Anna Grynhaus, Social Affairs Editor,
Liberal Israel and Modern Orthodox Rabbi René Bloch examine the tensions tearing the fabric of Israeli society.
I was dashing through my office door, desperate to join our news team on Rabin Square, Tel Aviv, when René Bloch rushed past, almost knocking me flat!
Soon we were dodging police stun grenades and water cannon as we pushed our way through the huge and increasingly violent mob screaming for minority rights.
With little time to think, it barely occurred to me that the riots were happening on the streets between Liberal Israel’s offices and the square named after the premier whose legacy is synonymous with peace.
Then Bloch shouted: “Protest? A rally against racism? It looks like another war zone!”
All this had begun when I arranged to meet him to discuss his experiences fighting racism inside the IDF during last year’s war in Gaza.
We had been due to discuss minorities other than Ethiopians. But events overtook us when the protests erupted and Bloch arrived before I could postpone our date.
He is among veterans of Operation Protective Edge who feel some personnel lost their sense of morality during the campaign and he came to this magazine, hoping that we’d offer him a platform for his views.
A French immigrant with experience of physical antisemitism in his home-country, he found it ‘inexplicable’ that the Israeli police should brutalise anyone – let alone those from an ethnic minority.
How could they “even consider striking a uniformed soldier without provocation? Soldiers and police are like first cousins. After all, they both protect fellow citizens”, he said.
In civilian life, Bloch is an academic attached to Tel Aviv University. But he has also seen action in several wars and was promoted to the rank of staff sergeant during the campaign.
Below is his verbatim view of how the underlying schisms of Israeli society are cracking its democratic facade.
«Today’s events are just the sort of situation I predicted – and dreaded – when I argued with my military colleagues.
“Many times in the mess hall I found myself to be an appalled, powerless witness – a mere bystander - to the unashamed naked racism I met, even within my own unit.
“I approached Liberal Israel to set the record straight when the magazine learnt – mistakenly - from my friend – your correspondent - Yotem Levi that I’d suffered racial abuse from other personnel.
“That’s not true. But what is undeniable is that there’s another war erupting on our streets and it’s a battle we must all join to repair the integrity of Israeli society.
“In France, yes, I was a victim. But here in Israel I am safe because I am white and European. Yet as an ordinary serving soldier, I felt ashamed -personally betrayed - by other men’s naked prejudices and their hate speech.
“My unit is formed mainly by people who come from middle to low socio-economic backgrounds. During the war, they made murderous remarks about whether or not to kill Arabs. Even genocide was justified. The talk became quite hysterical.
“Some people insisted that all Arabs were terrorists and then went on to make other hateful remarks.
“There are no Arabs in my unit. But there are Druze and they never make racist remarks. Instead, I heard extremist views expressed by both religious and very secular Jews – like Russians. Their views may sound different but the end result is the same.
“Undemocratic values go hand in hand with the views they express. They even talk about wanting to have an apartheid kind of system where Israeli Arabs don't have any rights; or accuse anyone who dissents from the mainstream of being a traitor. I was – still am - very frightened to think that these people may hold the majority view in Israeli society and that among them were those who recently helped to elect the new government.
“Did I punish them for their hate speech? Even with the rank of staff sergeant, I do not have that authority. I do not have a command. They are my peers.
“I have never tried to talk them out of what they say, because I have to continue living and working with them and want to avoid conflict. But how I did not scream out in rage, I don’t know.
“Their divisive talk is not about envy or only about poor education – although both play a part. The culprits are racist because they wish to differentiate between ethnic groups in society and want this difference to be enshrined in law, even to the point of Arab citizens losing the right to vote or having basic health care. They say Arab ‘lives are not important. It's O.K. to attack Arab citizens as a response to Palestinian violence against Jews’.
“So, yes. Whether we discuss Arabs or Jewish ethnic minorities, I think it's both about poor education and the type of upbringing that doesn't sanctify democratic values and equality under the Law. The remedy must lie with legislation that protects equality while punishing racism and racist activity. Even more important perhaps, we need education that teaches pluralistic and democratic values. But I worry that neither of these are presently possible under an administration that looks like becoming ever more right-wing and undemocratic.
“When we arranged to meet, you asked me about the controversy surrounding Arab Knesset member Hanin Zoabi because of her actions during the last war.
“Ideally, I support all Knesset members’ right to express their views, especially when they represent a section of the population that is not often heard. But there must be a limit to that freedom of expression should it endanger State security or is extremely offensive to some citizens (like justifying murder).
“Yet I’m unsure if such behaviour causes racism. It already exists. But certainly, it does nothing to help to combat it.»
This piece first appeared in the June 2015 edition of Live Encounters magazine (http://liveencounters.net/?p=10612) edited by Mark Ulyseas, a faithful supporter of Israel and all matters Jewish.
(© Natalie Irene Wood – 24 May 2015)