Two scenes from Israel today. In the southern city of Beersheva, Israelis horribly mutilated the dead body of an Eritrean worker, mistaking him for a terrorist who had just murdered a soldier.
And in the generic suburb of Kfar Vitkin, a hummus café offered 50 percent discounts to tables of Jews and Arabs sitting together.
Statistically speaking, there are still more Kfar Vitkins than Beershevas—still more Israelis and Palestinians who want to mind their own business, secure two states for two peoples, and find a way to get along. Most people, on both sides, are just not that political.
But the juxtaposition between mass carnage on the one hand and hummus on the other is still telling. It’s not just that extremism gets more media clicks than moderation. Rather, the nationalists and the peaceniks have each become caricatures of themselves. The rejectionists have reached unparalleled levels of bloodthirst and evil, while the peace camp has become ever more symbolic and impotent.
First, contrary to assumptions that this conflict has been going on forever and never changes, the last month has indeed shown us new forms of evil. On the Palestinian side, a desperate series of brutal stabbings, incendiary rhetoric from the formerly-accommodationist Fatah leadership, and newly viral “How to Stab a Jew” videos.
These are new developments. Since 1993, the Palestinian Authority, dominated by Yasser Arafat’s Fatah faction, has been committed to the peace process—and not only in a nominal way. PA police are the front lines in Israel’s war against terrorists, since the PA and Israel have common cause against rejectionists. For Mahmoud Abbas and others to now be calling for armed resistance (while at the same time condemning attacks like the torching of Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus) is a dramatic change of course.
So is the out of control violence emanating from teenagers in East Jerusalem, unbidden by Hamas or Fatah—also a new development. And the Bedouin attacker in Bethlehem—also a rarity; in fact, many Bedouin serve in the Israeli army and the attacker’s father condemned the incident. This is a new conflict, with new rules—or lack thereof.
On the Israeli side, commentators are now calling the shooting and mutilation of the Eritrean worker—like most of the recent violence, captured on yet another horrifying video—a “lynching.” It, too, seems unprecedented in Israeli Jewish history. Bad enough that an innocent bystander was mistaken for the terrorist and shot by security forces, because of his ethnicity. But to have an angry mob beat him and kick him in the head signals a new threshold of brutality on the Israeli side.
In fairness, there were some mitigating factors. Haftom Zarhum wasn’t just dark-skinned; his face, haircut, and facial hair resembled that of Muhanad Alukabi, the terrorist. One man who participated in the beating said he did so not out of brutality, but out of fear for security, sincerely thinking Zarhum was the terrorist. “I feel disgusting,” he told Israeli Army Radio.
Israeli police and government officials have all condemned the attack—though one nationalist lawmaker called the incident “friendly fire.”
If both Israeli and Palestinian rejectionists have grown more extreme in the recent wave of violence, the peace camp has grown more detached from reality.
Like the thousands of young white people at a Bernie Sanders rally, earnest Israelis and Palestinians have taken to marching in the streets for peace, as if the presence of a crowd negates the absence of a far larger one. Rabbis and Imams gathered at the Parliament of World Religions in Salt Lake City, praying for peace. And, yes, the hummus.
To be sure, all of these actions are inspiring, and remind one of a different time in Israeli and Palestinian histories.
But they are also entirely symbolic.
The “Peace Camp” hasn’t won an election in 16 years, unless you count the centrists’ win in 2006, and this year’s elections marked a new low, with explicit race-baiting by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and overtly racist campaigning by nationalist parties and their supporters.
Moreover, the Left was fragmented in its response to the Iran Deal, with most of the mainstream opposing it and only a handful of further-left leaders supporting it.
And the promise of the 2011 social justice protests, which briefly signaled a new Israeli Left focused on economic justice, has long since dissipated. Israel’s wealth gap continues to increase, its safety net continues to fray.
And so the “peace camp” increasingly comes to resemble the 2006 film The Bubble, in which hipsters from Tel Aviv organize a “Rave Against the Occupation” and think that they’re accomplishing something.
Most ominously, the bubble is beginning to burst. One former human-rights activist, who wished to remain anonymous, told me that all of his left-wing friends have plans to leave Israel within the next few years—some to Europe, some to America, but all out of Tel Aviv. He himself has recently relocated to Manhattan.
The reason? “It’s exhausting to live in Israel,” he said. The nationalist Right is increasingly bold, demanding loyalty oaths of non-Jewish Israelis, expelling African workers, and rejecting the two-state solution. Racist rhetoric that would not have been tolerated a decade ago is now used by government ministers. There is a sense, he said, that the country is being lost.
That’s an anecdote, not data. But if his prediction is correct, it would have dire consequences for Israel’s political and economic life. Israel’s Left is also the economic engine of the “Start Up Nation.” A liberal flight would also be an enormous brain drain, not just in the theaters and cafés but in “Silicon Wadi” as well. The percentage of non-workers—Ultra-Orthodox Jews and many Israeli Arabs—would increase. And the risk of a nationalist Israel further marginalizing itself on the world stage would continue to grow.
No wonder, then, that moderate Israeli voices are now expressing despair. Writing in the liberal newspaper Haaretz, Ari Shavit lamented of Right and Left, “Hallelujah, Gush Emunim nationalists; Hallelujah BDS liberals. You did it. You made it come true. You turned our lives into a nightmare.”
So maybe that’s why the Israeli Left has been reduced to stunts and symbols. All the trend lines point downward. It will get worse before it gets better. May as well eat some hummus.