The Tel Aviv Riots: An All Too Familiar Story

After writing my article today, which dealt with the ongoing race riots in Tel Aviv, I saw a couple of things that spurred some further thoughts, perhaps in a different vein from the piece up at Souciant.

Sign on the right: “What country are we living in? Sudan? Eritrea? Al-Qaeda in the midst of the state!!!”

One was a tweet that pointed to the riots and sarcastically added “the only democracy in the Middle East.”

Now, Israel’s democracy has serious problems, and they include both social and bureaucratic methods (though as the hasbaraniks are always quick to point out, generally not legal ones anymore) of depriving its Arab citizens of full equality with Jews. It is also under attack from the right, as embodied in the words and deeds of leaders from Likud, Yisrael Beiteinu, Shas and other, smaller rightist parties (including Kadima, which can only be called “centrist” in a country that has tilted absurdly to the right).

But this still stands as a perfect example of Israel being held to a different standard than other countries. There are many criticisms to level against Israeli democracy, even before we consider the West Bank;  but as ugly as these riots are, they are not one of them.

Such incidents are not unfamiliar in Europe, where anti-immigration protests have turned threatening and violent with alarming frequency. We can also look at many parts of the United States, where vigilantes have been very active in pursuing immigrants, often not distinguishing between those who are here legally and those who are not (which, I hasten to add, does not imply that hunting illegal immigrants is any more justifiable than doing it to anyone else).

These are all shameful episodes wherever they happen, and it is no worse in Israel than anywhere else. It is vile and hateful, but it does not show that Israel is not a democracy any more than it does in France or the US.

This may seem a minor point, but I do believe that it is important that Israel be held to the same standards as any other country, no more and no less. In my view, Israel’s practices in its occupation as well as the ethnocracy within the Green Line are examples of it getting away with things that are not tolerated in and of the Western countries that Israel claims to be in community with. But the Tel Aviv riots are not.

The other thought that occurred to me was a nitpick that I can make no less of myself than of others. That is referring to these incidents as race riots.

I have no doubt that part of the anger directed at the Sudanese and Eritrean refugees is based in race. But fundamentally, that really isn’t the issue. It is not racism, at its heart, it is xenophobia, and those are not the same things.

There is, to be sure, racism in Israel, and it extends beyond the Palestinian community. It is a reality faced by Mizrahim, Sephardim and Ethiopians, so Jews too are not invulnerable to it in the Jewish state.

But these riots are largely about “the stranger,” the very typical and all too common phenomenon of the downtrodden in a society feeling what little they have threatened by an even more downtrodden group.

I’m put in mind of one picture I saw of a protester holding a sign in Hebrew which read: “Our children are just as important as the children of refugees.”

I think that sums up the driving force behind these riots, and it is a very old story. It was lampooned, some of you may recall, in Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles. Near the end of the movie, after a whole slew of railroad workers, mostly African-American and Chinese, helped to save the town of the white folks, they asked for a piece of land for themselves. The leader of the townsfolk said “OK, we’ll take the n***ers and the Chinese, but we DON’T WANT THE IRISH!”

That’s the way these things go. The powerful delight in seeing the poor compete for scraps and it’s important to keep them at each others’ throats. Hence, Likud leaders describing immigrants as “cancer,” a type of reference all too familiar in the US, in Europe…and, as the Knesset’s Speaker pointed out, to Jews.

Of course, his rebuke to an MK of his own party was confined to the language, not the meaning behind the words. Which, to my mind, makes his rebuke even more offensive.

But be that as it may, I do think it’s important to understand this for what it is: Israeli communities whose lot in society has been declining steeply and steadily for years. They are directed to blame the immigrants for a good reason.

Because if they don’t, they will realize it’s because the Israeli tilt toward neoliberal economic policies have severely concentrated wealth at the top in a country that was once far more egalitarian; they will realize it’s because Israel’s intransigence regarding peace has justified a huge defense budget, despite relatively small cuts in recent budgets; and they will realize that while they struggle, settlers are getting enormous subsidies.

Can’t have that. So blame the immigrants. That they happen to be Black only makes that easier, but it’s not the root cause. I think it’s important to identify that.

2 thoughts on “The Tel Aviv Riots: An All Too Familiar Story

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