By Erez Jesse Schwartz
I moved to Jerusalem one week ago exactly as the current wave of violence in the city began after the shooting of a couple near the settlement of Neria last Thursday. Since then I have been profoundly unsettled by the events unfolding around me and morbidly fascinated by the political dynamics of a city at the center of an occupation. As an activist from Chicago I’ve read about happenings here for years and am angry, horrified, and dismayed by realities on the ground.
The five month program I am attending began with a week of progressive programming and critical dialogue about the occupation with various Jerusalem organizations. I spoke with a former IDF soldier from Breaking the Silence about his experiences in the West Bank, heard the testimony of a Palestinian activist from Combatants for Peace who had been incarcerated as a political prisoner for over decade, and spoke with the executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights about the critical role Jewish communities outside of Israel can play in the shaping of civil society.
Despite the compelling programming I found myself more and more despondent throughout the week as vigilante attacks continued throughout the city. It was difficult for me to be without the network of friends, activists, and organizers I would usually turn to in order to process such events and I was excited last night to attend an activist meeting that would allow me to direct my restless energy toward constructive action.
I arrived with two friends at a small apartment in the Nachlaot neighborhood of Jerusalem and immediately felt heartened to be sitting with close to thirty others involved in a growing anti-occupation collective called All That’s Left. The apartment was warm and I was comforted by the familiar atmosphere of chatter, greetings, and warm laughter. We gave a short round of introductions and began planning upcoming projects – including what I thought sounded like a wonderful week long program with the Center for Jewish Nonviolence.
As we were beginning to work through the concrete details the atmosphere in the room changed suddenly as a member of the collective received a message that right-wing nationalists were marching through the streets nearby and anyone who felt comfortable doing so should go out to monitor the situation and make sure no one was attacked by the racist crowd. I had only been in the city for a week and didn’t feel like I had the knowledge to intervene constructively in any situation that arose but thought I would go out just to see and understand.
As I walked with my friends down the street I began to see a thoroughfare filled with a crowd of belligerent young men chanting political slogans and waving Israeli flags. I watched in growing disgust as they began shouting “Death to Arabs!” and rallying enthusiastically in the street. As cops corralled them I was shocked to hear the protesters yelling “Police state!” in their faces and antagonizing them in different ways.
I would never have expected what I thought was a mob of pro-state nationalists to challenge the authority of the police in that way. It made it clear to me that their larger motivation was less a strict allegiance to the state of Israel and more an extreme hatred of Arabs as the constructed other within civil discourse.
Their antagonistic relationship with the police seems far more characteristic of many fascist street gangs over the last decades and less representative of the disciplined nationalism typical of conservative parties. Fascism of all kinds has always been defined by a degree of extralegal vigilantism characteristic of the attacks against Arab people in Jerusalem this last week. And while I am heartened by the presence of the many justice activists I have met the dominant presence of religious street gangs is a bleak introduction to the politics of the city.
As much as I can intellectually unpack the history that led us to this moment I can’t emotionally comprehend how we arrived at a juncture where Jewish crypto-fascists roam the streets of Jerusalem hunting racialized others in the night. Where a people who have experienced displacement, incarceration, and exploitation perpetrate such violence against others. Where undercover IDF agents shoot unarmed youth at point blank outside of Ramallah and those who claim to follow the commandments of God sing out in the Old City:
“Arabs, Arabs shall we pursue.”
This piece originally appeared on Erez’s blog, Golem Theory.