I am deeply saddened by what is happening in my country. The war with Gaza is one thing. Sadly it occurs and reoccurs. It is simply a continuation of what has been before. The ethnic rioting is another thing altogether.
Israeli society is loosely held together. There are undercurrents of resentment and anger between lots of ethnicities. Knitting together a multi-ethnic society is hard. The Jews in Israel often have a hard time of it – with tensions across lines of religious and national origin.
One can watch and simply hope that they generally improve. I was delighted to see that an Arab party might be included in a right-wing or centrist government. I was delighted to see the Abraham Accords. These things heralded a new era – in which “the Arabs” and “the Jews” were not necessarily enemies.
Now, it is all falling apart. Yesterday, in cities with Arab and Jewish populations – cities that represented coexistence – there were anti-Jewish pogroms.
Today, there are anti-Arab pogroms as well.
Only a few weeks ago, the ethnic lines were cracking. A new light was just beginning to shine.
And I think that’s exactly why we have the situation we have now.
The current tensions, by my reading, were sparked not by Sheikh Jarrah or police on the Temple Mount. The tensions were sparked by the Palestinian elections. The PA is supposed to have elections every four years. The last parliamentary elections were in 2006. Fatah (the PLO party) and Hamas agreed to elections in May of this year.
Why does this matter? Because when March 31 arrived and official lists were needed, Marwan Barghouti’s wife and a few other breakaway members of Fatah formed a party separate from Fatah. The opinion polls showed Hamas would have 30% of the vote while Fatah would have 22%. The new party would have 28%. Fatah – Mahmoud Abbas’ party – realized they’d lose.
Fatah needed reasons to cancel the elections. They started with Jerusalem voting. On April 29 (less than two weeks ago), they used that lever to cancel the elections. But as Reuters put it “many Palestinians regarded the Jerusalem issue as an excuse to avoid elections that Fatah might well lose to its Islamist rivals Hamas, as it did in the last parliamentary ballot in 2006.”
The Jerusalem story didn’t fly. So it was time for another excuse. It was time for a little violence. After all, in a pinch, you can always blame Israel for your canceled election.
So tensions ramped up. We had people chanting “Bomb Bomb Tel Aviv!” on the Temple Mount. We had a drive-by shooting officially supported by Fatah (for the first time in years). We had a Border Police station attacked by three men.
Well, Hamas couldn’t be outdone in the violence game. That is, after all, the basis of their legitimacy. So on Jerusalem Day (often a needlessly provocative day of Jewish triumphalism) they saw Fatah’s few riots on the Temple Mount and raised them with rocket attacks on Jerusalem itself.
Israel, of course, had to retaliate and is taking the opportunity to reduce the capability for a repeat of this process.
All of this was entirely normal. It was just two Palestinian factions trying to kill Jews for internal political purposes.
But something wasn’t normal: The Abraham Accords. Egyptian planes coming to Tel Aviv with their actual flags flying. The religious Arab Ra’am Party perhaps joining a right-wing or centrist Israeli government.
What wasn’t normal was that, for the first time in Israel’s history, Arabs could see there was no need for ethnic conflict with Israel. There was another path opening. They could not only be a part of the government but use their political leverage to secure real benefits from their position. This would be akin to large numbers of African Americans being willing to vote Republican. The sudden need to court these once guaranteed Democratic voters would increase the power of African American voters to influence both parties.
This sort of ethnic shift – in which the sectarian lines between Arabs and Jews were fracturing – would be a death blow to both Fatah and Hamas.
Remember, one thing both sides agree on is that Jews can not be allowed to live on their territory. The ethnic conflict is critical to them.
So Fatah and Hamas fomented riots in mixed Arab-Jewish cities.
And this was not normal.
Synagogues and schools were burned and homes were attacked. Jews shot people coming to attack their neighborhoods – perhaps in self-defense. The Arab Ra’am party called on the rioters to stop. They said they had been misled by Islamic preachers. The Arab-Jewish Hadash party called for the rioters to stop. But the other purely ethnic Arab parties didn’t.
Riots spread to Lod, Acre, Jaffa, and Haifa. These weren’t protests, they were pogroms.
And all of a sudden, all those Jews who had wondered whether their Arab neighbors were secretly hoping to attack them had their worst fears confirmed.
A day later and there are anti-Arab riots. Jewish leaders across the spectrum – including those leaders of hard-right parties – have called for Jewish rioters to stop. But they haven’t. And so all those Arabs who had wondered whether their Jewish neighbors were secretly hoping to expel them have had their worst fears confirmed.
And now we have an ethnic conflict, fully rekindled, courtesy of the fears of Hamas and Fatah.
What can we do? How do you unmake an ethnic conflict? How do you take away from the kindling that sets it aflame? How do you dispel the distrust?
These mixed cities, places like Ramle and Lod, were troubled places. But they represented the possibility of a better future.
Now, they represent a nightmare.
Here’s what I hope will happen.
I hope Lapid, Bennet, and Ra’am’s Abbas form a government now. I think Ra’am needs a prominent position in that government and all parties need to strongly speak out in support of that government.
If the lowest levels are falling apart, then it is urgent for the highest levels to hold together.
This government should seek to cool tensions on both sides. How? Water down the nation-state law as an unnecessary distraction and provocation. Create an Arab-focused police force (populated with a higher-than-normal percentage of Arab officers). Expand housing permits for Druze and Arab towns.
We could even go so far as to create a special residency permit so vetted families from Gaza can temporarily live in the homes of Arab citizens of Israel.
What about Jewish fears? First and foremost, it must be the declared and primary mission of that Arab-focused police force to suppress violence within the sector. But more can be done. Jews in Israel have a very positive view of the UAE. Invite the UAE to send religious leaders to Israel to host high-profile meetings between Jewish and Arab civic leaders. But don’t stop there, use peace-minded leaders from both Arab and Jewish society (including the UAE) to meet with the hoodlums responsible for the violence. Televise those meetings.
Bring the bad actors to task while increasing understanding between the sectors of society.
Show a way past what has occurred.
And then? With the immediate tensions cooled it will be the work of a generation to pull the pieces back together.
In 2016, I wrote The City on the Heights, a book about unwinding the ethnic war in Syria and Iraq.
I wrote in the epilogue of that book:
The major fault lines of the society had cracked into thousands of smaller and overlapping lines. People had not assimilated with one another, but the definition of their groups had weakened. My father’s dream became reality. In time, the clear edges of conflict became fuzzy and the City grew further and further from the edges of war.
Please G-d, may we see such a reality both in Israel and throughout this region.
P.S. The book, which I feel is especially relevant right now, can be found here.
Photo by Robert Bye on Unsplash