right is politicizing the rape of a 7-year-old girl | Opinion 

The governor of Georgia, who lost sleep over the clear flaws in the investigation and the racist incitement conducted by one newspaper in particular, commuted the death sentence to life imprisonment. He and his wife were forced to flee from Georgia and didn’t return for 10 years.

In August 1915, a white vigilante group of leading citizens (including a former governor and elected officials – all of them known and with their faces exposed) broke into the prison, abducted Frank, drove him for a distance of 150 miles, and hanged him on a tree in Phagan’s hometown of Marietta. A few months later, several of them revived the Ku Klux Klan, which had disbanded toward the end of the previous century.

As far as we know, Frank was the only Jew who was lynched in the United States. In Georgia alone another 21 people were lynched in 1915, all of them black. A 2017 study (“Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror,” by the Equal Justice Initiative) found that over the course of about five decades, 589 people were lynched in Georgia alone. The founding of the Anti-Defamation League in 1913 was triggered in part by the public atmosphere that brought about Frank’s conviction for rape and murder because he was a Jew.

The differences between Qatusa and Frank and between the eras and the countries are clear. So are the similarities: Ruling elites who protect their privilege and spread noxious racism that convicts a member of a minority in advance, just because he is a member of that minority.

But what is particularly interesting is how an advanced society (in science and technology, military expertise and literature, music and pro-LGBT legislation) can at the same time suffer from intellectual, emotional, behavioral and ethical limitations. These limitations enable them to ignore the historical similarities.

The prime minister, the former defense minister – himself a member of a formerly persecuted minority in the Soviet Union – the former public security minister, as expected, they all hastened to convict Qatusa when the indictment had just emerged from the military prosecution’s assembly line. They did so with a perfect lack of awareness of the similarities between them and the murderers of the Jew Leo Frank. They are the authentic representatives of our advanced society.

The faith of the public and the police in the 7-year-old girl’s testimony about the sexual abuse she experienced demonstrates Israeli society’s progress in the past 20 to 30 years, thanks to feminist struggles that have exposed all the aspects of misogynistic violence.

On the other hand, we can reasonably assume that even 20 years ago they would have believed a Jewish girl claiming that she was sexually abused, as long as she pointed to a Palestinian as her assailant. Our deeply rooted anti-Arab racism, nurtured in order to justify and improve on all the methods of dispossession and expulsion, would have overcome the Pavlovian male disdain for a woman’s complaint – not to mention that of a little girl – even then.

Just as there are Jews who commit rape, there are Arabs who do so. The problem does not lie with the nationality but with the violent socialization of men as the superior gender. But we have to wonder: Would the civil prosecution have translated a botched investigation like that of Qatusa into an indictment against a Jew, and continued to keep him in detention even after exposure of its flaws?

Israel’s intellectual, emotional and ethical limitations have enabled the military court and the military prosecution to operate for the past 52 years: They are factories for convicting Palestinians, in which the families of the rapists (those responsible for the settlement project, the theft of land, the destruction and the expulsion) are the plaintiffs and the judges and those who convict the victims – that is, the defendants – who rose against their assailant with the meager means at their disposal. The old and new Israeli elites proudly send their children to study law before their military service and then they populate the military prosecution and the courts, and afterward, the civil judicial systems as well.

The testimonies of residents of the girl’s ultra-Orthodox settlement in defense of Qatusa are some of the heartwarming glimmers in this affair, which is not yet over. We must once again quote our colleague Roy Arad, who in a recent article wrote: “A source in the settlement points at the organization that represented the girl’s family, Honenu, which is known mainly for representing and transferring money to a large number of Jewish terrorists, including Ami Popper [who murdered seven Palestinian workers in 1990].

“‘These are unqualified and junior police investigators who didn’t understand the interests of this extremist organization and are capable of believing them,’ he explained to me. ‘Many people here are familiar with the suspect and think that he was framed. As soon as they heard about the case, they all saw the holes.’ After the story exploded, the family dismissed the organization from representing the case.”

Can the military prosecutors and judges get rid of their fixation on convicting Palestinians in advance, and allow for a real investigation on the assault of a child?