As a West Bank annexation looms, we should reflect on Israel’s claims to protect Jews all over the world.
Rabin Square, Tel Aviv, Israel. Some 6,000 people gathered on a Saturday evening in a peaceful demonstration to protest the proposal to annex more of the West Bank, currently slotted to be executed on July 1.
Jews and Arabs gave heartfelt speeches about the destructive consequences of occupation; Bernie Sanders sent in a message from the U.S. saying millions support the attempt to not give up on peace. It was a relatively calm night, with few police arrests (although a Haaretz journalist was among them) and a few counter-protesters. This demonstration meant something, but I am not exactly sure what.
After a 24-hour news cycle, everybody moved on. This is a familiar pattern: some people gather in a show of solidarity and a burst of adrenaline; then we, the media, forget anybody was there. The conversation shifts to whatever crisis is currently in style: COVID-19, political uncertainty, rockets fired on the south of the country, Iran, Lebanon, the economy. People’s resistance to unjust acts against any minority so quickly fades away. The systems we’re protesting, then, can pretend we aren’t protesting at all and continue doing the same thing they’ve always done. We might as well not have been there.
It seemed like this time would be different. The wave of historical protests around the U.S has gathered momentum around the world. Protesters refuse to be forgotten or ignored; the demands are specific, and already begin bearing some fruits. Jewish communities, who are closely familiar with the dangers of white supremacy, are among those turning out to support black people as they fight against the racist powers that kill them.
But in Israel, people idly sit by as a different historical event is shaping up. Not one of resistance, but one of deadly indifference. It’s easy to watch the news from America and act as if this is all happening far away. It’s easy, like we forget our protests happened, to forget what they were about in the first place.
Salamon Taka was an 18-year-old Ethiopian Israeli who was killed by an off-duty police officer who claimed to feel threatened for his life by Taka and his friends, who were harassing him after he tried to question them for blackmailing another kid, in 2019. Iyad El-Hallak was an autistic 32-year-old Palestinian man killed by a police officer for holding a “suspicious object” (no weapon was found, and Iyad’s caretaker said both she and Iyad tried to tell the officers there wasn’t one multiple times) around the same time of George Floyd’s murder.
These two deaths were unnecessary, and they weren’t the first. Yet, when protests do happen—and there are people who try to raise their voice, whether it be in Jaffa, Haifa, Jerusalem or Tel Aviv—protesters and organizers face a wall. Too many of us respond, “Killing them was not okay, but…” Too many of us don’t show up. Like with annexation, while many Israelis do not necessarily support it, we also end up content living with it.
That “but” is the crux of the matter. That “but” is a deeply ingrained belief that when a police officer or an IDF soldier kills someone without any reason, it’s a mistake they must be able to make — so when the time comes, they can protect the Jewish nation against actual threats without any misgivings. Because at the end of the day, that is why we are here. That is why we have been fighting and are fighting all these wars—to protect the Jewish nation.
I don’t want to claim there isn’t a reason for Jewish people, including Israelis, to fear their lives. I want to ask: at this point in history, is protecting the Jewish nation really what Israel is doing? If we say that Black Lives Matter’s support of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement means we cannot support them because they “go against us”, are we protecting ourselves, or are we essentially refusing to see the connection between racism all over the world? We are not different. We are not, somehow, exempt.
This isn’t a conversation about the BDS nor BLM; this is a conversation about acknowledging racism in Israel regardless. Regardless of what we have experienced in terms of wars and terror attacks, regardless of what we think is the right way to solve the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, regardless of who we think is against us. Because that is our responsibility as a Jewish nation.
It’s no secret that Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israeli government maintain close relationships with the Trump administration, with Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro, with Hungary’s prime minister Victor Orban; all far-right administrations that have either hurt minorities in their country or excused the rise in rates of anti-Semitic hate crimes under their rule, or both. Is that how we protect the Jewish nation?
Salamon Taka was Jewish, the Ethiopian community in Israel are Jewish, and we kill them. Is that how we protect the Jewish nation? So many non-Ashkenazi Jews suffer grave racism here—is that how we protect the Jewish nation?
Going further: The most prominent controversy surrounding the recent Rabin Square demonstration against annexation—even more than the arrested journalist—was the presence of the Palestinian flag. Israel Hayom writer Moria Kor equated the waving of the flag to supporting Palestinian segregation of Jewish people; counter-protesters said the flag offends them.
If people truly see the Palestinian’s flag mere presence as an act of violence, how can we explain to them that Iyad El-Hallak’s mere presence wasn’t an act of violence? If, in a demonstration against annexation, the occupied people’s flag is controversial, how can we explain to politicians why we shouldn’t simply go ahead and annex their lands? Is that how we protect the Jewish nation?
Israel has come uncomfortably close to the very same people whom we have a responsibility to not only stand against, but act against. There is a paradox in a Jewish nation that is racist, that shows off its support for white supremacists or those with ties to white supremacism. These are the same people who kill us. This is not how we protect a Jewish nation. And it bleeds into our treatment of the Palestinian nation. We must do more than reflect on that.
Michael Elias is a young Jewish non-binary poet and writer, currently studying comparative literature and history at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.