Why the U.S. media barely covered brutal right-wing race riots in Tel Aviv
By Joshua Holland
Several weeks back, Israel was rocked by a night of right-wing race-riots targeting African refugees in Tel Aviv. The thuggery was frightening – refugees were attacked, African-owned businesses and stores were vandalized and a community was forced to hunker down behind closed doors in fear for their lives.
Perhaps more disturbing still was that the riots, which began with an anti-immigrant demonstration, were incited by Israeli politicians representing the increasingly influential hard-right. They fired up the crowd, calling the refugees “infiltrators,” and a “cancer,” and accusing them of violence and rape. It was a classic example of “othering” – eliminationist rhetoric that led directly to action by the xenophobic crowd.
While a small number of people carried out the violence, they represented the views of many Israelis. A poll released this week found that 52 percent of respondents agreed with the characterization of African refugees as “a cancer,” and a third condoned violence against them.
The story received very little coverage in the United States. Worse, some outlets that did report on the riots advanced the rioters’ narrative that African refugees were responsible for a massive wave of street violence, despite the fact that crime statistics don’t bear out the claim.
Recently, Middle East analyst MJ Rosenberg appeared on the AlterNet Radio Hour to discuss the Tel Aviv riots, the stand-off over Iran’s nuclear program and how the Israel lobby helps narrow the discourse around Israel in the United States . Below is a lightly edited transcript of the discussion (you can listen to the whole interview here.)
Joshua Holland: MJ, I want to talk to you about some issues you’ve been writing about. But first I want to talk a little bit about the discourse here in the United States. I’m one of many people who believes there is an Israel lobby. I’m not sure why that’s even controversial. And among other things, it works to kind of narrow the range of acceptable discourse on Israel and Palestine. You are a former AIPAC staffer, right?
MJ Rosenberg: Right. To defend myself that was way back in the ’80s. In fact I was a pretty happy AIPAC staffer. I even left there on good terms. I have to say in those days it’s not so much my politics were different, AIPAC was different then. The policies weren’t nearly as reactionary then as they are now.
JH: From your inside perspective on that organization, what did you see as far as their tendency to call out criticism that they think is illegitimate or beyond the pale?
MR: They consider all criticism of Israel illegitimate. It’s all beyond the pale. I suppose their definition would be if by some miracle someone like Joseph Lieberman made a statement critical of Israel it would be legitimate. When I worked there in the ’80s, back before everyone had computers, they had a big war room where all they did was assemble every bit of data on members of Congress, on candidates, but also on writers, celebrities – anyone in the public eye.
In those days they would just put them in these folders. They always had at hand all this negative information — what they considered negative information — to tar people as being anti-Israel or even anti-Semitic. That stuff would be given to reporters if something came up. They were either initiated on their own to give to reporters or some reporter called them because they had a treasure trove of information.
They still operate that way. In those days they did it directly; now they have former staffers and people who are close to the organization in the blogging world and political world who do it for them. They do it so much. When you read that someone is anti-Israel they’re the ones putting it out there. They’ve got the data.
JH: You recently got into a huge kerfuffle over your use of the term “Israel-firster.” The charge comes up again and again – we hear talk about these “anti-Semitic tropes,” which is something that if you hold up to the light in just the right way, and maybe squint your eyes a bit, is vaguely reminiscent of some antiquated anti-Semitic narrative.
At the time, I wrote that we live in a pretty rough-and-tumble political environment where you can call the president an illegitimate Manchurian candidate, you can call Democrats socialists or Republicans wing-nuts. But there isn’t really a derogatory term that’s acceptable for these advocates of the Israeli right. Perhaps that’s the best way to put it. I wonder: isn’t all of this a reaction to this group calling itself “pro-Israel?” Aren’t you pro-Israel?
MR: Yeah, I’m pro-Israel. I’m pro-Israel in the sense that I want the country of Israel to live and thrive in security. What they mean by pro-Israel is do you support all the policies of the government of Israel — except for a peace government like the Rabin government — but every other government and every policy all the time.
The reason I coined the phrase Israel-firster is because to me there’s no other way to describe it. The same people who call Obama terrible names, or Bush terrible names, will defend everything Netanyahu says or does. So what is it? Go to the AIPAC convention. They sing the Israeli national anthem. It couldn’t be more blatant. They support candidates for office based not on what’s good for the United States, but what‘s good for Israel.
The way they defend that is to say, ‘what’s good for Israel is good for America.’ As George Washington would tell you, no two countries have the same interests. It’s an absurdity. Nobody would say that we have identical interests with Canada, or the UK, let alone Israel. That’s the way they get around it, by saying, ‘yes we offer everything that Israel wants, or does, but that’s because if it’s good for Israel it’s good for America.’
I don’t want to say Israel; I shouldn’t really. AIPAC isn’t about caring about Israel. It’s supporting the occupation, supporting wars in Iran and Iraq, supporting the right wing in Israel. Half the Israeli population, according to polls, are against Netanyahu and are against those policies. AIPAC, and the lobby which includes other organizations as well, only support the Israeli right.
I remember I was working on Capitol Hill when Rabin was prime minister and was pursing his peace policy. AIPAC pursued a parallel policy of its own to try and undermine Rabin. It was so bad that Prime Minister Rabin tried to get this former AIPAC staffer Steve Rosen — who was later indicted for espionage — Rabin went in and asked AIPAC to fire him. ‘He’s working against my policies,’ he said. When it’s peace policies, then AIPAC suddenly keeps its distance. Of course that’s not an issue now.
JH: I should note, MJ, that you once wrote that they really were “Netanyahu-firsters.”
Speaking of our discourse, I want to talk about an issue that came up recently that’s gotten very little coverage in the United States. There were a series of violent race riots by right-wing Israelis against African immigrants in Tel Aviv. This was a big deal. I was looking at the US coverage and it was amazing at how little attention these riots received. The Christian Science Monitor ran a piece, the New York Times wrote about it on its blog, and some papers actually took the side of the rioters, in a sense, framing the issue as related to “African violence,” which is a pretty dubious claim as far as I can see. Tell us about what happened and what it says about Israeli society today. [Editor’s note: several days after this interview was conducted, the New York Times did run an article on the violence in Tel Aviv.]
MR: Israeli society in general is becoming increasingly paranoid about everything, which is strange because Israel as a country is militarily more powerful and its people are more secure than probably ever before. There’s not terrorism or anything like that anymore, thank goodness. Yet there’s this real string of paranoia stirred up by Netanyahu. He’s always talking about the Holocaust. He says this is just like 1942, which was probably the worst year in Jewish history. He’s always invoking those kinds of tropes and it’s causing a lot of xenophobia. They’re afraid of foreigners. You know, ‘the whole world is against us.’
Now you have these refugees from Africa who have made their way to Israel through the Sinai desert. These are mostly Sudanese. They’re black people, and they are what the right here calls “illegals.” What they actually are is refugees, which is something Jews should be able to relate to. They move, for the most part, into Tel Aviv where there’s work for them. All of a sudden the word has gotten out that these people are responsible for crime. Statistically it’s been proven that that’s not true. There’s crime in Tel Aviv — very low by our standards — but the crime is not associated with Africans. But it led to this kind of a rage almost reminiscent of the 1940s or 1950s here in the South. It’s when they started grabbing black people in the streets and just would beat them up.
Then – and here’s something that hasn’t happened much here in probably 100 years — politicians, right-wing politicians from both the Likud and Kadima parties, which are the two biggest parties, started denouncing the Africans and the Sudanese. They said ‘they’re a danger to Israel,’ and called for rallies in south Tel Aviv, where they are. You have mobs of right-wingers who look sort of like soccer mobs, the mobs that you see in Europe after a soccer game, where they go marching in with lots of young thugs, and start grabbing people on the street. They’re chanting, “go back to Africa,” and, “death to the Africans.”
Joshua Holland is an editor and senior writer at AlterNet. He is the author of The 15 Biggest Lies About the Economy: And Everything else the Right Doesn’t Want You to Know About Taxes, Jobs and Corporate America. Drop him an email or follow him on Twitter.
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