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Israel's extremist settlers are aiming for the mainstream

The fact that this year’s Jerusalem Day did not include violence and racist chants against Palestinians signals a change of strategy in winning the hearts and minds of average Israelis.

Nationalist Jewish Israelis, largely bussed-in yeshiva students, enter the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City through Damascus Gate on Jerusalem Day, June 5, 2016. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Nationalist Jewish Israelis, largely bussed-in yeshiva students, enter the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City through Damascus Gate on Jerusalem Day, June 5, 2016. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

The main lesson I learned from Jerusalem Days past was to wear comfortable walking shoes. Or preferably running shoes, since I previously learned that there is no way to know what causes police on horseback to charge into and disperse Palestinian crowds out of the enclosures put up around Damascus Gate, into which they were corralled in the first place.

Without a doubt Jerusalem Day is the most tense day of the year in the city. The March of the Flags has, over the years, become a sight of unabashed violent racism, whose entire purpose is to show the Palestinians who’s in charge, all while chanting “Muhammad is dead” and “may your village burn” in the heart of the Old City’s Muslim Quarter.

The job of the police and the rest of the authorities during this spectacle, which is put on every year by the Right, is to put them Palestinians (and the few left-wing protestors who join them) behind barricades, shut down their places of business along the route of the march, and generally ensure that nothing impedes the overlords’ freedom of speech or movement as they celebrate the unification of one of the most divided and torn cities in the world.

I arrived at Damascus Gate on Sunday before the first marchers arrived. It took me some time to be able to decipher the atmosphere; the area was surprisingly calm. Around the gate itself, dozens of journalists and photographers stood waiting for the annual show, but aside from that everything seemed as normal as ever. Although there was a large police presence, not a single officer on horseback was in sight, and the police asked the few people who sat on the large stone stairs surrounding the gate to leave half an hour before the marchers were set to arrive. When the latter returned 10 minutes after they were asked to clear out, the police hardly batted an eyelash. Incredible, I thought to myself. Perhaps I won’t need running shoes after all.

Who cares about the High Court?

In retrospect, not only did I not need running shoes, but I could have passed the time walking around in Stiletto heels. And although I saw a few “Kahane lives” stickers — as well as Kahanist activist Baruch Marzel himself — the march went off without a hitch. The police were restrained in a way I had never seen before, and as far as I could tell (I followed three separate groups of Israelis into the Old City), there were no racist chants being thrown around. Only songs of praise for God and songs of longing for the Holy City.

Radical right-wing Israeli activist Baruch Marzel hands out stickers advocating population transfer of Palestinians, East Jerusalem, June 5, 2015. The stickers read: ‘There’s no coexistence with them; Transfer now’. (Orly Noy/+972 Magazine)

Radical right-wing Israeli activist Baruch Marzel hands out stickers advocating population transfer of Palestinians, East Jerusalem, June 5, 2015. The stickers read: ‘There’s no coexistence with them; Transfer now’. (Orly Noy/+972 Magazine)

One can assume that both the police and the march organizers (Haaretz’s Uri Blau revealed Sunday that the Prime Minister’s Office is one of the march’s biggest funders) took to heart the High Court’s orders to curb the racist chanting. On the other hand, it is difficult to believe that this was the only — or even the main — cause for the drastic change. After all, the settlers have proven that as long as they receive the full support of the police and the authorities, the High Court’s rulings need not be taken too seriously.

So what could possibly explain the clear change of policy among the event’s organizers? It seems that the event’s organizers finally came to the understanding that the Israeli settlement enterprise reached long ago, especially in Jerusalem: it is far more efficient to promote its agenda in a way that speaks to the mainstream — rather than with antagonism.

This is precisely the understanding that settler organization Elad came to when it decided to stop unscrupulously taking over Palestinian homes in the East Jerusalem neighborhood Silwan, and become an NGO that has been granted the power by the state to manage the ‘Ir David’ national park — in the heart of that very same neighborhood. It turns out that the Judaization of East Jerusalem is far more effective when you become part of the establishment, rather than function as a radical fringe group.

Settlers and Border Policemen stand on the roof of the Sub Laban family home, Old City of Jerusalem. (photo: Tali Mayer/Activestills.org)

Settlers and Border Policemen stand on the roof of the Sub Laban family home, Old City of Jerusalem. (photo: Tali Mayer/Activestills.org)

After all, Elad activists, just like the organizers of the March of the Flags, are not part of the hilltop youth. They have no interest in antagonizing the state; on the contrary, they devote their energy to enlisting the state into their project. The state, it seems, goes along happily. In Jerusalem the settlers and the authorities have understood that Zion will not likely be redeemed through violent provocations that often turn the Israeli public against them. Rather, they do so by pivoting to the mainstream and normalizing Judaization through discriminatory legal mechanisms; more specifically, by imbuing their national project with an official veneer — the kind that does not alienate the wider Jewish public but rather invites it to take part. Mainstreaming is the name of the game. Yakir Segev, the right winger during whose term as chairman of the National Union of Israeli Students at Hebrew University merged annual Student Day parties with Jerusalem Day celebrations, knows this quite well. Why antagonize when you can celebrate?

The police reached the same conclusion vis-a-vis the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, when all at once policemen stopped showing up to the weekly protests and arresting demonstrators. That, in turn, led to the end of the demonstrations. The police understood that the arrests angered many Israelis (not only activists), who would in turn join the protests. Once the arrests ceased, the weekly demonstrations essentially disappeared. Needless to say the dispossession and theft of land in Sheikh Jarrah did not come to a halt.

It’s not about the march

Does this mean that we should complain about the fact that the marchers have stopped chanting racist slogans and that mounted police no longer charge into groups of Palestinians? Of course not. As a Jerusalmite, I cringed with shame at this sight, and am glad it did not repeat itself this year.

Israeli police keep Palestinian residents of the Old City’s Muslim Quarter away from nationalist Jewish Israelis marching through their neighborhood, Jerusalem Day, June 5, 2016. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Israeli police keep Palestinian residents of the Old City’s Muslim Quarter away from nationalist Jewish Israelis marching through their neighborhood, Jerusalem Day, June 5, 2016. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

At the same time, however, we must not forget that this phenomenon is only an external and vulgar expression of government policies of theft, dispossession, and oppression that continue very single day of the year. We cannot forget that we must put our energies into fighting these policies, rather than fighting a march. The fantasy of a united Jerusalem translates into daily violence against nearly 40 percent of the city’s Palestinian residents, who since the illegal annexation of the city have become temporary-permanent residents (an anomaly created by the occupation) in their own city, and a demographic threat in the eyes of the authorities, who apply any and all means to thin out Jerusalem’s Palestinian population.

These are the policies we must struggle against, even if the marchers start handing out flowers to onlookers, even if the march makes its way into the heart of the Israeli mainstream. And if yesterday was any indication, this may happen sooner than we think.

This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.

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    1. Carmen

      I don’t trust this to be a sign of anything other than game playing by the Baruch Marzel’s, Lehava and Kahanist’s of the world. Apparently they finally comprehend that their normal behavior is embarrassing for the ‘Yahoo government who claims to want peace, but isn’t heard over the cries of “death to Arabs”, “Kahane was right” and “Arab men don’t even think about looking at Jewish women”. Yes, very hard to explain that noise.

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