Israel’s Culture of Violence
In contrast to the old image of the Jew who was led to his death in Europe without fighting back, the Israeli military has played a vital role in creating a new model, in which the Jewish soldier is a strong man who fights and kills for survival. From a practical point of view, the Army was important for the Zionist project for settling the land of Palestine because it was through the force, protection, and support of the military that the settlers were and are still able to settle Palestinian land.
For the Army to function properly — especially in the case of Israel, where military service is compulsory, meaning the Army is made up of the majority of the Israeli citizenship — there is a need to rally as much support as possible behind them. This is accomplished through state rhetoric that provides reasons for the necessity of partaking in a military offensive. The state of Israel has gone to extremes to dehumanize the Palestinian population and now nationalistic fervor has spread to the entire country with public figures, religious men, academics, and regular citizens in favor of whatever measures are taken in their name so as to preserve the status quo.
In an attempt to establish an “us” vs. “them” narrative, Netanyahu has spoken of the state of Israel as the protector of the Democratic World, standing on the frontlines to fight extremism in the name of modernity. The Prime Minister refrains from mentioning that the lines are not clear-cut and that Jewish extremism is thriving as a result of the state’s policy.
From this extremist political leadership in Israel, the current political culture has emerged. At the level of leadership, Netanyahu and his government have taken turns in dehumanizing the Palestinians and their leadership and have pursued an illegal program of state action in the form of illegitimate settlement construction and collective punishment of the Palestinians.
Furthermore, Israel’s Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has on several occasions called for the transfer of Palestinians who are citizens of the state of Israel. More recently, he has demanded the assassination of Khaled Mash’al, who is the political leader of Hamas. Instead of working on a political solution, the Foreign Minister resorts to violence to “erase” the problem.
On the religious level, a number of religious officials have incited against Palestinians and have insisted on the supremacy of the Jews against the goyim (non-Jews). This culture of violence has manifested itself on several occasions, such as the murder of 29 praying Palestinians in Hebron by Baruch Goldstein in 1994. Recently, a religious extremist and two Yeshiva students organized and conducted the live burning of Mohammad Abu Khdeir. On July 21, a Chief Rabbi from Kiryat Arba issued a religious edict stating that “according to Jewish religious law, it is permissible to bomb innocent Palestinian civilians and to ‘exterminate the enemy’.” Another Chief Rabbi of the town of Shoham stated that the war on Gaza is a “Holy war” and must be merciless.
At the academic level, a distinguished professor at Bar Ilan University went far and beyond to advocate sexual violence against Palestinian women. According to Dr. Mordechai Kedar, raping Palestinian women is the only means to deter Hamas fighters. Kedar defends his absurd solution by asserting that this is the only culture that the Palestinians understand. Sexual violence is not a new form of violence; it has been used in wars throughout history. It is, nonetheless, now broadly recognized as a crime against humanity. The fact that Dr. Kedar defends his proposal reveals a political culture in Israel that should alarm the democratic and civilized world.
This culture of violence has trickled down to Israeli society. Witness the several occasions when Israeli settlers have vandalized Palestinian property, or the “price tag” phenomenon, or the numerous attacks on defenseless Palestinian children by the settlers. In many cases, these attacks were conducted under the protection of the IDF.
Troubling public displays have thrown sharp light on this culture. For example, on July 26, a group supporting the war took to the streets in Tel Aviv and chanted racist lyrics, some particularly alarming: “In Gaza there’s no studying / No children are left there.” Israelis have also utilized social media to incite more aggression against Palestinians. And violence has not been spared the Israeli citizens who have criticized Israel’s attack on Gaza. These Israelis have been attacked physically or verbally by the extreme Right. These acts of violence have not been controlled by the authorities.
The sexual violence advocated by the Israeli academic Kedar has similarly made its way into Israeli society in general. Take the particularly disturbing example of the drawing recently circulated on WhatsApp of a half-naked Gazan Muslim woman with a caption encouraging Netanyahu to “finish inside this time.” As David Sheen points out in his analysis, this image makes a comedy of the rape of Palestinian women as a horrific metaphor for Israel’s ground assault.
There is a price for everything and in the case of Israel one might argue that it will only be a matter of time before this culture will turn on itself and begin to legitimize acts of violence against different divisions of Israeli society. This is already apparent in relation to Palestinian citizens of Israel and against Israelis who protest against the extreme measures taken by the state to quell the Palestinian population.
The military is the main institution of the state that has the legitimacy to use violence on behalf of the state. Usually the use of violence by the Army is accepted when it stands to protect the state and its citizens from any imminent threat. Although this is the narrative adopted by the state of Israel, it becomes problematic when the Army favors one ethic group over the other and when it becomes a tool of occupation.
To resort to violence has become a favored “solution” for the state of Israel in place of seeking diplomatic and political solutions to resolve the conflict with Palestine. Israeli society as a whole (apart from a minority) has similarly confused power with violence.
This is the new political culture in Israel. Violence is increasingly becoming the go-to method for resolving conflicts. While this threatens all Palestinians, the growing popularity of violent misogyny is of concern to women in particular. Israeli society should be concerned about what is happening to it.