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Ethnic And Political Divides Stoke Violence On Israeli Streets

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

While bombs and rockets streak across the night sky between Israel and Gaza, another form of violence has erupted on Israeli streets - clashes between sectarian mobs of Jewish Israelis and Palestinian citizens of Israel who live in the same towns. They've attacked each other, and people in the streets torched synagogues and destroyed Arab-owned businesses. Israeli leaders warn that this violence could spiral toward civil war. To help us understand this aspect of the conflict, Dahlia Scheindlin joins us from Tel Aviv. She is a pollster and political strategist at the Century Foundation, a progressive think tank.

Welcome.

DAHLIA SCHEINDLIN: Thank you for having me.

SHAPIRO: Many Israelis and Palestinians are resigned to military attacks every few years. But how unusual is the violence inside Israel itself that we're seeing right now between Jewish and Arab Israelis?

SCHEINDLIN: It's not common that there are significant attacks by Jews against Arabs or Arabs against Jews. They have happened, but they usually - and most importantly, they're just one-off incidents generally with one person. And...

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

SCHEINDLIN: We haven't really had anything like mass widespread riots and, you know, attacks that feel like one ethnic group is targeting another. That is unusual.

SHAPIRO: And how widespread is this right now? Is it happening in many mixed communities or just a few?

SCHEINDLIN: There aren't that many mixed communities all around the country to begin with. There's a small handful of them, and I would say most of those had some form of rioting. Not all of them turned into terrible mobs or, you know, near-lynch situations. But the other thing I wanted to point out was when you pointed out that people who live in these towns are fighting against each other, we should note that many Jewish Israeli settlers from the West Bank actually got on buses and bused people in from the settlements to some of these towns.

SHAPIRO: You mean bused them in to commit acts of violence.

SCHEINDLIN: Yes. So I think we have to be a little cautious about assuming that it's the people who live next door to each other who are fighting each other.

SHAPIRO: So what's different this time? I mean, why didn't this happen in earlier conflicts? I remember covering the war in Israel in 2014, and there was no street violence on the scale.

SCHEINDLIN: I think Israel has always had discrimination and inequality between different citizens - between Jews and Arabs and others, too. I think that over the last decade, roughly 12 years under Netanyahu's leadership, he has cultivated political allies, coalition partners, and occasionally he himself has participated in the complete legitimization of a very racially charged discourse. That - maybe even that's a euphemism. He has said openly racist things targeting Arabs. His coalition partners have said them. They have said them repeatedly.

But it's not only their speech. It is the actions of this government which has passed laws against Arabs, which has taken a very nationalist, populist approach to governance. And one of the things this government has done a great deal is not only empowered Jewish supremacists, who have now entered the Israeli parliament, but it has worked very aggressively to undermine the authority of the rule of law.

SHAPIRO: As you talk about steps Netanyahu has taken to fan these flames, I also have to ask, you know, under his government, Israel increased funding to Arab Israeli communities. He campaigned for Palestinian votes. Before the outbreak of violence, he was actually on the verge of forming a coalition with an Arab Israeli party. Aren't those steps towards a more equitable society?

SCHEINDLIN: Yeah. I never said Netanyahu was a simple kind of leader. He's a very complex, strategic, certainly clever and cunning kind of leader. Yes, Netanyahu, as leader five years ago, passed - well, his government passed the decision to give unprecedented levels of funding for investment in material infrastructure. The problem is that it was the devil's bargain from Netanyahu's perspective for most of that time. So while he was pouring money into the communities for economic integration, he was presiding over governments that were doing and saying and advancing policies that reflect a completely different approach. I don't think the damage can be undone just in a matter of months.

SHAPIRO: Do you have a sense of whether this violence is leading people towards greater extremes?

SCHEINDLIN: I don't think the violence is spreading. It was a very disturbing few days. It was a violent few days. But listen. There were political demonstrations among Palestinian citizens of Israel in solidarity with the Sheikh Jarrah home evictions and the clashes in Al-Aqsa that preceded this rioting, and they were fundamentally peaceful. I think that they turned violent because one or two incidents set people off. And then local leaders are working very closely together and trying to quell the violence, and it seems like it has been working over the last maybe two or three days, I hope.

There is an increasingly growing and an increasingly integrated Arab middle and upper-middle class, the professional class and intellectual class. It's very hard for me to see those people - the violence rallying them. And on the Jewish side, I think that Jews - the Jewish Israelis want nothing more than to look at these thugs walking through cities, shouting, death to Arabs, and say, we have nothing to do with that. So I think, you know, the large part - a portion of both populations have a strong incentive to stay out of it.

SHAPIRO: Dahlia Scheindlin is a fellow at the Century Foundation.

Thank you for talking with us today.

SCHEINDLIN: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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