In Israel, Hooliganism Always Comes From the Right

Politicians from Israel’s Zionist left and center must join forces in defense of civil society

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Right-wing protesters in Tel Aviv rallying in support of Sgt. Elor Azaria, March 2016
Right-wing protesters in Tel Aviv rallying in support of Sgt. Elor Azaria, March 2016. Credit: Ilan Assayag

Immediately after Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, influential Israelis joined hands in an effort to cool things down. Figures from the left and from the religious Zionist movement, including the late Hanan Porat, held meetings in an attempt to lower the flames and perhaps even to effect a change in relations between the camps. I neither participated in nor condemned these contacts. The atmosphere in the country was charged, and the finger of blame pointed to the right and its leaders, including Benjamin Netanyahu.

These conciliation efforts failed because they were insincere. Today as well, those commentators who attribute equal blame to both sides are insincere. I read columns by journalists who believe there has been a worrisome shift in the positions of the far right, as seen in the Elor Azaria affair and in accusing the left of treason. At first glance, this is a recent mutation of the ultra-nationalist right into a creature of the extreme-right organization Lehava and the lawyer Yoram Sheftel.

The situation is indeed deteriorating, but today’s thugs, who threaten journalists and prosecutors, who persecute investigative reporter Amnon Abramovich outside a military court, did not suddenly appear. They were always there.

I recall a visit with Shimon Peres to a Mimouna celebration in Jerusalem in 1984, when he was running for prime minister. We encountered incitement and burning hatred, most of it organized in speeches given before our arrival. We found ourselves retreating in shock and pain.

In the first Lebanon war, after addressing the Knesset in the wake of the Sabra and Chatila massacre a religious army officer called me up to threaten me and all the other traitors. He promised that I’d be hearing from him and his friends.

I also remember Rabin debating over whether to hold the rally in which his life was taken from him. Cabinet members wanted the rally, in order to demonstrate to him the depth of public support for his path. None of them imagined that the incitement of the religious-right would cause a young Israeli man, who was poisoned by messianic and ultra-nationalist ideas, to commit such a murder.

Even though right-wing thuggery has not changed, something deeper has. In the past, many worthy public figures stood up against it. Some of them did not join organized groups, instead “reporting for duty” when called upon. Some spoke publicly under the auspices of Peace Now and other political organizations that opposed the stance of leaders on the right. None of these figures are active now, out of either despair or frustration.

Netanyahu does not make do with inciting against Arabs and the media. He is trying, with notable success, to delegitimize all his opponents. If journalist Ilana Dayan is termed “an extreme leftist,” what can one say of B’Tselem, which stands up for ethical principles even in wartime? And we shouldn’t be surprised when one of Netanyahu’s sons, in classic fascist style, turns the New Israel Fund into the Israel Destruction Fund.

But why complain about Netanyahu, when even members of the Zionist left or center avoid being associated with the NIF, throwing it under the bus.

People in the center and the Zionist left may disagree with each other, but they must unite in defense of egalitarian civil society, especially when democracy is in jeopardy. They must collaborate in a movement that will act against violence and thuggery, even if they run for Knesset in different parties. If they fail to cooperate, Netanyahu’s delegitimization campaign will eventually reach them as well.