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Mob against migrants: How far can the violence go?

The rioting last night in south Tel Aviv against African migrants – some of them asylum seekers –  was another one of those moments that paralyzed me with a mixture of disbelief, horror and sorrow. The photos of smashed windows were reflexively associated in many Jewish minds with Kristallnacht, as many people on social networks pointed out. One photo of Likud MK Danny Danon standing on a platform exhorting the masses to expel the strangers in their midst was reflexively associated in my mind with Benjamin Netanyahu “on the balcony” circa 1994 or 1995.

In those notorious demonstrations, Netanyahu famously stood on the balcony overlooking Zion Square in Jerusalem, participating in, and possibly goading the angry crowds screaming for blood after terror attacks. In those sorts of demonstrations, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was portrayed in SS uniforms, or with a kafiya on his head, behind crosshairs. That wave of rage ended in the assassination of a Prime Minister.

How will this wave of rage end? Today, the government sides with the protesters, so the mob isn’t likely to turn on the leaders.

Incidents such as firebombing attacks on apartments of African migrants in those neighborhoods don’t leave much to the imagination. It’s only by chance or luck that no migrants have been killed up to now. And for African migrants facing war and crushing poverty at home, and horrible financial, sexual and physical exploitation by smugglers even before arriving in Israel, it’s strange to talk about luck at all.

Crime and fear

Local residents are frenzied following recent incidents of rape and sexual assault by migrants. There is no minimizing these crimes. It is natural that the people who already feel marginalized in society fear and resent those who flood their neighborhoods with unfamiliar foreign faces, desperation and idleness – and some criminals. The Israeli government effectively has no overall policy for economic or political non-Jewish migration although the phenomenon is over a decade old; perhaps if there was a clear policy, the concentration of migrants in the poorest neighborhoods would not be as grave, and the migrants themselves would not feel, or actually be, as helpless.

But the data on crime doesn’t bear any relation to the exaggerated panic. The last two reports by the Knesset’s Research and Information Department (from 2010 and 2011, in Hebrew) show that the crime rate among African migrants against Israelis is a fraction of the general crime rate – in Tel Aviv in 2010 for example, police files were opened against just over one percent of African migrants, but over six percent of the general population; in 2011 files were opened against roughly two percent of the total African migrant population in Israel – actually a slight decrease compared to the total in 2010.

However, a large portion of each report is devoted to the crimes of Israeli society against the migrants, including stabbing, firebombing, sexual exploitation and trafficking, and widespread violations of labor rights.

But poring through the data, I got angry at myself. Why do I need to parade the numbers as a defense against mob violence? We have a mechanism for dealing with crime and it’s called the law. Not vigilante action. I didn’t remember any demonstration at the sweet little moshav of Batzra, where the salt-of-the-earth Erez Efrati lived at the time he tore a woman out of her car, dragged her down a bank of the Yarkon River, beat the shit out of her and tried to rape her until he was chased away by passers-by. Efrati will never face a mob – and as much as I hate his crimes, he shouldn’t.

Excuses for violence.

A few weeks ago, on a sunny spring morning around 10am, I was returning home from a jog and on my block, I found an elderly woman on the ground, dazed, bleeding, crying and missing the necklace that had been ripped from her neck by two guys, she said, who jumped her from behind in plain view of several bustling cafes. I did feel nervous for several days afterwards. But now I’m more nervous about the shopkeeper who was one of our little group of people helping the woman, when he said he was sure the thugs were African migrants. This was not because he witnessed the event himself, but because, he said with grave certainty, they are the source of the waves of crime. I scoffed and told him that Israelis have said that about the Russian immigrants, and the Arabs before that, and so on.

In fact, the most consistent identifying feature of most violent criminals in general is their gender – guess which one.  But you don’t see me organizing rallies or inciting mobs against men.

Yes, the streets are dangerous world over. No, that is never, ever a reason for mobs or politicians to threaten migrants with expulsion, or call them a cancer.

The real cancer: violent anger

I’m terrified that the rioters yesterday didn’t want to see justice done; that they were more about expressing general rage, racism, xenophobia and violent forms of nationalism, than about the actual crime rate. I’m terrified because the rally was instigated by our elected leaders.

Last week, when I stood at the gates of Tel Aviv University, I was shaken by the mob rage against those commemorating the Nakba. Screaming, red-faced, sweating, hysterical counter-demonstrators stood in a ring around a tiny cluster of students in the middle, drowning them out with their poison. I am becoming familiar with that look of violence, palpable and unmistakable, burning out of their eyes even if no one is physically harmed – yet.

There was no physical crime or neighborhood encroachment behind the anger of those demonstrating at the university. Most of the ones I saw didn’t even look like students – apparently they came just to express their hate.

TAU demonstration against Nakba commemoration, 14 May, 2012 (Photo: Dahlia Scheindlin)

It looks like certain people in Israeli will continue looking for opportunities to foster violence, and if they can’t find them, they’ll invent them. Those people include our leaders.

Read also:
How mainstream Israeli politicians sparked the Tel Aviv race riot
How I survived a Tel Aviv mob attack
Africans attacked in Tel Aviv protest; MKs: ‘infiltrators’ are cancer
Using rape to justify racism

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    1. I’m not so sure “the rally was instigated by our elected leaders.” The right-wing Likud Central Committee members, led by Danny Danon and Michael Eitan, revolted against Netanyahu on the night of May 6 and successfully demanded a secret ballot for the Central Committee presidency, the event that precipitated Netanyahu’s deal with Mofaz. This may be partly their way of keeping the heat on for a leadership challenge via secret ballot of the Central Committee, or of all Likud members, at some point.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Kolumn9

      The hate you see at the Nakba demonstration is because the demonstration itself is despicable. Why shouldn’t they hate a group of people that gathers to commemorate a political narrative whose end goal is the destruction of their state? Unless of course you want to pretend that the Nakba day commemorations have no political implications… Good luck with that.

      The hate you see at the anti-migrant demonstrations is because these people believe they are in danger and the government is doing nothing about it. Within the course of less than 5 years their neighborhoods got overrun by foreigners they don’t know and are afraid of and when they gather to express their feelings they are accused of being uneducated racists. If you dismiss all protest against the invasion of their neighborhoods by illegal foreigners as racist, don’t be surprised when it boils over because no solution has been found.

      Violence should be condemned and punished. The migrants should be expelled as soon as possible.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Jack

      “Violence should be condemned and punished. The migrants should be expelled as soon as possible.”

      The palestinian migrants in Jordan, Syria, well world in general should be expelled as soon as possible too where they come from, or is it the standard hypocrisy you follow?

      Reply to Comment
    4. sh

      A notable common denominator between the anti-Nakba demonstration at the university and the protests in south Tel Aviv is MK Michael Ben-Ari.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Kolumn9

      Michael Ben-Ari is despicable. He is fairly classified as a fascist and should be thrown out of the Knesset. He is a disgrace to the right along with his parliamentary aides Itamar Ben-Gvir and Baruch Marzel. For these people Israel is a tool, not a state with laws.

      Reply to Comment
    6. sh

      Agreed K9. He’s a provocateur, an agitator, a rabble-rouser capable of turning protests into lynchings. As are the other two you mention.

      Reply to Comment
    7. max

      It’s not the degree of (mostly verbal) violence in Israel that’s problematic, it’s its acceptance as a norm. Just recently, 8 members (out of 9) of a religious family died in a car accident. A renowned car journalist found no better than attacking the dead for having so many kids, and asking how could primitive people with 7 kids be expected to know how to drive

      Reply to Comment
    8. wavettore

      Parallel mirrors
      We live our life led by our perceptions as if they were many small mirrors glued on our skin that reflects one singular mixture of colors and distinguishes our Individuality.
      Imagine many broken mirrors suspended in air that slowly spin, as to look around.
      Each perception interacts with those outside like a mirror in front of other mirrors.
      Each small mirror learns to recognize those in front and to also distinguish Oneself from the rest.
      Self recognition becomes awareness of Ego.
      Only when Two mirrors become parallel and at one precise distance they can look at each other and not recognize who is who.
      The Two opposite mirrors can each identify within the frame of the other to lose themselves in their reflected image …… and to gain a new Respect for each other.
      The Respect for Equality would occur just like this, with a change of perceptions.


      Reply to Comment
    9. zelda harris

      A very sound column and I agree with every word This is not a new phenomena I am close to people living nr tacahana merkazit who for a year at least have been begging me to get”someone” interested. The rape and mugging has been going on but mostly of foreign workers or helpless old people.only now that the genie is out of the bottle can we see the violence which has been under the surface for ages and the police knew about it all. Heads should fall but they wont. The Israeli sickness is that no one in authority is ever accountable and the public always pays the price.Eli Ishai one of the most culpable is saying”I told yu so” we know what his attitude is to any non jew!!!!! These talkbacks and comments will do nothing we need to organise if we are to save our democracy and we must not forget for a minute the Israeli arab population who may seem to be on a back burner but are hurting inside and dont feel “at home” in their home.Shabbat Shalom peace to each and everyone who lives in “the land”on this holiday of”converts”Zelda

      Reply to Comment
    10. “Why do I need to parade the numbers as a defense against mob violence? We have a mechanism for dealing with crime and it’s called the law.”
      And from Kolumn, refering to MK Ben-Ari: “For these people Israel is a tool, not a state with laws.”
      You are losing the rule of law. For many years now the executive has been ignoring the law as it sees fit. The High Court seems to have little direct enforcement power, only the “power” to cajole. Ben-Ari and Danny D are simply the far extensions of executive logic. Bibi will reel them in, but he employs the same disregard of the law in other matters. This will be their undoing. Someday.

      Reply to Comment
    11. DD has a resounding “they must go” type piece in the JPost today. It points out in the bio that he is deputy speaker of the Knesset and chairman of World Likud. He is also the founder and chairman of something called “Deportation Now!”, an extra-parliamentary group which I dare say is capable of organising a few demonstrations of its own. Interestingly, he pays tribute to “the leadership of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.”

      Reply to Comment
    12. Bronxman

      The similarities with Europe in the 1930s and the Southern states in the U.S. for about 100 years (not counting slavery up until 1865) is unsettling. I’m sure that the Ku Klux Klan is eyeing Israel as fertile grounds for opening up a branch office.

      Reply to Comment
    13. kachi

      How sad! History is so easily forgotten. Weren’t the israelites hidden by many people during the holocaust? Was this not the same way hitler incited Germany against them? Sadly they are doing to others what they cried over.

      Reply to Comment
    14. I have read the JP “Deportation Now!” op ed by Danny D, link provided by Rowan, above. The piece frames everything within a security metaphor, dubs the illegal immigrants “infiltrators,” thereby implicitly putting them in the same class with militants who, strangely, have not ingressed into Israel as far as anyone can tell, although tens of thousands of Africans have. (Which suggests to me the causal model of bombers is not operative at present.) By speaking of the Jewish and democratic State he marginalizes Arab Israeli citizens, placing them in an ambiguous danger category with the African immigrants. He even makes a side reference to Iran. “The extreme left,” out only to make political points, must be ignored. Fellow travelers with infiltration. There is not a word of the mob violence or how it started, only of the “high crime rate” of the infiltrators.
      When making historical anaologies, one can be destroyed by those who insessantly note where the paralell fails. Whatever has grown in Israel is not direct fascism. It is not direct McCarthism–although the black civil rights movement, after the titular fall of McCarthism, was sometimes described as a dupe for the Soviet Union. It is something new, where every event with predefined others is framed as a war against the State. It equates the State with Jewishness itself and has no wish to rule a greater world, just purge until home harmony can be acheived. (Fully unlike Nazi ideology.) When I read such as DD this image always comes to me: of people raped, but with power, determined to create a future where it will never happen again. Every fear and travail is placed in this metaphor–we will define those who would hurt you and protect you from them. To be against State polivy, against IDF action, against the “smart laws” (as DD calls them) of the Knesset, is to be against the very manifestation of the Jewish people. In this world a right exists only if the State says it does, for the State is the assay of all noticed pain. The political organs of the State determine what you must never forget–and what you must forget. In such an ideology the courts must fall, must become servants of State protection. An individual is defined by the Knesset (your Speaker of the Knesset has said “the people are the Knesset and the Knesset is the people”). In the US, the constitutional imperative of juries prevents such a direct equation of State and people, although the ideology at times rises.
      Whatever label you use, the evolved Western rule of law will have to fall. When damage exists only if recognized by the Knesset which defines the State, the will of the Knesset cannot be checked. Rights, when first articulated, are not a majoritarian phenomenon–their very articulation begins a struggle. But the polity of the present Knesset has usurped even this struggle in the right of a democratic and Jewish State. This right, no matter where it leads in actualization, will define all possible secular happiness. You are being told there is nothing for you to fight for. Which is why 972 is hated. You won’t bend to the truth of Knesset abstract.
      As long as this constitutional crisis can be localized to marginalized victims, this ideology will grow. Israeli Jews must come to see what it will mean to have the Knesset define what they are and can be. So I see.

      Reply to Comment
    15. max

      Greg, I agree with you.
      I presume that you’re so aware of this risk due to the extent to which this way of thinking has reached in your corner of the world, Arizona.
      I hope that as you see hope for Arizona, you see the same also for Israel, and that you spend as much time there explaining the parallels and historical analogies

      Reply to Comment