30 August 2012
For those of us who spend significant amounts of time and energy worrying about Israel, it’s been a tough summer. On both sides of the ocean, nerves are frayed over the specter of a clash with Iran. African immigrants have been hounded out of the country by mobs and by government policy. And a string of violent attacks by Jewish extremists have targeted non-Jews.
I’ve written over the past year or so about the “Price Tag” attacks on Palestinians, on Jewish peace and human rights activists, and even on the Israel Defense Forces by extremists in the settler camp. The latest incidents are perhaps even more chilling. In downtown Jerusalem, a mob of Jewish teenagers roamed the streets looking for Arabs to attack, and a 17-year old boy was beaten almost to death. In the West Bank, police arrested three 12-year olds from a settlement in the firebombing of a taxi that left 6 members of a Palestinian family injured, some of them critically.
The incidents have more in common than the shocking age of the alleged perpetrators. Both attacks were motivated by raw animus. But children have to be taught to hate; it doesn’t come naturally. And the hard truth is, in Israel in the summer of 2012, tolerance and compassion – critical antidotes to hatred, and core Jewish values both – have seemed to be in dangerously short supply. This is an Israel, after all, in which dozens of rabbis – all state funded officials – call for Jews not to rent or sell property to non-Jews (read: Arabs); in which dozens of bills that would shut down or shut up human and civil rights organizations and circumscribe freedom of expression work their way through Knesset, some becoming law; and where Knesset members call African immigrants “a cancer in our body” and government ministers vow to “make the lives miserable.” It’s not so hard to understand why kids are imbibing the hate.
The good news is that the tide may be turning. In addition to the great work of NIF and our grantees in countering the hate (you can read more about that in this issue), there are promising signs that the broader Israeli society is increasingly willing to recognize that there is a real problem. The firebombing of the taxi and, especially, the mob attack in Jerusalem resulted in a national bout of handwringing and introspection. Difficult questions are being asked about the tone of public discourse and the state of education in the country. Vice Prime Minister Moshe Ya’alon called the firebombing “a terrorist attack.” And Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, in an act worthy of the month of Elul, visited one of the victims of the mob attack in the hospital and told him, “We are sorry… What happened is the responsibility of every leader and member of Knesset.” (As an American who watched as my country was convulsed, once again, by senseless gun violence this summer, I am deeply moved by – and envious of – Rivlin’s powerful assumption of responsibility for Israel’s violence problem. Would that my national leaders were so courageous).
To be sure, all of this amounts only to a tentative first step in confronting the problem of violent extremism and racism in Israel. But it is a start. And, as they say, the first step in solving a problem is admitting that you have one.