Ami Kaufman has done the important work of translating a Channel 10 report on the vicious racism afflicting Israeli teens. The report was produced in the wake of the hideous comments made by some teens on the incineration of five Palestinian children in a bus crash in Jerusalem the other month. The first thing that comes to mind watching the video – in which some of the original teenage commentators are interviewed – is that they are no different from teens in any other area of sustained, protracted ethno-nationalist conflict. The other is that such discourse is nothing new in Israel, and is far from confined to teenagers.
The following paragraphs are excerpts from an email to a friend, written on my first solitary night shift on The Jerusalem Post news desk, in January 2008. I had just finished reading Shake Hands with the Devil, an account of the build-up and the actual genocide in Rwanda that sent chills down my spine – particularly when it described the atmosphere in the days preceding the butchery itself. From a distance of four years I can observe I knew little at the time of how slow-brewing ethnic conflicts are, and how Israel’s relatively strong institutions and heavy-handed military divert some of the pressure that can actually build up to murderous, neighbour-onto-neighbour, grassroots-based ethnic cleansing. Neither could I foresee the many powerful counter-currents underway – the renaissance of political and journalistic activism that so far culminated with the social justice protests being chief among them, even if, as we see, it is still far from enough to act as real counterbalance. It’s also worth noting the comments about the Palestinian kids in the bus crash were met with a strong backlash from other Israeli teenagers shocked by their own peers’ bloodthirstiness. And yet, the harmony between what was being said in Rwanda, what was being said that night I spent on my own between flickering monitors and murmuring radio sets, and what is being said in the video Ami posted is unmistakable.
It’s late at night. The newsroom’s television sets are open on the two commercial channels, Channel Two and Channel Ten. Both are re-running cringeworthy local teenage soaps; on both of them, all the characters are in IDF uniform. The radio is also open on the two main channels, Israel Radio and Army Radio. Both are transferring late-night agony aunt or uncle programs, slightly easier on the heart than the midday open-mike ones, where the real genocidal maniacs crop up to share your traffic jam.
But even now, at 2 A.M., a woman calls. She is in a relationship with a married man, she loves him but knows he won’t leave his family for her. She takes care to state the fact the man lives in East Jerusalem. The anchor’s first reaction consists of a single, carefully weighted word. An Arab, he says, and stops to think. You’re sleeping with a married Arab, he repeats. Yes, the woman sighs, and the anchor opens the floor to other listeners. The couple’s affair and the man’s marital status go out the window. Callers prefer instead to discuss “Arabs”; not even “Arab men” or “Arab women,” simply “Arabs.” The P word – Palestinians – goes unmentioned. One caller, a veteran of the 1948 war, relieves himself of a rant on the massacre of the fifty-six captive Palmach fighters in kibbutz Kfar Etzion. He talks for fifteen minutes straight, unhindered by the host. The word “Arabs” comes at almost regular intervals, like a refrain to chant. At length, he sums up: “In the Palmach I was not taught to hate the Arabs, I was taught to respect them. But ever since the death of the Thirty Five, I hate Arabs with all my heart and soul. If I was in power, If I got to rule, I would expel every one of them.” The anchor protests meekly, but then allows the man to rant for ten minutes more.
…On daytime radio, you hear people calling for genocide. Not the odd loons, nor even Negev civilians driven mad with fear by Palestinian missiles in Sderot. Average citizens of all backgrounds call in from towns and cities across, spouting racism that would make a BNP member leave the room. When the Qassam barrages get particularly harsh, even reasonably critical, respected journalists surrender to the tide of fear. Just the other day, one pundit, Yaron London wrote an op-ed in Israel’s Yediot Aharonot, calling to pull down a neighbourhood in Gaza in response for every shooting, or else to “starve them out”.This country is almost ripe for ethnic cleansing, much more so than it seems from Tel Aviv. It’s frighteningly close.
And as the night shifts draws on, web comments come rolling in to be filtered. Kill them. Transfer. Now. All Arabs. All Muslims. All “Palis”. Cockroaches, monsters, beasts, animals, scum. Kill everyone. Use nukes. Use gas. Use napalm. Slip sterilizing drugs into the Gaza water supply. Don’t trust anyone. The UN is anti-Semitic. The Europeans are anti-Semitic. Left-wing Jews are even worse. It seems like if I go to sleep and tune in two days later, I’ll hear the Hutu radio of Rwanada, giving directions to families still hiding out, and some self-proclaimed “liberal journalist” asking into the mike in a smoky voice: “The graves are only half-full. Who will help fill them?”
I don’t think anyone in Israel, certainly not anyone in power, is planning murderous ethnic cleansing; even if non-murderous ethnic cleansing – “population swaps” – has long since been on the agenda, partly normalised into the public discourse by the pro-partition Left’s braying support for the eviction of settlements. But if push comes to shove, if a population-swap goes awry, if the evacuees try to resist violently or turn on each other and someone somewhere panics and decides to take less “sentimental” measures, the silent build up toward active support or complacency for fully-fledged atrocities is already at work. The dry wood has been piling up for years now, and there’s no telling if we’ll be spared the spark.