UMM AL-FAHM, ISRAEL — Ameer Talal once got 100 customers a day at the car wash he runs outside Israel’s biggest Arab town. But fear has kept away his Jewish clientele.
His little car wash, like most of the Arab-owned businesses around him, has fallen victim to a widening rift between Israeli Arabs and Jews. After a pair of hideous murders and a no-holds-barred war, the suspicions and anger that have long marked Jewish Israeli relations with Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are now being trained on the Arabs who are almost 1 in 5 of Israel’s 8 million citizens.
“What we’ve seen in the last two months are ugly expressions of hyper-nationalism,” said Tamara Hermann, a political scientist who said that “some people think all Israeli Arabs are a fifth column.”
Hermann works for the Israel Democracy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank that has run ads urging Jewish Israelis to be more tolerant of Israeli Arabs who have expressed sympathy for the suffering of Palestinians during Israel’s military operation in the Gaza Strip.
Talal says he is afraid to visit the Jewish towns and neighborhoods he used to frequent, because he has heard tales of Arabs being subjected to insults, discrimination and even beatings by Jews.
“It’s impossible,” the 40-year-old said as he sat on a white plastic chair inside his storefront while three employees stood idly nearby. “Five radicals can look at you and shout: ‘Terrorist! Terrorist!’ They’ll beat you, and what can you do?”
In its intensity and character, the latest wave of anti-Arab sentiment appears different from what arose in previous times of violence between Israel and the Palestinians, experts say.
Dozens of Israeli Arabs were fired from their jobs after posting strong antiwar views on social media, including some missives that seemed to delight in Israeli casualties. Soccer fans booed an Arab player on Israel’s most popular team. Israeli police arrested several Jews who attacked Arabs on the street. Now, Arab merchants are watching their businesses wither away as Jewish customers and suppliers balk at venturing into an Arab neighborhood, even one where they have friends.
As business and personal relationships crack under the strain, those who work toward coexistence say relations between the Jewish majority and the Arab minority have never been worse, not even during two intifadas and two previous military operations in Gaza.
“There’s been a deterioration, a serious one, that leaves me concerned with the fabric of relations between Jews and Arabs in Israel,” said Rachel Liel, executive director of the New Israel Fund, a liberal civil rights group.
Some now question whether the wounds rubbed raw in the past two months can be healed.
Israeli Arab author and journalist Sayed Kashua moved with his family to Chicago last month. In his last column from Israel for the daily newspaper Haaretz, Kashua wrote that he and his wife argued when he begged her to stay home from work after a Palestinian teen was burned alive, allegedly by Jews in revenge for the kidnap and murder of three Jewish teenagers by Arabs.
“I was silent, knowing that my attempt at living together with others in this country was over,” he wrote of his tiff with his wife. “That the lie I’d told my children about a future in which Arabs and Jews share the country equally was over.”
The tensions of the last two months have been building for years, as Israeli Arabs have grown more outspoken in their demands for equal rights.
A group of Arab intellectuals issued a “vision” statement in 2006 that, among other things, called for Israel to stop thinking of itself as a Jewish state and become “a state of all its citizens.” Polling data has shown a rise over a decade in the number of Israeli Arabs who identify themselves as Palestinian Israelis and a drop in those who would vote for Israel to define itself as a Jewish state if they were given equal rights. Many Israelis have watched those developments with unease, seeing in them an existential threat.
The sentiments collided on, of all places, a soccer field. Fans shouted anti-Arab odium at Mahran Radi, an Arab midfielder with the team Maccabi Tel Aviv, after the three Jewish teens were killed in the West Bank. President Reuven Rivlin publicly condemned the slurs.
Tensions were further exacerbated by the war in Gaza, experienced by Jews following Israeli media highlighting the battle against Hamas and by Arabs watching Al Jazeera footage of women and children who died.
Some Israeli Arabs who posted sentiments about the war on Facebook were abruptly fired, said Maha Shehade, a lawyer at Worker’s Hotline, an Israeli group that advocates for employee rights.
Their postings highlighted the different perceptions. One post showed photos of dead Palestinian children. Another person posed at a protest with a Palestinian flag. Someone called the Israeli army immoral; another accused it of war crimes.
“Everything they posted did not fit the consensus, and that was the reason for them being fired,” Shehade said.
Some of the postings have been deeply offensive to many Israelis. A couple dozen Facebook groups were created in response, such as one titled “Boycott Israeli companies who employ traitors.” It republished the posts — such as one by a woman who wrote “Another 11 soldiers killed! :)” — beside the names and photos of Israeli Arabs and urged followers to pressure their employers to fire them.
In late July, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman urged Israelis to boycott businesses run by Israeli Arabs who participate in protests against the operation in Gaza.
Liel, of the New Israel Fund, said Lieberman’s call for a boycott of some Arab businesses was heard by many Israeli Jews as a call to boycott all Arab businesses.
“You’re now sending a clear signal to Arabs: You are not part of society,” she said.
In this vitriolic atmosphere, some Israelis decided on their own it was prudent to stay away from Arab towns and businesses they once visited without a care.
Muhammed Mahajneh said some of his Jewish suppliers no longer make deliveries to his farming-implement store in Umm al-Fahm, the cultural and social center of the Arab towns and villages that make up an area known as Wadi Ara southeast of Haifa. Those who are willing to come to his store, he said, call him from the road and insist on an escort into town.
“I have Jewish friends who still come visit, but they call me first and ask if it’s safe,” he said. “They never did that before.”
There were many antiwar protests in Umm al-Fahm, a town of 48,000 that is home to both a fundamentalist group known as the Northern Islamic Movement and an internationally acclaimed art gallery dedicated to exhibitions that promote dialogue between Jews and Arabs.
“We continue to be loyal to Israel and our identity,” said owner Said Abu Shakra. “But it’s very difficult to be Arab in Israel these days.”
Halpern reported from Jerusalem.