A Lynching in Jerusalem: Anatomy of Jewish racism
by Jesse Benjamin on 30 Aug 2012 8 Comments

The news of an attempted mob lynching in Jerusalem’s Zion Square is trickling into Western news sources. It has been translated from angst-filled Hebrew-language Facebook pages written by eyewitnesses, stunned and harassed first responders, and translations gleaned from Ha’aretz via Mondoweiss, IMEU and others. The lack of outrage, and coverage, is almost as disturbing as the street level racial violence that showed itself in the heart of Israel, rolling in from the Wild West/West Bank where this is more common.


As I processed this, and recalled my own experiences in this exact spot, it seemed that somebody needed to shed light on what the significance of Zion Square is, why mob violence there is especially significant, and why Jews especially need to see this moment as yet another wake up call. My own privileged perspective on this is far removed from the daily violence and dispossession of Palestinian experiences, but my intention is to push other privileged Jews, Israelis and far away Western liberals to take this incident more seriously. Writing from Atlanta, I also want to underscore what the idea of lynching means, and what histories this act is therefore irrevocably connected to.


Zion Square was a refuge for me as a 16 year old. I slipped out the yeshiva side door and chose to live there, on the street, as a pathway to reinvention. The hippie musicians and jewelry makers who lined the streets back then, in 1987, took me in, and I eventually made it off the street, into a youth hostel where I got a bed in exchange for selling beer and running errands. I was an Israeli/US citizen who grew up secular in Toronto and upstate New York, before becoming a teenage Hassid in Brooklyn, en route to Israel and eventual re-engagement with my natal society.


I became friends with 16 year olds Israelis who, unlike me, could not get a one-year deferment from military service or make a plan to get out before the draft grabbed hold of their lives. They were beatnikim, Hebrew plural for beatniks or hippies, in open rebellion and angst at the violence of military service that awaited them inescapably in a few short months, smoking hash, growing long hair, engaging world travelers and sometimes Palestinians, anyone in our mixed street world in deep philosophical/political discussions about how to end, avoid or cope with the conflict.


It was a powerful coming of age for me, and the pedestrian mall of Ben Yehuda, ending in the stone courtyard of Zion Square, was the hub of this activity, the nerve center of integration, questioning, folk music, exchange students, and occasional political protest. Ok, it was not utopian, things were already pretty segregated, and structural imbalance was already endemic, but it was very different then than now.


I left Israel in 1988, and returned a year later with a final one-year deferment, to study and check in on my still yeshiva-bound brother. All my friends were gone from the street, off to the front lines of the Intifada, carrying out Ariel Sharon’s orders to break the bones of young Palestinian protesters. When I did see them on Zion Square, they were broken people, with vacant eyes, literally unable to embrace me and engage in conversation of any kind. They were rushing to the bars to drink themselves into oblivion, filled with post-traumatic stress and suppressed rage/trauma, from the violent contradiction between their peace-loving souls and their new roles as occupation troops. Their long curly hair had been shaved to the scalp, and with it any pretense of humanity. Recognizing me long enough to talk and share was too painful for my old buddies. This was a shocking personal experience of Israel’s dissipating soul, and it also happened at Zion Square. Younger Israeli beatnikim continued to make the scene and mix with travelers and students, but the number of Palestinians who were willing to congregate or just pass through before sundown was already decreasing precipitously.


In the 1980s, Palestinians in the occupied territories did almost all of the menial labor in Israel, from construction to dishwashing, commuting in and out of Israel in a daily routine of Green Line checkpoint crossings. In 1989, now a college student, we literally had to hide our college-age Palestinian friends from the West Bank when they visited our Zion Square apartment and we got caught up talking without noticing night had fallen and they were now illegally on the Jewish side of town. We turned the lights down, and spoke in whispers, as we hid our friends from neighbors and prying eyes, lest they be caught and taken to jail and tortured – it felt like an oddly reversed Anne Frank situation, and we talked about that too.


But the defiance of daily structural violence that was the Intifada brought a gradual end to this unequal intimacy, as Israel responded by more and more completely barricading itself, shutting out occupied territory Palestinians almost completely, and finding migrant labor from the Philippines and more recently Africa to fill this void. Literal and figurative walls went up, and the apartheid infrastructure has been extended and cemented. Since 1987, Israeli Jews have had steeply diminished interaction with the majority of Palestinians, the so-called “Arabs,” making totalized dehumanization easier and easier.


Another thing I saw first hand in the 1980s was the anti-Black dehumanization of Jewish Brooklyn transferring into anti-Arab racism in the West Bank, filled with growing numbers of state-subsidized Brooklyn ex-pat settler extremists. Since then, that once extremist discourse has seeped its way into the mainstream of Israeli parliament, and we see the violence of a street mob looking for “Arabs” to kill. The first vigilante mob I was ever invited to join was in Crown Heights, as my Yeshiva buddies went to “patrol” or in reality antagonize Black residents on the periphery blocks of our shtetl neighborhood.


In Israel, some of these same pimply overcompensating dork yeshiva kids and their parents would later be armed with uzis and military training, and unleashed on villagers with the backing of the IDF. Beyond the trash talking teen thugs, was an armed wing of the Jewish Defense League, which was also on the scene in 1980s Brooklyn. This group really thrived in the occupied territories, and their leader, Kahane, literally crossed over, to the West Bank, and into Knesset, where his radical ideas eventually got him expelled, but would now make him almost a centrist.


This gradual seeping of racism across the Atlantic has completely corrupted the core of Israeli culture, which was already steeped in racism of another kind, derived from 19th century colonial European roots. While it could rightly be argued that this kind of racism and violence has always been a part of Israeli history, it’s hard not to see the steady, unidirectional intensification. Israel’s ethnic cleansing missions in the late 1940s, the Nakba (or Catastrophe) of Palestinian removal, were always denied by Israel, covered up for decades, until being confirmed in the past decades by Israeli historians using declassified documents as proof. But now we see this street lynching, and the Zionist Hasbara machine is barely working to deny or cover it up. It’s as though racist dehumanization has become more acceptable.


The Zion Square lynching should be a moment like the Sharpeville Massacre, or the assault on the Pettus Bridge en route to Montgomery. The presence of a mob, and a spectacle, with cheering, makes this far more like the gruesome Sam Hose lynching in Georgia than the back road lynching of James Byrd in Texas. The mob in Israel two days ago fell on what we now know was four random Palestinian kids, out shopping for the holidays, and brutally kicked one of them unconscious while yelling “death to Arabs,” and (the roughly translated) “A Jew is a soul and (an) Arab is a son of a ----.” The mob turned on Jewish first responders who finally arrived and tried to perform CPR. Some in the angry crowd did not understand why the medics were shocked by what they found, and said the victims were “Arabs” and should be left to die. An Israeli eyewitness wrote trauma-filled FB postings later that night, unable to sleep from what she had seen:


“When one of the Palestinian youths fell to the floor, the [Jewish] youths continued to hit him in the head, he lost consciousness, his eyes rolled, his angled head twitched, and then those who were kicking him fled and the rest gathered in a circle around, with some still shouting with hate in their eyes.”


There is much in common here with the sheer brutality of 20th century US lynchings, and the links need to be better understood. That the eyewitness thinks most of the mob was pre-military service teens further chilled me. Where was the healthy fear of service and violence that marked my generation before the universal draft at the end of high school? These kids are now copying their violent parents who attack, stab, firebomb, and heckle African immigrants in the streets of large Israeli cities so much so that long established Black Jews from Ethiopia and elsewhere feel even less welcome or safe than they once did. They are following the lead of parents and Rabbis who are calling for the protection of Jewish girls from “Arab men.” They are following the lead of Jewish soccer hooligans who import their own version of European football racism and chant "Death to Arabs," assaulting anyone they think is Arab in the aftermath of recent games, spilling over into assaults in shopping malls and adjacent streets.


When the anonymous Facebook author saw the unconscious Palestinian youth taken away in an ambulance, against the mob’s desire, without a pulse of any kind, she presumed he was dead. Miraculously, he was revived on the way to the hospital, regaining a pulse, and then lying in a coma for 2 days, with a breathing tube, before waking up with no recollection of the attack. YNet recently uploaded a photo of the victim, with pixilated face and a clearly visible breathing tube, and Ha’aretz names him as 17-year-old Jamal Julani, of Jerusalem’s Ras al-Amud neighborhood.


While Israeli police originally referred to this as a street brawl, they reclassified the case, according to Monday morning’s Ha’aretz, as a lynching, and are actively investigating the crime. Ha’aretz tells us: “A police representative told the Magistrate’s Court that hundreds of people watched the event without helping the victims.” When police arrived on the scene the assailants disappeared into the crowd. Police first arrested a 19 year old on Sunday, who professes innocence, and then yesterday (Israeli time) they arrested four juveniles, ages 13-15, including one female, with more arrests expected soon.


Now, in case anyone reading this thinks I might be reaching, with my comparison to specific Jim Crow US lynching practices, today’s short press piece also provides further evidence that something deeper is indeed at play. The Facebook author, and then the police used the term “a lynch,” and this is in fact the English-derived word in Hebrew for such racialized mob violence. But was the term being used accurately? Many bloggers and comment posters on various news fragments about this story in the past few days have hoped to minimize and deny the details of this case, and to say it was just an unfortunate fight between kids, not a racial act or an attempted lynching.


But now the brother of the arrested 13 year old, whose age is not shared, provides perhaps the most telling information to come out yet, as shared in Ha’aretz:

“The suspect's brother, who was also present at the scene, said outside the court that it was the four Arab youths who had provoked passersby and “made passes at Jewish girls.” He added: “Why should an Arab make passes at my sister? They shouldn't be here, it's our area. For what other reason would they come here if not to make passes at Jewish girls?”


And there you have it, a full discursive window into the racial illogic that made this horrible event possible. Conceptions of segregated space, in which imagined Jews-only space prevail: “They shouldn’t be here, it’s our area.” The notion that the simple presence of Palestinians in this supposedly Jews-only space is, in itself, a provocation. And then the most important element: the accused’s brother says, “the four Arab youths… provoked passersby and ‘made passes at Jewish girls’,” but quickly unravels when his false claim is shown to be nothing but an extension of his racist ‘logic’: “For what other reason would they come here if not to make passes at Jewish girls?”


So, Palestinians in self-declared Jewish spaces are inherently guilty of desiring Jewish girls, and Jewish boys or men are therefore, in his mind, justified in using violence to protect “their” women. Anyone who knows their basic US history knows that even the most sadistic lynchings of Black men were justified on precisely this ground, that Black men inherently posed a real or fabricated threat to white women. Sadly, many of us could see this violence coming in Israel, when earlier this year Rabbis started warning of the threats of intermarriage, and the need to protect Jewish girls from Arab men. This sort of violence was the next logical step.


It remains to be seen whether this attempted lynching will disturb or incite Jewish Israelis, and other people further away. For me, this also hit a personal place, a last vestige or memory of hope for a liberal humanist core within Jewish Israeli culture that might stand up to this downward spiral of racism. Rationally, I know this possibility has been dying for a long time, but symbolically, this lynch mob seems to speak to something significant. Zion Square is symbolic, there is no space like it in Tel Aviv or Beer Sheva, or Haifa. It’s sort of like Washington Square Park in New York City, a place with history and a space of open congregation, mixing of people and ideas, a space where thoughts of peace, however naïve, might show up on a shirt, a sign, or in a busker’s song. This attempted lynching struck at the heart of Israeli civic society. And hundreds of those members of Israeli society stood by and cheered, and then harbored the escaping assailants. Who will these teen assailants grow up to be? What future is in store for Israel, on this current course? What kind of world ignores this, and goes about its business.


One hundred years ago, and after being violently removed from her role as a journalist in the US South, the great anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells had to hire white private eyes to go into white communities to investigate lynchings so she could document the horrors of the Jim Crow era. Similarly now, Palestinians need Jewish allies within Israeli society to further expose what is happening, in order for the apartheid and racism that has seized the society to be revealed and challenged before a reluctant Western world. Like their Black counterparts in the US or South African past, Palestinians know this violence on a daily basis, but it is the liberal Western audience that has to be moved in order for global pressure to be brought to bear. The problem is that the globalized West still holds onto Jews as the victims par excellence, and is more comfortable than ever post-9/11 dismissing the humanity of all Arabs and Muslims.


Again, like in the US past, this complacency must be challenged. Just as Emmett Till’s mother insisted on an open casket funeral for her brutalized teenage son, so that the media would be forced to cover the horrible reality of white racial violence, so too we might consider the politics of erasing versus circulating images of Palestinian children who have lost their lives, or been brutalized for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. In this sense, I commend the work of Mairav Zonszein, writing at +972, who covered this story and posted a photo of a previous Palestinian beating victim in Jerusalem, whose disturbing injuries are being celebrated and bragged about on a Jewish settler website this week. At first, no photos of the recent victims had surfaced, and according to Zonszein the mainstream Israeli media, other than Ha’aretz, is burying the story and trying to frame it as a brawl. The eyewitness on Facebook countered this, saying: “I saw with my own eyes that they (the Palestinian victims) didn’t attack anyone, and I heard with (my) own ears the teens running just to ‘find an Arab to beat up’.”


It seems like, almost every day, Israel passes some invisible threshold beyond which its humanity will truly be lost, and all claims to victimhood and impunity must finally evaporate. And yet, in the election crazed United States, no one bats an eye, and this story is displaced by the escalating clamor for war with Iran. Ultimately, the fact that Israel and Jews in general serve as a kind of force field for US Empire and its heavy-handed presence in the world, means that Israel will never be reined in by its Western allies, no matter how far it spins into vile apartheid thuggery. This is what Israel has over apartheid South Africa, which was only one of many sources of corporate profit, but not considered especially important once the boycott movement negated this economic incentive. The utter expendability of Palestinian lives dehumanizes Israel, Jews everywhere, and all of global humanity that stands more or less idly by, year after year.


Jesse Benjamin, an associate professor of sociology at Kennesaw State University, is a US and an Israeli citizen; with permission of Jesse Benjamin; first published in


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