Sunday, October 12, 2008

Israel's Taliban

"Israel's own religious fanatics; The problem with any country fashioned along religious lines is that moderates get buried under rocks and a stream of abuse"

by Seth Freedman
October 10 2008

During Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, the port city of Akko erupted into race riots, after a clash between Jewish and Arab residents escalated into a battle involving hundreds of willing participants. The initial incident was sparked by a handful of Jews hurling rocks at an Arab man, after they took umbrage at his decision to drive through the Jewish side of town on Yom Kippur, an act that apparently offended their religious sensitivities.

When word of their attack spread around the Arab community, the response was swift, and as utterly unacceptable as the initial violence meted out by the Jewish attackers. Mobs of Arab locals went on a rampage, smashing cars and vandalising shops belonging to Jews, until police took control of the streets and forced them to a halt. As soon as the Israeli press got back to work after the Yom Kippur hiatus, the reaction was fast and furious, with both sides rushing to condemn the other via the media.

When I likened the wanton destruction I witnessed in Nil'in to a pogrom, I was hauled over the coals by my detractors for the language I employed. A few months on, and it appears that the word is enjoying something of a renaissance: Ehud Olmert using it to describe a wave of settler attacks on Arab villages, and – last night – at least three MKs calling the Yom Kippur war in Akko a pogrom, albeit from polar opposite sides of the spectrum.

Yuval Steinitz, a firebrand Likud politician took the view that "Israel has become the only country in the world where pogroms against Jews are taking place"; hot on his heels came Estherina Tartman's racist outburst, in which she claimed "The pogrom in Akko is another proof that the Arabs of Israel are the real threat to the state". Countering these claims was Ahmed Tibi, one of Israel's few Arab parliamentarians, who called the events a "Jewish pogrom", accusing the police of discriminating against Arab residents of the city during the disturbances.

Last night, a second round of clashes brought heavy police intervention, with the mixed city seemingly unwilling or unable to return to its pre-Yom Kippur state of calm and tolerance. While there is little doubt that what took place during the disturbances definitely walked and quacked like a pogrom, focusing on the symptoms rather than the disease is an unhelpful way of addressing the situation.

That anyone should feel so affronted by a non-Jewish citizen driving his car on Yom Kippur that they hurl rocks in response is as absurd a reaction as the recently-exposed ultra-orthodox vigilantes in Jerusalem, who take the law into their own hands to uphold religious law. For a country so determined to criticise – rightly – the Taliban-style behaviour of many Arab states, it is incredible that such practices are not clamped down upon when they occur closer to home.


"Acre Jews warn 'The Arabs will kill you with knives'
by Gideon Levy

A young woman - kerchief on her head, baby in her arms - stood behind the barred windows of her apartment yesterday and shouted: "Get all the Arabs out of here... We don't want them here... They've made our lives a misery."

The balcony blinds of the adjacent apartment are shattered. Its former residents, the family of Mahmoud Samary, are gone, having temporarily fled the hail of stones on their home. The young woman yelled: "They should get out. The Arabs are taking all our girls."

It was Saturday afternoon at number 18, Burla Street in Acre - part of a crowded, shamefully neglected housing project where three Arab families and 29 Jewish families inhabit a single building. At the entrance to the building, a group of policemen stood around idly. The street was lined with cars with shattered windows.

It was not only Bosnia that Acre called to mind yesterday; the city was also reminiscent of Nablus - checkpoints at every corner, hundreds of policemen under every parched tree. A city that could have been a tourist attraction was instead the most miserable in Israel. My colleague Jack Khoury, an Israeli Arab, said as we entered the neighborhood: "I don't believe I'm traveling here in such fear and tension."

A young man who lives in the project told us aggressively: "Don't you dare enter the Old City. The Arabs will kill you with knives." He would like us to leave his neighborhood, too.

But the Old City, just a few minutes' drive away, was another world: In that beautiful but neglected neighborhood, which was virtually empty yesterday, people were mourning the cancelation of Acre's theater festival and still speaking of peace and coexistence.

Acre went up in flames all at once. It was a clash between poor and poor, Jews and Arabs, egged on by nationalists, with a religious holiday as the catalyst - the most dangerous of all possible clashes, which threatens to ignite a conflagration. The fire could be out by press time, but as of yesterday afternoon it seemed liable to break out anew: Young men from the housing project had agreed to meet at 7:30 P.M. that evening, God only knows why.

Yet even if the fire is extinguished now, it will reignite someday. This binational city is sitting on a volcano - a volcano of nationalism and distress, fear and hatred.