Update: The Huffington Post has just removed “Feeling the Hate in Tel Aviv” without explanation.
On May 27, journalist Jesse Rosenfeld and I set out on the streets of Tel Aviv to probe the political opinions of young local residents. We started the day filming at Tel Aviv University, where a group of Jewish and Palestinian Israeli students gathered to protest a proposed law that would criminalize public observance of the Nakba, or the mass expulsion and killing of Palestinians by Zionist militias in 1948. There, we interviewed Palestinian Israeli students about the rising climate of repression, then spoke to another group of students who gathered nearby to heckle their Arab classmates and demand their deportation. A few hundred meters away, two genial business students expressed support for the so-called Nakba law, remarking to us, “If you want to keep democracy, you can’t let people protest against the independence of the country.”
That evening, Jesse and I took our camera to central Tel Aviv, where thousands were taking part in the annual all-night festival known as White Night. Some revelers took an intermission from the partying to express to us their hatred for the Iranian people. And a group of teenagers launched into a virtually unprompted diatribe against Barack Obama, referring to him as a Nazi, a Muslim, and a “Cushi,” which is Hebrew slang for “nigger.” When questioned about the source of his opinions, one teenager proudly declared himself a “gezan,” or a racist.
This video, entitled “Feeling the Hate in Tel Aviv,” is the sequel to a piece the Israeli blogger Joseph Dana and I released in June called “Feeling the Hate in Jerusalem.” That video, which featured a cast of mostly American Jews in Jerusalem leveling racist vitriol at Obama, stirred immediate controversy, prompting the Huffington Post to remove it on the grounds that it was not “newsworthy.” As the “not newsworthy” video began climbing towards 400,000 hits on YouTube, and before YouTube and Vimeo banned it without explanation and without offering me any legal recourse, the Israeli media weighed in. (“Feeling the Hate” has been reposted here).
Benjamin Hartman, a young correspondent for Ha’aretz who had moved to Israel from his hometown of Austin, Texas, wrote that my video was “circling the internet at a critical velocity on a mission to humiliate the Jewish people.” Hartmann concluded that I was “speaking to the wrong crowd at the wrong time of night,” a meme that would comprise the key talking point for bloggers and organized Jewish groups (including the Israeli chapter of Democrats Abroad) seeking to discredit and ultimately suppress the video.
Hartmann then offered me advice on where to find the right crowd, and at which time of night they might be on their best behavior. “I hope Blumenthal films his next segment in Tel Aviv, though the results would probably be far less salacious,” Hartman wrote. “On a balcony in Florentin, he would ask the drum circle what they think of Obama and through the purple haze would hear only praise for the president, before being forced to listen to a 30-minute account of a recent trip to Nepal.”
Unbeknownst to Hartman, who only attempted to interview me days after publishing his review, and then published a piece questioning whether I had been “fueling anti-Semitism,” I had already filmed my next segment in Tel Aviv. (And I had already spent an evening, sans camera, with an Israeli hippy on a balcony in Florentin, though he told me through the purple haze that the Palestinian people do not exist and should be immediately transferred to Jordan). Now that I have released my footage from Tel Aviv, I wonder what Hartman and other, even more insecure critics of my first “Feeling the Hate” video will do to ensure that the sequel does not “humiliate the Jewish people.” Will they rely on the same old hasbara?
Can they still claim that clean-cut students at Tel Aviv University were “the wrong crowd?” Was filming during the afternoon, or during the evening at an officially sanctioned festival still “the wrong time?” And could I have listened to similarly racist opinions in “an American college town,” as Hartman suggested? Perhaps for my next video I should ask frat brothers at the University of South Dakota if they would like their Native American classmates to be jailed for three years for observing the massacre of Wounded Knee. Or I could ask Anglo students at the University of Texas, located in Hartman’s hometown, if they want the US government to round up every single Latino student on campus — especially those who are US citizens — and deport them to somewhere south of the border. Call me an idealist, but for some reason I don’t think this project would go anywhere.
If Hartman chooses to review the sequel, I hope he will explain how he has so stringently avoided any exposure to the crude racism, bellicose nationalism and anti-democratic sentiments I heard expressed on a daily basis by young, seemingly cosmopolitan Jewish Israelis during the month I spent living in the so-called “bubble city” of Tel Aviv. Or perhaps Hartman has been exposed to it, but believes racism in Tel Aviv must be concealed from the goyim to avoid tribal humiliation. Harvard University Yiddish literature professor Ruth Wisse has promoted this mentality, telling a group of young Jewish journalists in 2007 that they should not act as independent-minded critics but rather as “soldiers” for Israel, “armed with pens instead of Uzis,’ as Eric Alterman recalled.
Gershom Gorenberg, the writer American opinion pages so often turn to for a supposedly progressive Israeli perspective, attacked “Feeling the Hate in Jerusalem” as “an argument for old media,” claiming the video did not pass journalistic muster because I didn’t interview enough “real” Israelis. Have I now met Gorenberg’s threshold for Israeli interview subjects? If Gorenberg, who recently took to the pages of the neocon Weekly Standard to pontificate on “The Missing Mahatma in Palestine, has any further advice on improving my reporting chops, I hope he will help readers locate the Israeli MLK as well. He can start with the Tel Aviv U student who confuses Martin Luther King with Rodney King, then proceeds to mock his optimistic philosophy.
Uncomfortable as is may be for many to confront, Israeli resentment of Arabs, minorities and designated foreign enemies ranging from the Iranian people to Barack Obama is not a phenomenon exclusive to the denizens of fanatical settlements in the West Bank. The trend now hovers well above the surface in the mainstream of Israeli society, including throughout Tel Aviv. It is reflected most apparently in the almost total national support for Israel’s brutal, maximalist war on the civilian population of the Gaza Strip in December 2008, the subsequent election of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the ascent of Avigdor Lieberman and his proto-fascist Yisrael Beiteynu party.
It is also reflected in unreported daily indignities against members of the country’s Arab population, like the detention and interrogation I witnessed in the Florentin district of two Palestinian Israeli men by Tel Aviv police officers. Their crime, I learned, was speaking Arabic on a city bus. “The police are always on my dick,” one of the men told me after he was released. “But that’s what it’s like being Palestinian in Tel Aviv, so I’ve gotten used to it.”
The proposed bills that have flooded the Knesset since the election which seek to criminalize the speech of Palestinian Israelis and demand they make loyalty oaths under threat of deportation, along with the constant raids and repressive actions by Israeli authorities against anti-occupation activists, reveal a country careening rapidly and perhaps irrevocably towards authoritarianism. Just as Hamas reflects the genuine national aspirations of Palestinians, the far-right coalition government of Israel embodies the mood of Israeli society. This is not a momentary aberration.
“I don’t think there is a qualitative change [in Israeli society], I think there’s a deepening of trends,” former Knesset member and New Israel Fund President Naomi Chazan told me. “One day it’s the Arabs, the next day it’s going to be the secular people, the next day it’s going to be women. You know where the repression starts but you have no idea where it ends.”