JERUSALEM — A wave of protests and discriminatory acts by Jewish Israelis against Arabs and Africans is worrying rights activists and has prompted an unprecedented appeal for calm from Israel’s prime minister.
The past week alone has seen a string of passionate protests targeting “fraternization” between Arab men and Jewish women and criticizing the rising number of African migrants.
Also this week, Jerusalem police said they had arrested a gang of young Jews accused of multiple hate crime attacks against Arabs, shortly after the publication of a letter signed by dozens of Israeli rabbis, many of them state employees, calling on Jews not to rent or sell property to non-Jews.
And on Thursday night, some 10,000 people gathered in Jerusalem to protest against any freeze on Jewish settlement building in the occupied West Bank and east Jerusalem and to support the rabbis.
Among the mostly ultra-Orthodox Jews and young settlers, many shouted “no to those who would sell off Eretz Israel,” a reference to the biblical frontiers of Israel.
They also took to task Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has spoken of the possibility of withdrawing settlers from the West Bank ahead of the creation of a Palestinian state.
“Bibi (Netanyahu), keep your hands off Eretz Israel,” demonstrators shouted.
Separately, a number of rabbis from the outlawed and racist Kach movement demonstrated in support of other clergy over the call for a block on selling or renting to non-Jews.
On Wednesday, Netanyahu took the unusual step of addressing the incidents in a video message posted on his YouTube and Facebook pages.
“We are a country run by the rule of law, we respect all peoples, whoever they are,” he said.
“I insist that citizens of Israel do not take the law into their own hands, not through violence nor through incitement.”
Earlier this month, Israel’s attorney general began investigating whether the rabbis’ letter broke the law against incitement to racism.
Ronit Sela of the Association of Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) said there was a growing climate that sanctioned discrimination, nurtured by the formation almost two years ago of a coalition government embracing the Jewish nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party and the ultra-Orthodox Shas.
“We definitely see a connection between these different instances, most of them targeting either Arab citizens or non-Jewish people living in Israel,” she told AFP.
She said muted condemnation by those in power, coupled with “racist and xenophobic” declarations by Israeli lawmakers and their promotion of discriminatory legislation, encouraged hatred.
In October, ACRI wrote to Netanyahu and parliamentary speaker Reuven Rivlin warning that legislation including a bill compelling non-Jewish citizens to swear allegiance to Israel could damage Israeli democracy.
And on Thursday, Israeli-Arab lawmaker Ahmed Tibi said the current parliament was “the most racist ever,” claiming its house committee had for months blocked an equal opportunities bill, Israeli news site Ynet said.
In the blue-collar Tel Aviv suburb of Bat Yam on Monday, demonstrators at a “keeping Bat Yam Jewish” protest reportedly called for Jewish women who consort with Arab men to be put to death.
And Ynet on Thursday reported on five Israeli Arab men who said they had been forced to abandon their rented Tel Aviv flat after it was vandalized and they were threatened with violence.
Israel has 1.3 million Arab citizens — Palestinians who remained in the country after the creation of the Jewish state in 1948 and their descendants.
There are also some 200,000 Arab residents of east Jerusalem, which Israel captured in the 1967 Six Day War and later unilaterally annexed.
On Tuesday, hundreds of people marched through Tel Aviv neighborhoods calling for the expulsion of illegal migrants from Africa.
“(Avigdor) Lieberman, where are you when we need you?” read some banners, referring to the foreign minister and head of Yisrael Beitenu, while others proclaimed: “Eli Yishai we are with you,” referring to Shas’ political head.
About 35,000 economic migrants and asylum-seekers, many from Sudan and Eritrea, have slipped into Israel through its porous border with Egypt since 2006, with many congregating in rundown neighborhoods of south Tel Aviv.
Veteran residents say the newcomers are overloading social services and boosting crime levels, though police dispute the latter charge.
The liberal daily Haaretz on Thursday carried several opinion pieces on tolerance and an editorial asking President Shimon Peres to intervene.