As Israelis went to the polls last Tuesday to vote in municipal and mayoral elections the most shocking story wasn’t the surprisingly low voter turnout, but instead the flare-up of racial tensions during the campaigns. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing party Likud had campaign posters banned in a number of cities across the country by an Arab Israeli judge who ruled that they were anti-Arab; and with slogans like “Return Jaffa to Israel”, who can blame him? In addition to Likud’s references to Arab-Israeli relations, the former mayor of Nazareth Illit in northern Israel wrote an op-ed piece in which he effectively accepted labels of racism.
Netanyahu’s government has exploited tensions with Palestine before, but it is rare that Arab Israelis are attacked so directly in election campaigns. In addition to “returning Jaffa to Israel”, the Likud party also advertised that they were the only ones who could “silence the muezzin in Jaffa”, Jaffa being part of southern Tel Aviv and the muezzin referring to those who call Muslims to prayer. These kind of campaign advertisements are aimed at utilizing sectarian lines to the advantage of campaigns for their own victory, but they certainly bring forth deeper-seeded racial tensions that exist in Israel, as well as attempting to go as far as to instill fear in voters’ minds that might make them lean towards harsher Zionist candidates.
By 8:30pm on Tuesday Tel Aviv and Jerusalem reported only 22% and 32% voter turnout respectively, which is low by almost any standards. Many of these people who do go out to vote are right-leaning and support hard-line candidates. This base is encouraged by many of these ads, but that doesn’t mean that they represent a majority of Israelis. Like far-right politicians amongst the American conservative party, they aren’t representative of the broader population even if they win elections.
Interestingly Arab media covered the campaigns very differently than Jewish news, with the Qatar-based Al Jazeera English reporting on the “ugly racism” brought to attention during this campaign period. Al Jazeera also quoted the director of the Human Rights Association in Jerusalem as saying that “Israeli society has become more and more racist”. Arab news stations obviously have their own bias and political priorities, but the harshness they accentuated during their coverage was very different than the more removed Israeli news, who seemed to describe “claims” of racism more than commenting themselves.
Even more shocking is an op-ed piece in Haaretz written by the now ousted mayor Shimon Gaspo of Nazareth Illit (Upper Nazareth). His former city is the northern counterpart to the Arab-majority city of Nazareth. On his label as a racist and being compared to a Nazi, Gaspo wrote: “Upper Nazareth is a Jewish city and it’s important that it remains so. If that makes me a racist, then I’m a proud offshoot of a glorious dynasty of “racists” that started with the “Covenant of the Pieces”“. Former mayor Gaspo also wrote about the importance of Israel being and remaining a Jewish state, and not a state of all its citizens. As mayor he had promised not to let Arab schools be built in Upper Nazareth, once again citing the importance of the land remaining Jewish.
Such openly anti-Arab comments are dangerous for Israel, both in its peace talks with Palestine and to its democratic system. As the sole Jewish state in a region of hostile Arab nations, Israel should be careful as to how aggressive it gets in its rhetoric. But more importantly, the Israeli government can not continue to not only ignore Arab Israelis, but to make them feel disenfranchised through racially charged campaign slogans. This is a major threat to the number of Arabs living as Israeli citizens in cities across the country. Ordinary Israelis who disagree with remarks made by Mr. Gaspo should head to the polls to voice their disdain for an increasingly right-wing Zionist government. In addition, Israel’s current government should tread carefully if it wants to remain seen as an open democracy for its nation’s citizens.