Reporter's notebookSeveral Arab voters downplay threat of far-right Ben Gvir

Voters in mixed Jewish-Arab city Lod choose between far-right and radical left

Tensions in Lod have abated since the severe intercommunal violence of May 2021, but the riots are still fresh in the minds of some voters

Jeremy Sharon

Jeremy Sharon is The Times of Israel’s legal affairs and settlements reporter

A Lod marketplace on election day, November 1, 2022. (Jeremy Sharon/Times of Israel)
A Lod marketplace on election day, November 1, 2022. (Jeremy Sharon/Times of Israel)

LOD — In May 2021, the mixed Jewish-Arab city of Lod became one of the focal points of the worst intercommunal violence ever witnessed in Israel, during which two residents — one Arab, one Jewish — were killed and dozens were injured. Arab residents rioted in the city and burned Jewish property following violence on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, while Jewish right-wing extremists from outside Lod fought with both Arab residents and police.

On Tuesday morning on election day, in the city’s sprawling open-air market, those riots could not have seemed further away.

Under the warm autumn sun, Arab patrons rubbed shoulders with Jews, religious Muslim women in hijabs and niqabs scrutinized jewelry being hawked by a religious Jew, and the market appeared to be a scene of coexistence.

Yet although local voters expressed a wide range of political views, many said they would be voting for some of the most extreme parties running for election.

Yishai Lavi said he was voting for the far-right, religiously conservative Religious Zionism party, which includes the Otzma Yehudit faction led by extremist MK Itamar Ben Gvir, because he wanted the country to emphasize its Jewish identity.

“It should be clear that this is a Jewish country. People who are against the State of Israel should not be partners in the coalition,” he said, referring to the Arab political parties.

MK Itamar Ben Gvir (R) and MK Bezalel Smotrich (L) at an election campaign event in Sderot, October 26, 2022 (Flash90)

Lavi asserted that the state of relations between Jews and Arabs in the city was good, gesturing toward the diverse patrons shopping in the market.

“We live together, but it should be clear this is a Jewish state,” he said.

Lavi also noted that he supported Religious Zionism’s platform clause promising to annex the West Bank.

Asked what he thought of Ben Gvir’s stated aim of West Bank annexation without giving Palestinians the right to vote, Lavi said he wasn’t sure how such a plan would work in practice, and also declined to say whether it could be democratic.

Ahmad Mansour, a Jaffa resident who came to Lod to shop in the market, said he had yet to vote and was not even sure if he would vote at all due to general disillusionment with the political system.

He said if he ended up voting, it would be for either Ra’am, an Islamist party that was a coalition partner in the outgoing government, or the nationalist Balad. But he expressed dissatisfaction with Balad’s political priorities.

“[Balad leader Sami] Abou Shahadeh wants more to take care of the Palestinians. But you need to take care of the people inside Israel, the citizens, and then worry about what’s going on outside,” he said. Ra’am leader Mansour Abbas, he opined, had prioritized the needs of Arab Israelis.

Ra’am MK Mansour Abbas in the Knesset on June 30, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

For Mansour, the most pressing issue was the cost of living, he said, noting that it was hard to make ends meet.

“Prices need to be brought down. The cost of living is too high, property is too expensive,” he said, but added that he does not have much faith that politicians will be effective in achieving this goal.

He nevertheless said he welcomed the fact that Ra’am had entered the current government, the first time an Arab party had joined an Israeli coalition.

“This is supposed to be a democracy, so if that’s right then all parties need to take part in the government,” said Mansour.

He professed himself not particularly worried about Ben Gvir, saying he did not believe he would the lawmaker would able to implement his most extreme policies, but recommended nevertheless that “someone needs to calm him down.”

A polling station on election day in the mixed Jewish-Arab neighborhood of Ramat Eshkol in Lod, November 1, 2022. (Jeremy Sharon/Times of Israel)

A few hundred meters down the road from the market, voters made their way in a slow but steady stream to voting stations inside the Elrazi school in the mixed Jewish-Arab neighborhood of Ramat Eshkol.

Religious Zionist families moved into Ramat Eshkol in the late 1990s and the community has grown ever since.

The May 2021 riot hit the neighborhood hard, and property belonging to Jewish residents — including cars and a synagogue — was set ablaze during the violence.

Shifra Epstein, a Ramat Eshkol resident who voted for the Religious Zionism party, noted with approval Ben Gvir’s platform of relaxing open-fire regulations for soldiers and police officers while at the same time granting them immunity from prosecution for any action they carry out during operational duty.

“We saw what happened here during the riots, when the police just ran away and didn’t do anything because they were afraid of what might happen to them,” said Epstein.

“As soon as they have support, as soon as they think the state is behind them and backing them up and they don’t need to be afraid of their own shadow, then they will be able to work properly,” she continued, adding that she believed “human beings, in particular Jews, are compassionate and don’t just kill for no reason.”

She said she preferred Religious Zionism leader MK Bezalel Smotrich over Ben Gvir, since she believes the former is more moderate and inclusive than the Otzma Yehuda faction head.

A car burns in the central Israeli city of Lod during riots on May 12, 2021. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

Leila, a religious Muslim woman who also lives in Ramat Eshkol, voted shortly after Epstein at the same polling station and said she had voted for Balad since she felt a lack of equality as an Arab citizen.

Balad advocates for a one-state solution in which Israel and the West Bank would become a single democratic state without its Jewish character.

Leila said she felt this inequality in all walks of life, but pointed specifically to the education system, where she said far greater resources were channeled to the Jewish education system compared to the network of Arab schools.

Like Mansour, she said she was not overly worried about the extreme policies of the Religious Zionism party, “because I am living in a democratic country.”

Back in the market, shoe vendor David Harhouhli said he was voting for the ultra-Orthodox Shas in order to preserve the religious nature of Israel’s Jewish character, despite the fact that he felt the party does not represent him.

“I vote for them only because I want there to be a little bit of Torah here, a bit of proper behavior. I don’t believe in them, I don’t know who they are, but I want a religious party so that this country has something of a Jewish character,” said Harhouhli.

“I don’t want everyone marrying each other, I don’t want Reform Jewish weddings, I want Shabbat to be preserved, unlike today when there are buses all over the place on Shabbat; shops are open, which didn’t use to be the case.

“You can go into a school and no one knows even what Shema Yisrael is,” he said, in reference to a central verse recited in Jewish prayer.

“Where is this leading to? If we continue like this we’ll lose our Jewish identity for sure.”

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