For Palestinian residents, Sunday’s far-right “Jerusalem Day” flag march was a day of provocation and violence against them.
About 70,000 Israelis marched through the Old City of occupied East Jerusalem, waving Israeli flags, and emphasizing that they, in their eyes, were the true rulers of Jerusalem.
The march, marking the 1967 occupation and subsequent annexation of East Jerusalem, is held annually, but this year it attracted one of the largest crowds on record.
Palestinians, young and old, were attacked, while Israeli forces watched on.
In the narrow alleys of the Old City, Palestinians were forced to listen as ultranationalist Jews chanted anti-Palestinian and Islamophobic chants, such as “Death to Arabs” and “Muhammed is dead”.
Other chants, accompanied by boisterous dancing and the sound of drums, included “a Jew is a soul, an Arab is a son of a whore” and “Shuafat is on fire” – referring to the 2015 burning alive of 15-year-old Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khdeir by Israeli settlers in Jerusalem.
“May your village burn” – a reference to the ethnic cleansing of the majority of Palestinians in 1948 by Zionist paramilitaries – was also a common chant.
Sunday’s march saw journalists reporting on the march being attacked, with some ultranationalists reveling in the death of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who was killed by an Israeli sniper while covering an army raid in the occupied West Bank city of Jenin earlier this month.
We witnessed similar in the Muslim quarter. Shortly after, our BBC team were assaulted causing our cameraman to lose part of his equipment. We were later spat at. One shouted: “Go and be with Shireen” https://t.co/dug5Eg8aRT
—Tom Bateman (@tombateman) May 30, 2022
Are these chants the views of a minority, as has often been framed, or more reflective of not just those who attended the march, but wider Israeli society?
‘Not a minority’
An article in the Israeli daily The Jerusalem Post that interviewed some of the Israelis participating in the march reflected a fervent, jingoistic mentality that interchanged the words “Arabs” and “terrorists” without a second thought.
“I work with Arabs … and I am not one of those who chant ‘death to Arabs’,” one marched said. “But our reality here is tough and we all know who is to blame. Everyone is too politically correct to say [Arabs are the problem] here.”
According to the article, most of the marches are “not driven by hate for Palestinians” but rather “by love for Israel” and the “constant fear” that it might not exist forever.
But, according to Honeida Ghanim, the director of the Palestinian Forum for Israeli Studies (MADAR), the political views of the Israelis who attended the march are “absolutely not a fringe element” of Israeli society.
“Demographically speaking, they are from the religious settler class,” she told Al Jazeera from Ramallah in the West Bank. “They transformed from being a marginal group to an essential part within Israeli society and the Jewish body as a whole.”
Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s 12-year rule bolstered the presence of this class into the mainstream, where their figureheads held top positions in state institutions in various governments, Ghanim explained. The current premier, Naftali Bennett, used to be a minister of the settlement council, which speaks volumes about the change in the heart of Israeli society.
“It [Israel’s government] is getting more religious and giving more powers to ultraorthodox factions and to the ultra-religious and ultranationalists – the extreme settlers,” Ghanim said. “It is a continuous shift for the whole society to the right on the political spectrum, the fanatical religious and settler right.”
Orly Noy, an Israeli political activist and journalist, agreed, and described the annual event as a congratulatory mainstream Israeli event.
“They [the marchers] are not the minority, not in numbers, not in ideology, and not in their political status,” she told Al Jazeera.
“Maybe many Israelis do not like to see the photos of an old Palestinian woman being beaten up by a kid, but the march itself is a huge Israeli celebration. It’s not something on the political periphery any more.”
Watch the moment an Israeli man pepper-sprayed an elderly Palestinian woman during a so-called flag march yesterday in occupied East Jerusalem’s Old City.
Videos also show another Israeli man pulling out a gun at Damascus Gate ⤵️ pic.twitter.com/0cO2fWeQcf
— Al Jazeera English (@AJEnglish) May 30, 2022
The images have become commonplace in recent years – teenage girls and boys draped in the Israeli flag sing patriotic Israeli songs and call for the death of Palestinians in one breath, all the while being protected by thousands of Israeli forces.
The culture of intimidation, racism, and hatred is the direct consequence of the continuous shift in the Israeli political spectrum constantly moving to the right, Noy said. In other words, these teenagers have grown up under various right-wing governments that have gotten more far-right and extreme in their ideologies.
YESTERDAY: Thousands of Israeli settlers are seen chanting insults and inciting to violence against Palestinians at Damascus Gate at the entrance to the Muslim Quarter of the Old City, Jerusalem. pic.twitter.com/9eiXkyR96n
— Activestills (@activestills) May 30, 2022
“If the soft fascism – as represented by Bennett – is the mainstream, then it gives room for legitimacy for a more hardcore, blunt fascism,” she said. “These are messages that are being promoted, and the youth are very much taken by that.”
In the past, Bennett has rejected accusations of fascism, and said that he wants “a right-wing peace”.
The settler youth, who are very organized and arrive in groups to the march, study at Jewish religious schools, or yeshivas.
Noy argues that the yeshivas the settler youth study at, whose defenders would say are institutes of learning to promote Judaism and Israel, promote “deep, racial ideologies”.
“The youth are not just being taught Jewish supremacy, but Jewish tyranny as well,” Noy said, explaining that, in her view, the mission of the yeshivas was to implement “Jewish supremacy” with the backing of the Israeli army.
Religion and the right wing
The growing violent nature of the Jerusalem Day parade can be explained by demographic and social changes taking place within Israeli society.
In 1948, 85 percent of those who established the Zionist project and the Israeli state were secular Ashkenazi Jews and saw religion through the frame of their nationalist ideology, which originated in Europe.
“Today, less than 40 percent define themselves as secular, with the rest defining themselves as conservative or religious,” Ghanim said.
For Noy, the changes occurring within Israeli society are solidifying, and becoming more distinct from the Jewish mainstream outside of Israel.
For example, the gap between the liberal values that the American Jewry holds – such as democracy and equality – and Israeli policies is becoming so big that they cannot even give lip service to justify it any more, she said.
“We are getting to the point where Israelis don’t even mind being called apartheid, and that’s one of the most horrifying things.”