Opinion

Israelis Like Their Racism Sweetened

Watching the jovial interview with Jewish terrorist Yitzhak Gabai aired on Channel 20 was like watching Israeli society caught with its pants down

Yitzhak Gabai, the arsonist who set fire to a bilingual Jerusalem school, June 19, 2018.
Ilan Assayag

The interview with Jewish terrorist Yitzhak Gabai, who was convicted of an arson attack against a bilingual school in Jerusalem four years ago, has been denounced by all of the usual left-leaning commentators, as well as by senior right-wing journalists like Erel Segal and Amit Segal. Channel 20 has apologized, distanced itself from the interview, criticized its own employees and is conducting an investigation. It would seem that the issue is in the past.

But it really isn’t. There were five Jewish men present in the Channel 20 studio when the interview took place; one of them – Ari Shamay – is a leftist. They discussed what Gabai had done.

The atmosphere was positively jolly. One could even call it celebratory. They laughed and joked. What Gabai did was extremely grave. He set fire to a school. If the studio guest had been an Arab terrorist who torched a school, those Jewish men sitting beside him would not have been joking with him. They would have been openly hostile and unable to conceal their loathing.

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The atmosphere in the studio during the discussion of Gabai’s crime was like an inside joke among Jews. After all, Gabai is not just a convicted terrorist; he’s a racist. Just like the Ku Klux Klan. On the walls of the school, slogans like “Death to the Arabs,” “No coexistence with cancer” and “No more assimilation” were painted. And remember: Israel’s Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev has called Sudanese asylum seekers ‘a cancer.’ In the Jewish national homeland, which no longer defines itself as democratic, ‘cancer’ is the byword for non-Jews.

Gabai is a violent, racist ultra-nationalist. In the interview, he said that the aim of his arson attack was to get the Israeli public riled up about assimilation between Jews and Arabs. Israelis are already up in arms over this very issue; just look how they reacted to the wedding of Lucy Aharish and Tzachi Halevy.

Gabai’s views represent the mainstream of Jewish public opinion in Israel; they are accepted by members of the government and the man (and woman) on the street: Arabs and Sudanese are a cancer, coexistence is unacceptable. And if the current fighting with Gaza escalates into a full-blown war, “Death to the Arabs” will once again ring out at demonstrations – and not just among supporters of the Beitar Jerusalem soccer club.

The problem that Israeli society has with Gabai has nothing to do with this views, which have become the norm. And make no mistake about it: Any Arab convicted of similar crimes to Gabai’s, or who sprayed “Death to the Jews” on the wall of a school, would have been handed a far more severe punishment than the one meted out to Gabai. For his crime, which was defended by his fascist lawyer, Itamar Ben-Gvir, Gabai’s punishment was nothing more than a slap on the wrist.

The problem that Channel 20’s management, both Segals and the Israeli mainstream have with Gabai is his refusal to put a pretty face on violent, extreme-nationalist racism. He’s not eloquent. He doesn’t engage in euphemisms. I don’t know whether his opinions are significantly different to those of Segal and Segal. Radical nationalism and racism are a common denominator. So, too, is the desire to see dead Arabs.

The problem is with the style. Amit Segal appears on television channels which split off from Channel 2 and Army Radio; Erel Segal is about to join the Kan public broadcaster and already has a slot on Radio 103. The mainstream loves his racist nationalism – as long as it’s candy-coated. Gabai, however, doesn’t dress up his racism and even Channel 20 can’t interview him, because he refuses to play the game.

Gabai is tactless. Even his lawyer – a rabble-rousing supporter of Meir Kahane – was forced to interrupt him and remind him that he’s supposed to state that he regrets his actions. In other words, to remind him to lie. Gabai is not sophisticated; he doesn’t understand nuance; he’s childish and a bit of an idiot. He refuses to pay lip service to democracy. But he is not a marginal or deranged figure. He’s not an anomaly. He openly states what wiser, smarter racists than him think.

Gabai is not a cancer in the Israeli mainstream. The way that the other people in the studio jovially interacted with him proves that they share a common language, common values and a common worldview. He is the flesh of the Israeli mainstream’s flesh; he is part of its body. But he’s the part that is supposed to remain hidden from view. Suddenly, in an interview on Channel 20, he burst out. Watching that interview was like watching Israeli society caught with its pants down.