The horror is etched on her face and caught on camera. Revital Wolkov is sitting in the driver’s seat of her white Toyota, staring over her right shoulder, through the broken rear window, directly into the lens. The hole in the window is shaped like a large butterfly.
Wolkov, 53, teaches history in Ramat HaSharon, near Tel Aviv. She was attacked and her car was damaged, merely because an Arab colleague was sitting in the passenger seat. It happened in March, but it wasn’t the only attack of its kind.In the spring, several Jewish teenage girls asked a women standing at a bus stop in Jerusalem whether she was an Arab. The woman, wearing a headscarf, replied that she was. One of the girls pulled the hijab from the woman’s head and spat in her face. The others kicked and beat the woman. A police officer stood nearby and watched. Hana Amtir, 38, three months’ pregnant, locked herself into her house for three days before filing a complaint with the police.
In a beach bar in Tel Aviv, an Arab waiter was clearing away bottles of mayonnaise and ketchup, but the men sitting at one of the tables weren’t finished yet. “Damn Arab,” they cursed, and then proceeded to beat the man, who was later hospitalized. None of the other guests came to his aid.
Youths attacked an Arab cleaning man working for the city of Tel Aviv as he was emptying garbage cans. They broke a bottle over his head. The man, covered with blood, asked them why they were doing this to him. “Because you’re an Arab,” they shouted.
Such attacks have become commonplace in Israel, but it isn’t Jewish soldiers beating Palestinian civilians in the West Bank. The attacks have nothing to do with militant settlers or an autonomous Palestine, although these conflicts are always at the back of people’s minds.
For decades, Jews and Palestinians have been fighting over the same piece of land. Some of them even share the same citizenship. Three quarters of Israel’s 8 million people are Jews, and 1.8 million are Israeli Arabs. However, their paths rarely cross in everyday life. Israel’s Arabs are not required to serve in the military, and many of them live in primarily Arab towns and neighborhoods, with their children attending Arab schools. They earn less on average and are not as well educated as Israeli Jews. Officially, they have the same rights as Jewish citizens, but in reality they are often the targets of discrimination.
‘We Have a Racism Problem’
The Jewish majority, influenced by terror and the constant threat of attack, sees the Arab minority as a “fifth column” of its hostile neighbors in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and the entire region.
Instead of fighting suspicion and hate, politicians have in fact fueled these sentiments in recent years, by enacting laws that foster unequal treatment. Because of these laws, Arab schools can be deprived of funding if they remind their students of the 1948 expulsion, a day of mourning for Arabs and a day of joy for Jewish Israelis, which they have celebrated since independence. Communities are even allowed to turn away Arabs wanted to move there — so as to preserve their “Jewish identity.”
The suspicions are nothing new, as they reflect the underlying conflict in this country and beyond its borders. Nevertheless, attacks by perfectly normal Jewish Israelis on their Arab countrymen have been so brutal in recent weeks that the commentary has been surprisingly unanimous. The media on both the left and the right, otherwise rarely of the same mind, have condemned the attacks.
The Israeli press can be hard on its country and unsparing in its criticism. “We have a racism problem,” wrote the newspaper Ha’aretz. And Yediot Akharonot detects the process of dissolution of a “society that has never managed to establish a binding system of values for all of its components.”
Of course, it’s unfair to measure the severity of the problem against the highly charged atmosphere of the Israeli debate, because while anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism are part of mainstream political thinking in the Arab world and often even encouraged by governments, Israel openly discusses racism at home. And, of course, the Israelis treat their minorities better than many Arab countries treat their Jews or Christians. But Israel has also set itself a high moral standard, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu consistently describing his country as a beacon in the darkness.
Sharp Rise in Attacks
According to the Coalition Against Racism in Israel, a group consisting of several organizations, racially motivated incidents have almost quadrupled since 2008. There were 16 reported cases in that year, compared to 63 between March 2012 and February 2013.
One of those incidents was directed against Revital Wolkov and her colleague, Suhad Abu Samira, 25, a Muslim woman who was wearing a black hijab when the attack occurred. The two teachers were on their way to a funeral service when Wolkov parked her car in a Jewish section of Jerusalem, where many religious Jews live and the Arab translations on street signs are often painted over. When the women got out of the car, they heard people shouting.
“There was an entire group of children and young people standing there,” Wolkov later said in her apartment. At first, the women didn’t understand what they wanted. The youths spat, threw oranges and water bottles at them and shouted: “Arab whore.” Samira began to cry and the women fled into a doorway.
Wolkov experienced the Six-Day War as a child and the Yom Kippur War as a teenager. She was also a soldier and fought in Lebanon. Nevertheless, the wars did not turn her into a cynic. Her face turns rigid when she talks about that afternoon. After working as a teacher for 26 years, her first instinct was to seek dialogue, so she left the doorway and returned to the youths in the parking lot.
Why are you doing this, she asked?
“You Jewish slut, you’re friends with the Arab whore,” they said. The words still echo in her mind today. Then they began throwing rocks and Wolkov fled. When she returned, her car windows had been smashed and the tires slit.
Israelis Feel Superior But Threatened
Wolkov’s parents emigrated from Yemen. She has brown skin, and she knows what it feels like not to look like everyone else. Wolkov was a good student, and yet a teacher once said to her, in front of the entire class, that he wouldn’t have thought that a Yemini could be so good at mathematics. Even though Israel is supposed to be a homeland for all Jews, its society, like societies elsewhere, is divided by skin color and ancestry. Ethiopians and Yemenis are at the bottom of the hierarchy, while Jews of European descent are at the top.
“This is the Middle East. Nothing is normal here. Everyone is traumatized,” says Wolkov. Many Israelis feel superior, she explains — militarily, morally and culturally — and simultaneously threatened. “Those who are afraid begin to hate,” she says.
People who live in Israel can easily feel like castaways on the high seas. There are the radicals of Hezbollah and Hamas, whose rockets are pointed at Tel Aviv, and there are the mad television preachers and politicians from Iran to Saudi Arabia, who want nothing more than to see Israel destroyed. Those who live there constantly see images on television of hate-filled people around the world burning Israeli flags and, even in the two Arab countries with which Israel considers itself to be at peace, angry mobs storming the Israeli embassy. And although Israel is the strongest military power far and wide, its citizens are filled with a deep-seated fear.
This leads to overwhelmingly anti-Arab sentiments. For instance, a survey by the University of Haifa found that more than half of Jewish Israelis don’t want to live next to Arabs. In another study, 63 percent of respondents said they agreed with the statement “Arabs are a security risk and a demographic threat to the country,” while 40 percent felt that the government should encourage Israeli Arabs to emigrate.
Arabs Seen as Enemies
Residents of Tel Aviv’s affluent northern neighborhoods collect signatures to prevent Arabs from moving into the area. In other cities, homeowners are berated for selling or renting to Israeli Arabs. The mayor of Nazaret Illit in northern Israel wrote a newsletter to congratulate residents on keeping the city’s Jewish population constant “at 82 percent.” He also called upon citizens to “fight against the right of everyone in Israel to live where he or she pleases,” and even to employ “methods we would rather not discuss.”
“Arabs are being attacked just for being Arabs,” says Mordechai Kremnitzer, a law professor at Hebrew University. He speaks slowly and sounds worried. “Given our experiences, it ought to be clear that this sort of thing cannot happen,” he says.
Do Jews have to be better people, just because they are victims of anti-Semitism and racism, of persecution and genocide? Is this even possible, given the trauma and ongoing conflict they face?
The state of war is now part of everyday life, says Kremnitzer. The decades of being an occupying power showed the Israelis that they are stronger than the Arabs, he explains. And an Arab, whether he lives in Israel or in the Palestinian territories, is only one thing for many people, says Kremnitzer: the enemy. It’s also oddly schizophrenic that someone can be a soldier serving with the occupying army in the West Bank by day, with almost unlimited power, and then, in the evening, return to being a fellow citizen with his Israeli Arab neighbors.
“Our soldiers are taught early on that the others are inferior to them,” says Kremnitzer. Almost every Jewish Israeli, male or female, serves in the army today. In his capacity as vice-president of the Israel Democracy Institute, Kremnitzer wants to meet with the country’s justice and education ministers. It is imperative that those in the government take action, he says. One in three children is now born into an ultra-Orthodox family, and most attend religious schools, which, rather than teaching students about universal values, drum into them the notion that the Jews have a biblical right to their land.
Instead of advocating peaceful coexistence, some politicians, especially nationalists and the ultra-religious, prefer to draw attention to themselves with anti-Arab statements. Former Interior Minister Eli Yishai referred to illegal African immigrants as “intruders who are contaminating the country with diseases.”
A lawmaker with the governing Likud Party referred to them as a “cancer in the nation’s body.” Africans are also increasingly the targets of attacks, in areas like south Tel Aviv, where adolescent gangs have it in for the immigrants. Their leader is a former member of parliament with an ultra-right party.
Knesset Speaker Juli Edelstein wrote on Facebook that the Arabs are “a deplorable nation.” And Avigdor Lieberman, the Israeli foreign minister until recently, wants to transfer Israeli Arabs to Palestine in the context of an exchange of territory and to revoke the citizenship of those who are “disloyal.” He even once called for the execution of Arab lawmakers who had met with Hamas politicians. But half of the Israelis feel that Lieberman has fascist tendencies.
Although there are also politicians who protest against such sentiments, the extreme rhetoric still percolates into the collective consciousness. And with the police often sympathizing with the attackers, it’s no surprise that those responsible for racist attackers are not always punished. “There isn’t enough punishment for these actions,” says legal expert Kremnitzer, adding that many of the culprits have no sense that what they are doing is wrong. “They believe that politicians support what they do.”
Football fan Asi, 23, says that he isn’t a racist, just a nationalist. “I have no problem with Arabs, as long as they raise the Israeli flag and sing along when our national anthem is played.” Lieberman used the same logic to justify a bill he introduced calling for new citizens to deliver an oath of allegiance.
Asi, who lives in a small village near Caesarea, supports the Beitar Jerusalem football club. On a Thursday evening, he and other Beitar fans are standing at an intersection in Herzliya. Asi has a friendly face and a neatly trimmed beard. Like his fellow fans, he is here to demonstrate against the club’s owner.
When it was revealed in January that the Club planned to sign two Muslim Chechen players, the stands in the stadium became filled with hateful signs, with words like “Beitar — Pure Forever.” The fans chanted: “We are chosen, we are holy, but the Arabs are not.”Beitar Jerusalem, says Asi, that’s the holy menorah on a yellow background. The team, he says, can only win as a Jewish team, which is why Muslims shouldn’t be allowed to play in the club.
Beitar’s management has since cancelled the contracts with the Chechens and sent the two men back home. There were simply too many problems, the club wrote in a statement.