Anti-Arab racism and incitement in Israel

An Israeli soldier confronts Palestinian protestors in the West Bank city of Nablus during a demonstration on Land Day, which commemorates the killing of six Palestinian citizens of Israel in 1976 by Israeli forces during Palestinian protests over state theft of their land. (Rami Swidan/MaanImages)

A prominent strategy of Israel’s hasbara, or official propaganda, is to deflect criticism of its actions in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip by stressing that within the country’s 1948 boundaries, it is a model democracy comparable to the societies in Western Europe and North America with which it identifies and on whose diplomatic support it relies to maintain a favorable status quo. In fact, Israeli society is in the grip of a wave of unchecked racism and incitement that seriously threatens Israel’s Palestinian community and the long-term prospects for regional peace. This briefing examines societal and institutional racism and incitement by public figures against Israel’s Arab population and considers some policy implications.

Background and context

When Israel was established in 1948, most of the indigenous Palestinian inhabitants were driven out or fled from the area that became Israel. Approximately 150,000 Palestinians remained behind. Until 1966, these Palestinians lived under martial law. Today, having increased in number to approximately 1.3 million or about one fifth of Israel’s population (not including the Palestinian population of occupied East Jerusalem), they are citizens of the state of Israel and can vote in elections for the Knesset. Despite this, most view themselves as second-class citizens. As indigenous non-Jews in a self-described Jewish state, they face a host of systematic social, legal, economic and educational barriers to equality. Israel lacks a constitution and has no other basic law guaranteeing equal rights to all citizens regardless of religion, race, ethnicity or national origin.

One measure of the cumulative impact of these discriminatory policies is socioeconomic: while just 16 percent of Jewish citizens in Israel fall below the official poverty line, the figure for non-Jews is 50 percent, according to the Israeli Democracy Institute’s index.

In October 2000, Israeli police used live ammunition against unarmed civilians demonstrating their solidarity with Palestinians in the occupied territories. Thirteen Palestinians, of whom twelve were Israeli citizens, were shot dead. An official commission, headed by Judge Theodor Or, was appointed to look into the events which came to mark a dramatic deterioration in Arab-Jewish relations inside the country. In 2003, the Or Commission confirmed that the police used “excessive” and unjustifiable force, reported that the police viewed the country’s Arab citizens as “enemies” and documented a pattern of “prejudice and neglect” towards them by Israel’s establishment.

While the Or Commission recommended a number of measures to redress the sharp disparities between Jews and Arabs in the country, families of the victims regarded the report as a whitewash. The Commission failed to examine the forensic evidence in each of the killings, and none of the killers, nor any responsible official, were ever brought to justice. By 2007, according to Elie Rekhess of the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University, there remained “yawning” gaps between Jews and Arabs in Israel and “the bottom line” is “that the conclusions and recommendations of the 2003 Or Commission remain conspicuously unimplemented.”

Amidst the increasingly precarious situation of Palestinian citizens of Israel, prominent and broadly representative leaders of that community published in 2007 a series of documents setting out visions for Israel as a state of all its citizens with equality for all. [1] The response of the Israeli body politic was overwhelmingly to view these initiatives as an unwelcome threat to the “Jewish character” of the state. Israel’s Shin Bet secret police, responsible among other things for many “targeted killings” in the occupied territories, went so far as to warn that it would “disrupt the activities of any groups that seek to change the Jewish or democratic character of Israel, even if they use democratic means,” the Israeli daily Haaretz reported in April 2007.

Unlearned lessons: the Jabal al-Mukkabir “pogrom”

On 10 March, a week after a Palestinian opened fire in the Mercaz HaRav yeshiva in Jerusalem killing eight students, apparently in revenge for Israel’s killing of dozens of civilians in Gaza, a mob of hundreds of Israeli Jews converged on the Jabal al-Mukkabir neighborhood in occupied East Jerusalem where the gunman’s family lived. In what Haaretz termed an “organized, synchronized pogrom,” the mob threw stones at Palestinian homes smashing windows and destroying water tanks, damaged cars and chanted “Death to the Arabs” while police did little to stop them. Haaretz observed that such an attack “could never take place in a Jewish neighborhood,” and noted that while “Israel and the Jewish world raise a huge cry over every suspicion of an attack on Jews because of their ethnicity, it is intolerable that residents of the capital [sic] are attacked solely because of their nationality.”

Although the mob action had been planned and advertised days in advance, the Israeli police had done nothing to prepare for it. “The district police didn’t need to be surprised,” said the former Jerusalem district police commander Mickey Levy told Haaretz. “There was no need to collect intelligence, it was right there in their hand. Appropriate preparation was called for in order to prevent the violent demonstration.”

This event indicates that Israel’s official institutions have failed to learn any lessons from the Or Commission report but also serves as a warning sign of worse to come, against a backdrop of highly tolerated public incitement and widespread racist attitudes towards Arabs.

Racist statements and incitement

One of the most blatant examples of public incitement in the days before the attack on Jabal al-Mukkabir was a circular widely distributed and posted around Jerusalem and in West Bank settlements. Signed by a long list of rabbis, it called for acts of revenge on Palestinians in retribution for the Mercaz HaRav shooting: “Each and everyone is required to imagine what the enemy is plotting to do to us and match it measure for measure.”

Among the signatories was Rabbi Ya’acov Yosef, son of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the former Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel and spiritual leader of Shas, a party in Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s coalition government. The younger Yosef is himself a former Knesset member representing Shas. Another signatory, Rabbi Uzi Sharbav, was one of a group of extremists who murdered three Palestinian students at a school in the occupied West Bank city of Hebron and set off bombs that maimed the mayors of Nablus and Ramallah in the early 1980s. Sharbav served a short prison sentence for the murders but was pardoned and freed along with other extremists by Israel’s president in 1990.

Other statements have been aimed at delegitimizing, intimidating and threatening with expulsion Palestinian citizens of Israel exercising their democratic rights. In early March, thousands of Palestinian citizens of Israel staged a peaceful rally, attended by several Arab members of the Knesset to protest Israel’s military attacks in the Gaza Strip. In the Knesset, former cabinet minister Effie Eitam accused the Arab legislators of “treason” for participating in the rally, adding, “We have to drive you out, as well as everyone else who took part” in the demonstration. Days later, Olmert’s former Deputy Prime Minister Avigdor Lieberman repeated the ethnic cleansing threat in the Knesset, telling Arab members, “You are temporary here,” and “One day we will take care of you.”

Israeli extremists appear to be getting the message. Representatives of three Arab parties have reported that their Knesset members have been receiving death threats in the mail daily. A spokesman for one Knesset member told The Jerusalem Post, “We have always received threats but they have recently escalated to the point where we are growing truly concerned.”

Several rabbis have used the excuse of “security” in the wake of the Mercaz HaRav shooting to issue racist halakhic (religious) rulings against Arabs. Haaretz reports Rabbi Dov Lior, chairman of the rabbinical council for settlers in “Judea and Samaria” (the West Bank), decreed “It is completely forbidden to employ [Arabs] and rent houses to them in Israel. Their employment is forbidden, not only at yeshivas, but at factories, hotels and everywhere.”

Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, considered a world-wide Orthodox authority on Jewish law, held “that it is completely forbidden to hire Arabs, especially in yeshivas; there is a concern for endangering lives.” Indicating that security might not be the only motivation for this ruling, Kanievsky added that Jews should refrain from hiring any non-Jews, “unless there exists a huge disparity between the costs of the labor,” in which case non-Jews could be hired.

While these are recent examples, Mossawa, an Arab civil rights advocacy group in Israel, documented dozens of instances of racist declarations by public figures and thousands of examples of incitement on the Internet in 2007 alone. [2]

Silence is consent

Leaders in the Palestinian community in Israel worry that the escalating incitement will provoke further violence against them. A spokesman for Muhammad Barakeh, an Arab member of parliament, told The Jerusalem Post that the recent upsurge in death threats had been reported to Knesset security, “But we have seen nothing happen. I do not feel they are taking this threat very seriously.” Another Arab Knesset member urged Israel’s two chief rabbis to condemn the rabbinical calls for revenge, fearing that these statements might incite the assassination of community leaders. There are no reports that the chief rabbis responded to this plea. Indeed, while a handful of Israeli Jewish voices have been raised in protest, it was most often to decry the deafening silence.

A spokesman for the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism condemned an “ever growing phenomenon of racist incitement that distorts Judaism and is also illegal.” As Haaretz reports, the group called on Israel’s attorney general to “shake off his apathy” and begin to enforce anti-incitement laws. An editorial in the same publication complained that “the continued inactivity in the face of acts of incitement and violence by the extreme right is shared by all the law-enforcement authorities-the police, Shin Bet, State Prosecutor’s Office and the courts.” A Haaretz reporter noted “the dizzying increase in incitement, curses and insults leveled” at Arab Knesset members, “a spike that has gone almost without protest or the involvement of the Knesset Ethics Committee.” Another commentator in the same newspaper observed that “as long as no one demonstrates whenever a Knesset member curses Arabs; and as long as the number of people who rent apartments to or hire Arabs can be counted on one hand, Israeli society cannot be absolved of the sin of racism.”

A society in crisis

“Israeli society is reaching new heights of racism,” Sami Michael, one of the country’s most celebrated equality advocates and president of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, told Haaretz. A growing body of research indicates that racist sentiments are not the preserve of the right-wing fringe but increasingly prevalent across Israeli Jewish society.

One particularly disturbing indicator is that the chant “Death to the Arabs” is voiced not just by mobs of right-wingers angered by this or that Palestinian attack. Rather, “in the late 1990s and onwards,” writes Amir Ben-Porat, a professor in the Department of Behavioral Sciences at Ben Gurion University, “ ‘Death to the Arabs’ became a common chant in almost every football [soccer] stadium in Israel.” Ben-Porat, who authored a study on the use of the chant, says that because of the importance of soccer in Israeli society and its high profile in the media, “This chant is heard far beyond the stadium.” [3]

In its 2007 Israeli Democracy Index, the Israel Democracy Institute found that 87 percent of all Israeli citizens rated Jewish-Arab relations in the country as being “poor” or “very poor.”

In addition:

  • Seventy-eight percent of Israeli Jews opposed having Arab parties or ministers join Israel’s government.
  • Just 56 percent of Israeli Jews support full equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel and an identical number agreed that “Arabs cannot attain the Jews’ level of cultural development.”

  • Seventy-five percent of Israeli Jews agreed with the statement that “Arabs are inclined to violent behavior” (as compared with 54 percent of Palestinian citizens of Israel who had an equivalent view of Israeli Jews).
  • Forty-three percent of Israeli Jews agreed that “Arabs are not intelligent” and 55 percent agreed that “the government should encourage Arab emigration from the country.”

A recent Haifa University survey found that half of Israeli Jews object to Arabs living in their neighborhoods (56 percent of Arabs supported residential integration with Jews). Similarly, ACRI reported that 75 percent of Israeli Jews surveyed said they would not agree to live in the same building as Arabs. The same survey found that more than half of Israeli Jews felt that Arabs and Jews should have separate recreational facilities.

There are two consistent trends among all these surveys: both Palestinian citizens of Israel and Israeli Jews hold some prejudices towards each other, but on almost every measure, Israeli Jewish views of Arabs are more negative and extreme than Arab views of Jews; second, the negative trends have risen markedly in recent years as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has intensified. The ACRI report found that between 2005 and 2006, there was a 26 percent rise in racist incidents targeting Arabs, and the number of Israeli Jews reporting they felt “hatred” towards Arabs doubled to 30 percent.

While the conflict is undoubtedly the overarching context for these sentiments, an important contributing factor may be the consistently dehumanizing and denigrating stereotypes of Arabs that have for decades been presented to Israeli Jewish schoolchildren in their textbooks and media.

Discrimination against US citizens

An outgrowth of the institutional and societal racism against Arabs in Israel is mistreatment that some US citizens have received at the hands of Israeli authorities.

The US State Department recently warned travelers that “American citizens whom Israeli authorities judge (based on their name or other indicators) may be of Palestinian origin are likely to face additional, and often time consuming questioning by immigration and border authorities.” The warning adds that the “United States Government seeks equal treatment for all American citizens regardless of national origin or ethnicity,” or as the Associated Press reports how State Department spokesperson Sean McCormack put it, “You have a blue American passport, you should be treated like an American citizen.”

Yet, while Arab American civil rights advocates have reported dozens of such cases of discrimination to the US government, [4] American citizens who are considered Jewish by Israel are accorded special treatment, including free Israeli-government sponsored “Birthright Israel” trips and enticements to emigrate to the country. This is a long-standing problem; in 1987, the State Department lodged an official protest over the mistreatment of African Americans and Palestinian Americans traveling to Israel.

Conclusions and implications

Anti-Arab racism and incitement are persistent and growing problems in Israel and symptoms of hyper nationalism that seeks to consolidate and justify the state’s “Jewish character.” For decades, the mistreatment of Palestinians in Israel has been virtually ignored by Palestinian national leaders, as well as by international policymakers and organizations under the doctrine of non-interference in the internal affairs of sovereign states.

Yet, the precarious position of Palestinian citizens of Israel is closely linked to the fate of Palestinians under military occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and refugees outside the country. It stems from the same set of historical events 60 years ago. All three categories of Palestinians are targets of discriminatory or abusive Israeli policies intended to preserve Israel as a “Jewish state.” In the context of a “solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, some Israeli politicians increasingly speak of population or territorial “exchanges” that would strip Palestinian citizens of Israel of their citizenship and otherwise violate their fundamental human rights. Palestinian citizens of Israel have raised the alarm about this growing existential threat, but they have received little international solidarity.

Israel’s official institutions have failed for decades to demonstrate any willingness or capacity to treat Palestinian citizens as equal to Israeli Jews either in law or in practice. Israeli police act, in effect, as a uniformed sectarian militia protecting Jewish privilege rather than as an impartial police service for a modern, democratic state.

Although most international actors are not yet ready to do so, it is inevitable that the situation inside Israel will eventually have to be internationalized. A good example of the successful internationalization of an “internal” situation is the role external actors played in overseeing the transformation of the Royal Ulster Constabulary from a uniformed sectarian militia into the present-day Police Service of Northern Ireland and otherwise supporting the Northern Ireland peace process. There must also be external pressure on Israel to curb and punish racist incitement and to launch broad public initiatives, particularly in schools, to combat hateful stereotypes of Arabs.

As Israeli politicians and parties increasingly propose “solutions” that treat all Palestinians, whether citizens or not, as equally inferior, Palestinians in the diaspora, the occupied territories and inside Israel must urgently engage with each other to formulate common strategies to protect and advance their human and political rights.

Co-founder of The Electronic Intifada, Ali Abunimah is author of One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse (Metropolitan Books, 2006).

This analysis is adapted from a version first published by The Palestine Center, where the writer is a Fellow.

[1] The four documents are: The Future Vision of the Palestinian Arabs in Israel published by The National Committee for the Heads of the Arab Local Authorities in Israel (; The Democratic Constitution published by Adalah: The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel (; An Equal Constituion for All? On a Constituion and Collective Rights for Arab Citizens in Israel published by Mossawa Center - The Advocacy Center for Arab Citizens in Israel [PDF]; and The Haifa Declaration [PDF].
[2] Press release, “Mossawa Center releases racism report detailing over 169 cases,” Mossawa, 19 March 2008.
[3] AmirBen-Porat, “Death to the Arabs: the right-wing fan’s fear,” Soccer & Society, Vol. 9, No. 1, January 2008, pp. 1-13.
[4] American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), “ADC Sends First Hand Accounts of Israel’s Entry Denials of U.S. Citizens to Secretary Rice,” 20 March 2008 (