Earthquakes shudder buildings and expose weak foundations. The foundations of the State of Israel – its society – have never been stronger, or so we are led to believe. I guess the Bedouin in the Negev region would beg to differ. The foundations of their huts and shacks are not strong enough to face Hamas rockets and despite urgent petitions demanding that their villages be protected, the State said it is the residents’ responsibility to protect themselves.
As the entire society is geared up for war, left and right converge midpoint. The spirit of nationalism and patriotism marginalize anything existing outside of this center. Freedom of speech is trampled upon as straying opinions or thoughts are cast aside and labeled as being subversive and treasonable.
And so we hear of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman urging Israelis to boycott the businesses of Arab citizens who are taking part in a general strike protesting against the IDF’s operation in the Gaza Strip and the deaths of Palestinian civilians.
As the guns roar in Gaza, Israeli artists who express sorrow over the deaths on both sides have been pilloried on social networks. “A disgrace to the State of Israel,” is one of the kinder phrases. Comedienne and actress Orna Banai is just one example. She described herself as a “weirdo left-wing Arab-lover” on a news broadcast – and yes, expressed sorrow over the deaths of civilians on both sides and said she opposed the war. In turn, wags on social networks have turned the guns on her, mixing in a dose of misogyny and homophobia; Banai is a declared lesbian. Banai ended up being fired from her position as a spokesperson for cruise ship line Mano Maritime, and closed down her Facebook page after being publicly berated and threatened.
Banai stated she was ashamed of her people. I must say I share this shame. I am ashamed of these cheap populist acts and of the members of Knesset continuously calling for revenge and inciting the public. I am ashamed of racist laws being passed by the government that trample over citizen rights and the very essence of our precious democracy.
Not all is doom and gloom. On the contrary. Israelis have shown tremendous largesse during the last two weeks, opening their hearts to those needing it: families from the shelled south, the elderly, and of course soldiers and their families. A fine example were the tens of thousands of people attending the funeral in Haifa earlier this week of someone they had never met before – a “lone” soldier who had no family or friends in Israel. The same took place yesterday in Jerusalem.
Yet the same cannot be said in relation to how the Israeli society is treating divergent views or marginalized groups living in its midst. As Israeli flags are unfurled, the national anthem is sounded, and the narrative becomes one, some groups are reminded of the fact that they live on the sidelines. Israeli Arabs attempting to integrate into Israeli society despite all the obstacles they face are thrust back to square one as incitement and racism runs rampant. Forever they are reminded that after all their efforts, they will always be Arabs. It doesn’t matter whether they’re Christian or Muslim, peasants or doctors; it doesn’t matter whether they belong to Arab political parties like Balad and United Arab List-Ta’al or Jewish ones like Labor and Shas. At best, they’ll be “a fifth column,” at worst, “Hamas lite.”
I think most Israelis value freedom of speech, democracy and equality, and are opposed to incitement. Just today, Facebook removed the pages of Michael Ben-Ari and the Lehava organization following countless complaints by Israelis that these pages included extreme racism and incitement against Arabs. We must stay on guard and try to demonstrate toleration and understanding for different opinions. With all due respect to Iron Dome and the military, democracy is Israel’s true and only advantage over Hamas.