Commentary on Political Economy

Friday 5 April 2024


Israelis turn on peace activists and leftists

Trauma and rage drown out any support for Gazans six months after Hamas attack


‘I was literally under siege inside the teachers’ room. They wished for me and my children to die’

Israel Frey knew he risked causing offence when he delivered a Jewish prayer for the dead days after Hamas’s October 7 attack on southern Israel. He did not realise it would overturn his life.

A small group of residents in Tel Aviv had asked him to offer the Kaddish blessing for the 1,200 victims of Hamas’s raid because he is a member of the Jewish state’s ultraorthodox community.

But it was not only murdered Israelis who were on the 37-year-old’s mind as he lit candles and recited the prayer, later uploading a video online. “I said: ‘You’re not going to feel comfortable about what I’m going to do, but I’m also dedicating a Kaddish to the thousands of innocent civilians, the women and children, being slaughtered by us in Gaza.’”

The backlash erupted within days. Far-right groups reposted the video with Frey’s home address. Hate messages flooded in. Hostile crowds surrounded the apartment block where he lives with his wife and two children, setting off fireworks and flares.

Experiences such as Frey’s have become increasingly common among the dwindling band of Israeli leftists and peace activists since October 7. Fear, suspicion and, in many cases, hatred towards Palestinians swept across a nation outraged by Hamas’s rampage through kibbutzim and a music festival.

“The fear was real. It was close to October 7 and people’s blood was boiling,” said Frey, a rare journalist-cum-peace activist in the ultraorthodox community. “We were seconds away from people breaking into our home.” Frey fled but he is still too scared to return.

Six months on, trauma and rage from Hamas’s attack endure. Most Israelis remain united in support for their state’s ferocious retaliatory offensive against Hamas in Gaza, which has killed more than 32,000 people, say Palestinian health officials, even as global pressure to end the war intensifies.

Regular protests have called for the release of hostages held by Hamas, while smaller demonstrations oppose Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right government. But activists say much of the Israeli media is fixated on October 7, while providing minimal coverage of the devastation in Gaza.

The tiny minority in Israel speaking up for civilian victims in Gaza, raising concerns about the war, or supporting Palestinian rights and an end to Israel’s occupation, risk finding themselves in the crosshairs of rightwing groups and politicians — even their neighbours.

Palestinians with Israeli citizenship have long been vulnerable. But now, Jewish leftists were being targeted, albeit less harshly, said Michael Sfard, a human rights lawyer. “This is a huge shift — Israel was an open society.”

Rights groups working with Palestinians have also faced pressure.

Bank Leumi, Israel’s largest lender, froze the account of Gisha, a rights group, because it funded a programme offering legal advice to Gazans seeking permits to enter Israel. Gisha sued and a judge ruled there were no reasonable grounds for the freeze. But the bank appealed to the Supreme Court, which set a hearing for August. Bank Leumi declined to comment.

Rights groups were already operating in a hostile atmosphere as society veered rightward during the 15 years Netanyahu has dominated politics.

Itamar Ben-Gvir, the ultranationalist national security minister, is seen by activists as one of their biggest tormentors. After a court ordered the release of a Jewish pro-Palestinian activist arrested in October, Ben-Gvir criticised the judge, writing: “This is what domestic enemies look like. Shame.”

“The witch hunt is against anyone who puts his head out of line,” said Rami Elhanan. The 74-year-old son of a Holocaust survivor is a member of the Parents Circle-Families Forum, which brings together Israeli Jews and Palestinians who have lost relatives.

Forum members such as Elhanan, whose daughter was killed in a Hamas suicide attack in 1997, have for years arranged meetings between bereaved Jews and Palestinians and high school students to preach peace and coexistence. But in August, the education ministry banned the forum from schools.

The forum faced hostility from the political establishment, rightwing groups, parents and students, Elhanan said. “You need to be a very powerful and brave schoolmaster to stand up to them,” he said.

Meir Baruchin’s outspokenness landed him in prison. A veteran history and civics teacher, he had long used Facebook to raise awareness about the plight of occupied Palestinians. After Hamas’s attack, he posted about Gazans killed in Israel’s offensive, including a picture of dead babies, noting that “entire families are being wiped out”.

Within weeks, the local municipality fired him and complained to police. The education ministry suspended his teaching licence. In November, he was arrested, charged with intention to commit treason and detained for four days. He was released, but the case is still pending. A labour court ruled in January against the municipality and education ministry, ordering his reinstatement and awarding him damages. But when Baruchin returned to school, students hurled abuse at him.

“I was literally under siege inside the teachers’ room,” said Baruchin. “They curse me . . . They wished me to die. They wished for my children to die.”

Baruchin now delivers lessons via video. On Fridays, he joins a few dozen other peaceniks protesting in Jerusalem. At a tiny demonstration this month, police tussled with demonstrators, seizing and ripping their signs.

Some on the left hope the mood will shift as the trauma of October 7 eases. Yet Elhanan acknowledged that “we are swimming against the current”.

“Israelis don’t see what’s happening in Gaza,” he added. “Israelis don’t listen to people like us.”

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