A Tragedy in the North, a Hate March — and a Glimmer of Hope

6 May 2021

We all remember that day in 2017, when throngs of white supremacists marched through the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia chanting “Jews will not replace us.” That event ushered in an era when the toxins of hate and xenophobia, always lurking in America’s shadows, burst out into the open, poisoning our public discourse. Charlottesville marked the start of an era during which those toxins were legitimized, sometimes even repeated, by public officials, right on up to the White House.

Two weeks ago, Jewish ultra-nationalists from the racist Lehava organization marched through downtown Jerusalem, chanting, “Death to Arabs” aiming to terrify, intimidate, and brutalize the city’s Palestinian residents during the holy month of Ramadan.

It was a dark day in the annals of an ancient city already too accustomed to violence and ethnic tension.

And it came amid escalating tensions between Jews and Arabs in Jerusalem and beyond, fueled by the proliferation of incendiary video clips of Palestinians beating up a Jewish driver and Jewish youths attacking Palestinians inside their homes in Jerusalem’s Old City.

Lehava is an extremist group ostensibly committed to preventing miscegenation – or racial mixing – between Jews and non-Jews. The group’s followers walk in the footsteps of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane and engage in public acts of violence and intimidation against Arabs. In this case, Kahane’s latter-day disciples marched from Zion Square in central Jerusalem to the wide, stone steps of the Damascus Gate, where for weeks, Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem have been protesting Israel’s closure of that public space to Muslims, who customarily gather there on Ramadan evenings to mark the end of the daily fast.

The throngs of Jewish extremists descended on the city center “to restore Jewish dignity,” after videos posted on the platform TikTok showed Palestinians harassing and attacking ultra-Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem.

Yet, the spike in intercommunal violence and Jewish supremacist extremism in Jerusalem cannot be separated from the routine settler violence in the neighboring West Bank, where an atmosphere of impunity allows it to fester and flourish and where all too often, Palestinian militants target civilians such as in the shooting attack on yeshiva students hitchhiking in the West Bank, which led to the death of one young man and left two others injured.

According to Dror Etkes, founder of Kerem Navot — an Israeli organization that tracks the dispossession of Palestinians in the West Bank — and one of Israel’s most informed experts on settler violence, Palestinians report that settlers in the area of the West Bank around the Shiloh settlement engaging in violence in the Palestinian villages of Jalud and Qusra. (Their acts appear to be retributive violence in response to the despicable shooting of the three yeshiva students injured in a shooting attack at the Tapuah junction in the central West Bank.)

And yet, even amid the escalation in intercommunal violence in Jerusalem and the West Bank, I see a glimmer of hope from Israel’s civil society. In the very same moment that Israeli police were closing off public space for Palestinian residents of Jerusalem during Ramadan and answering Palestinian protest with violence, and even as Kahanist street militias were chanting their hateful slogans, the antidote to this hatred was blossoming in Israel’s south.

Today, on May 6, NIF grantee, the Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality, is organizing its annual iftar dinner gathering in the public space of Be’ersheva’s Hasofrim Park, bringing together community members, members of Knesset, diplomats and Bedouin activists. For 20 years, the Forum has hosted a joint iftar celebration as part of its effort to promote a shared society between Jews and Arabs in Israel’s southern region. And when the Be’ersheva municipality attempted to prevent the event from going forward (part of a trend of the municipality’s effort to censor Arab-Jewish solidarity activities), the Forum found a way to hold its event anyway in a public park.

And another moment of hope unfolded in the wake of another tragedy, as well.

Every year at this time, ultra-Orthodox communities ascend Mount Meron, in Israel’s north, to visit the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai for what is one of the largest yearly gatherings in Israel during the festival of Lag B’Omer. This year, that celebration was marred by tragedy. Last week, a stampede at the tomb left forty-five worshipers dead.

Yet the disaster on Har Meron served to reveal another face of Israel, as Arab and Druze Israelis in Israel’s northern region — in the towns of Tamra, Jish, Yarka and Peki’in — offered food, drinks, shelter, and comfort to survivors of the tragedy.

Radi Najm, the mayor of a Druze town in the vicinity of Har Meron, Beit Jan, opened his towns’ public facilities (and many families, their homes) to evacuees and emergency workers alike.

Even during the most difficult of times, there are Israelis, who through their acts of justice and kindness, point the way to a different future — toward a society defined by good neighborliness and shared civic belonging.

Fostering and supporting those Israelis is the work of the New Israel Fund. It often goes on quietly, outside of the view of the media. Yet it is the most potent antidote to hatred and racism I know.