Edmund Sanders
The Los Angeles Times
January 23, 2011 - 1:00am

The intent of the anonymous Internet video was unambiguous: "This person should be killed — and soon," read a message underneath a photo of Israel's deputy state prosecutor, Shai Nitzan.

His alleged offense? "Betraying" his Jewish roots by opening a criminal inquiry into racist threats and hate speech expressed on two Israel-based Facebook pages with statements in Hebrew such as "Death to Arabs."

It was the latest, and most overtly violent, sign of what many here are calling a wave of intolerance toward people of different races, religions, orientations and viewpoints.

From rabbinical prohibitions against renting homes to "non-Jews" to government crackdowns on left-wing activists, Israelis are grappling with their nation's identity and character.

Across the political spectrum, some see the struggle as a threat to Israel's democratic ideals. Opposition leader Tzipi Livni, of the centrist Kadima party, warned that "an evil spirit has been sweeping over the country." Defense Minister Ehud Barak said a "wave of racism is threatening to pull Israeli society into dark and dangerous places."

Faced with a Cabinet move to force non-Jewish prospective citizens to declare loyalty to a "Jewish state," government minister Dan Meridor parted with fellow members of the conservative Likud Party in opposing the motion. After the motion won Cabinet approval, he said, "This is not the Israel we know."

A recent Israel Democracy Institute poll found nearly half of Jewish Israelis don't want to live next door to Arabs. But the list of unwanted neighbors didn't stop there. More than one-third didn't want to live next to foreigners or the mentally ill, and nearly one in four said they wouldn't want to share a street with gays or the ultra-Orthodox.

"A Time to Hate," was the headline in the newspaper Haaretz this month. Some have compared the hostile climate to 1995, shortly before a right-wing fanatic assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

"The immune systems of Israeli society are clearly crumbling," Labor Party lawmaker Daniel Ben-Simon said.

To some, the timing of the rising intolerance is surprising because it comes during a period of relative security and prosperity. The number of terrorist attacks in Israel dropped last year to its lowest level in more than a decade, and Israel's economy is growing faster than those of most other countries.

Ben-Simon said the lack of pressing outside threats might be contributing to the domestic friction.

"The stronger the external tension, the more repressed the internal tension," he said. "Any lull in outside pressure causes the internal ones to rise…. This led people to feel that if they're squared off with the outside and feel secure enough, 'Let's fight a bit.'"

The rise of Israel's nationalist and religious parties might also be playing a role. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu party and the religious Shas party now account for about one-third of the ruling coalition's seats in the parliament, or Knesset, and have emerged as key players in advocating a conservative agenda in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition government.

Party leaders say their agenda is not about intolerance but is designed to instill Jewish values in the government, and preserve the Jewish character of Israel. They point to their growing popularity among voters as evidence of public support for their programs.

But critics say Arab Israelis and foreigners have borne the brunt of their agenda.

Last month, dozens of municipal rabbis issued an edict against renting or selling real estate to non-Jews, particularly Arab citizens. A group of rabbis' wives followed with a public letter urging Jewish women to avoid contact with Arab men.

Meanwhile, the Knesset is considering a bill that would allow Israeli communities to form local committees that could ban prospective residents based on race, sexual orientation or marital status.

Israel's rising population of migrant workers is also drawing fire. Ultra-Orthodox city leaders in the Tel Aviv suburb of Bnei Brak have tried to ban the rental of apartments to foreigners and pressured landlords who resisted.

In Ashdod, some African immigrants narrowly escaped death when their front door was set afire with a burning tire. In Petah Tikva, Girl Scouts born in Israel to African parents were beaten on their way home by attackers who called them names.

Tolerance of differing political viewpoints also appears to be shrinking.

The Knesset this month gave its provisional approval to an investigatory committee to examine the foreign funding of leftist and pro-Palestinian groups that criticize Israel's military. Leaders of the targeted groups likened the move to a "McCarthyist witch hunt" designed to silence government criticism.

But it's not only liberals and minority groups who are facing attack. Some of the same religious and political groups who are backing the crackdowns on Arabs and leftists are also feeling the rise of intolerance.

After lawmaker Faina Kirschenbaum — part of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, which includes many Russian immigrants — introduced the motion to investigate left-leaning organizations, her office received a letter reading, "A good Russian is a dead Russian," and characterizing Russian immigrants as "whores, thieves and hooligans."

Last fall, a radio talk-show host launched into an on-air tirade about welfare payments to non-working ultra-Orthodox men, calling the men "parasites."

And Arab Israelis, according to the Israel Democracy Institute poll, appear just as intolerant. About two-thirds said they wouldn't want to live next to Jewish settlers, the ultra-Orthodox or gay couples. About half preferred not to live near foreigners.

Some question whether the tide of intolerance is rising at all, saying the public debate in Israel has been hijacked by extremists in part because of the weakness of the centrist and liberal political parties.

Bambi Sheleg, founder of the magazine A Different Place, a respected social affairs journal, said she doesn't think Israelis are becoming more xenophobic, but that extremist viewpoints are receiving more attention.

"Israeli society consists of a gigantic center," she said. "But there is no one to lead it and its voice isn't heard."

She expressed hope that the recent trend would trigger a backlash among Israeli centrists that would lead to more tolerance.

"We are on the threshold of the understanding that we all have to live here together and compromise," she said. "These are growing pains."


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