Religion, race and class in Israel

Submitted by Matthew on 9 February, 2011 - 2:06

Two Workers’ Liberty activists — Louise Gold and Rosie Huzzard — who were on a recent delegation to Israel and Palestine reflect on Louis Theroux: Ultra Zionists, shown on BBC2 in early February, and the first episode of The Promise, a drama based in 1940s Palestine and modern day Israel and the West Bank, Channel 4, Sundays.

Louis Theroux is well known for his “faux-naif” and “hands-off” journalistic approach, and this continues to be his tack in this most controversial of settings — time spent in Jerusalem and the West Bank with the ultra right-wing Jewish settlers, and those who support them.

The documentary opens with a snippet from an interview with a worn-looking Israeli man in the olive groves. Regarding the Palestinians, he proclaims, “they want to annihilate us... They want the whole thing.” This sense of victim status is reiterated throughout the documentary and is, of course, not completely groundless, but is also reinforced with profuse myth making.

Theroux spends a significant amount of the documentary with Daniel Luria, spokesperson for the group Ateret Cohanim, who facilitate the settlement of Jews in Arab areas, mainly in East Jerusalem and the Old City. Luria’s argument for this, as well as religious righteousness, is that the Jews can either expand into Palestinian areas or “pack our bags and go back to the ovens of Auschwitz.” He follows this bathetically by saying “or I go back to the shores of Australia.”

Families are often placed in deliberately contentious neighbourhoods, both to drive out Palestinians and to stake a claim to the land. Rent doesn’t drive people to live in this area, “what drives him is ideology.”

Dispossessing Palestinians

During our trip we were shown Palestinian houses that had been possessed by the IDF as military outposts. This exposes the cavalier attitude of both the state, and extreme right wing, toward Palestinian property and livelihoods, and as such the continued trend of displacement.

Luria explains to Theroux that international Jewish donors buy up buildings in the old city. At the same time, a Palestinian neighbour shouts that the house being filmed was taken while the family was at a wedding. And it is true that the family’s belongings are still in the building.

Theroux’s questions regarding how exactly families come to possess these properties, how the Arab families are persuaded to leave, and whether or not external funding is used to help the cause all go unanswered, and Luria looks evasive.

Next Theroux travels to the West Bank, home to 2,500,000 Palestinians and 300,000 Jewish settlers (figures from the show).

He visits the illegal settlement, Ehad Gilud, built by a small group of radical Zionist youths, one of whom argues for his right to live wherever he wants in the West Bank, on the premise that the “Jews are the chosen, we’re not gonna go from here.” When we were on a “Stop the Wall” tour, this kind of maverick construction was described to us as being at the fringe of ultra-Zionist activity, but we were told that it often leads to the establishment of more permanent communities of settlers. Young extremists, usually male, arrive first, pitching tents and caravans, where more enduring structures are eventually built, which the Israeli state finally endorses.

One of the most disturbing moments of the documentary was Theroux’s visit to Bil’in. Only a few months ago we found ourselves on the weekly Friday march, approaching the security barrier that makes up part of the partition wall, which prevents the villagers from reaching 60% of their arable land.

This land seizure was not mentioned by Theroux, or the IDF.. Instead the group of unarmed Palestinian, international, and Israeli activists were considered to be there because “ was a convenient place for left [wing] Israelis to come from Tel Aviv.”

They were engaging in the glibly described Friday “ritual”. The activists we met organise scrupulously for these events, giving health warnings at the beginning. The IDF conversely seem to see it as a game. In the last year and a half, two siblings have been killed at the Bi’lin demonstration, Bassem from a canister to the chest and his sister Jawahar Abu Rahman from tear gas inhalation on New Year’s Day 2011.

While children throw stones at the fully armed soldiers, the marches are more generally proactively peaceful. Yet as the ritual begins, the IDF soldier says, “He threw the tear gas, the Palestinian.”

The Palestinian villagers do not have weapons. The soldier’s accusation is impossible to believe, unless the canister was first fired by the IDF. Louis Theroux’s comment, “injuries on both sides were not uncommon”, following this scene, was stomach churning.

There was a lot of footage of children throwing stones at the IDF and settlers throughout the documentary. We were told when we were in Palestine that a lot of children suffer psychological problems and chronic bed wetting because of the constant IDF presence and weekly attacks.

A left-wing British-Israeli who travelled with us in the West Bank expressed her confusion as we initially saw the children throwing these stones. In Israel, she said, the IDF using tear gas is seen as a justified dispersal method towards violent protestors, and a just and balanced reaction. Here though, there were just children with slingshots.

Religion and race

In Hebron there are 700-800 settlers in the middle of a Palestinian town. The head of security for Hebron’s Jewish community is Yonni Blachmart. He explains that there is no provision such as buses for Palestinians in the settlement, despite the fact they have to pass through to get to shops, because it is “a safe zone, it’s sterile”.

The argument moves from religious supremacy to race. He also explains that it is the Israeli police and army who are called out, whether it is Jews or Arabs throwing stones in Hebron. When asked whether he sees how the police and army might favour the settlers, he says, “No. That’s not democracy... They have their own government in their own municipalities.”

If the Palestinian Authority had any real control of the area to rival Israel, they would have their own police force. The PA has control over a small section of the land in the West Bank where there is a dense Arab population only, and Israel has control of the rest, including the borders. It is a very partial democracy. While driving around with settlers, Theroux doesn’t seem to notice that there are two separate road systems for settlers and for Palestinians.

One of the final lines of the documentary that seemed to sum up the sheer madness of the political situation in Israel and Palestine was in response to Theroux asking Luria, “is it possible Daniel, that you are a religious extremist?”

“If I am an extremist, then millions of citizens of Jerusalem and the state of Israel are also extremist,” says Luria, unblinking.

This is an unfair characterisation. Many of the Israelis we met were the opposite. However, what currently governs the Knesset is certainly influenced by that religious and racist extremism.

The documentary came off as pro-Palestinian, but more from giving the right-wingers a forum in which to voice their views, by which they hung themselves, rather than a concerted effort from Theroux. His hands-off approach, usually laudable, here left the whole project feeling under researched. There was not enough information given from which to make an analysis.

The Promise

The first in the series The Promise was shown on C4 on Sunday 5 February. In many ways it was what Theroux’s effort was not: thoroughly well-researched.

It was also highly dramatic in a very different way to that of “Ultra-Zionists”‘ hard-hitting realism. Shown through the eyes of the (at times) almost unimaginably naive British teenager Erin, the show uses high production values and the virtues of the landscape to full effect. It reeled through harrowing footage of Bergen Belsen being liberated in 1945 before cutting to Jewish immigrants arriving on Palestinian shores, greeted by the British army. It took us into a bourgeois slice of glamorous modern day Israel and the more flatly oppressed occupied West Bank, before flashing back to scenes of Palestine under British mandate.

The scenes contained in them some of the most central issues to the region: immigration now and then; occupation and all that entails, including checkpoint harassment, the debate about the security wall, and methods of protest; IDF-conscription; soldiers breaking the silence; conciliatory discussion between ex-fighters from both sides; and suicide bombing. We enjoyed the episode, but in spite of the focus on the extraordinarily privileged family of Eliza in Israel and the lack, as yet, of political diversity or real engagement with the Palestinian story.

Class in Israel

At the Workers’ Advice Centre in Tel Aviv, they explained how the marketisation of Israel since the 1970s has pushed the Jewish working class down, into a position that left the majority in as much need of unionisation as Arab workers in the country.

There is possibility for unification and solidarity beyond ex-combatants, a dynamic that is missing in “The Promise” because the central family are so horribly middle class. We doubt the drama has room in it to explore fights for workers’ rights and women’s rights in the West Bank either.

The plot touches on groups of ex-IDF soldiers who now speak out against the occupation, such as Breaking the Silence (, represented in the rebellious young son of the central family. There were many other interesting touches. Erin and Eliza’s reaction to seeing young IDF soldiers sitting in a cafe with their rifles, and the humiliation for a young Arab-Israeli citizen at the border are familiar and common reminders of the daily life in this part of the world.

Another problem was the sensational final scene which depicted a terrorist bomb exploding in an Israeli cafe. This sort of attack hasn’t happened for five years. It was the only moment that felt over the top and delivered for dramatic effect over and above authenticity. It was a shame in an otherwise more or less historically accurate and politically reasonable portrayal of the conflict.

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