Leaders here struggle with what Zion Square beating means for Israeli society.
A dizzyingly complex society that has managed to deal, however problematically, with the demands of ethnic minorities of every stripe?
Or a culture of increasing racism?
Those were the characterizations of the State of Israel being drawn by Jewish leaders here this week in the wake of the severe beating of a 17-year-old Arab by a group of Jewish teens on the streets of Jerusalem last week.
The beating — some referred to it as lynching — was not unexpected given the “corrosive atmosphere that has been bubbling up in Israeli society for the last 10 or 15 years,” according to one Jewish leader here.
“We have had a couple of generations since the 1967 war and the reality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” said Ami Nahshon, president of the New York-based Abraham Fund Initiatives, which works to promote peaceful coexistence between Israeli Jewish and Arab citizens.
“It should be no huge surprise that generations of Israeli youngsters have grown up with attitudes reinforced by public figures and their own communities and families.”
He cited a public opinion poll by the Israel Democracy Institute that found that about one-third of Israeli Jews do not consider Arab citizens “Israeli,” that nearly 40 percent of Jews would not work under an Arab, two-thirds avoid entering an Arab home, and one-third would deny Arab Israelis their voting rights.
The decision of most Israeli Arabs to think of themselves as Palestinians rather than Israelis is believed to have exacerbated some of those attitudes.
The brutal attack that occurred during the early morning hours of Aug. 17, Nahshon said, was a “wake-up call” for Israelis “in the context of increasing incidences of racism expressed through mosque burnings and the Safed rabbi who said Jews shouldn’t rent apartments to Arab students. … There is an atmosphere that feeds on itself, and the only answer is a definitive, proactive investment by Israeli leaders to close the gaps between Arabs and Jews, to teach tolerance to combat racism and to pursue and prosecute the offenders of hate crimes.”
The attack was widely condemned by Israeli leaders, who cautioned against indicting all of Israeli society for the actions of a relative few.
Naomi Paiss, a spokeswoman for the New Israel Fund, a major supporter of groups in Israel dedicated to religious pluralism and civil rights, said that the young people are only acting out what they hear at home and in the larger community. She pointed out that “hundreds of state-paid rabbis signed onto that edict” calling upon Israeli Jews not to rent to Arabs.
“There is a culture that has become way too tolerant of racism and incitement,” Paiss said, “and one should not be surprised when young teenagers hear the message and carry it out.”
“I spent four years at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, and I remember that we used to quote from the old song in ‘South Pacific’ that says, ‘You have to be carefully taught to hate.’ Someone is teaching these kids to hate. And to the perpetrators, it doesn’t matter whether the Arab is an Israeli citizen or not — he’s an Arab.”
In the attack last week, police were quoted as saying that 10 to 15 Jewish youths were involved while others — perhaps as many as 100 — Israeli Jews and tourists looked on. Not one intervened as the Arab teenager, who reportedly has a heart condition, was repeatedly kicked and pummeled. Six Jewish teens have been arrested — including a girl — and police said more arrests are expected.
Some compared it to the 1964 stabbing death of 28-year-old Kitty Genovese on a Queens street. Although many people are believed to have heard portions of that attack, none called police. But there were scores of people who are believed to have witnessed the entire attack last week in Zion Square in the heart of downtown Jerusalem and did nothing.
“This is something we cannot accept — not as Jews and not as Israelis,” Netanyahu said Tuesday of the attack.
During a ceremony at which he signed a treaty to promote the integration of Ethiopian Jews in Israel, Netanyahu reportedly said: “The State of Israel does not tolerate racism and the combination of racism and violence. This is not our way, it goes against our values and we strongly condemn it.”
Netanyahu also vowed to bring to justice those responsible “for this heinous crime. … It must be made clear: the State of Israel is democratic and enlightened, a country where all leaders stand against such phenomenon. This is what sets us apart from our surroundings and will continue to set us apart. I hope that one day our surroundings will change. But we will stay consistent in our complete rejection of racism and violence.”
Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg, a Modern Orthodox rabbi and president emeritus of CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Leadership and Learning, said he found the attack “very disturbing” and was “pleased to see that the response of government leadership to condemn it and to say this is a problem we have to deal with.”
But Rabbi Greenberg rejected the notion that the actions of the teens “reflects an established order or has the tacit support of the government.”
“It was an outburst by teenagers who were acting like hooligans,” he said. “The percentage of teenagers who, in an atmosphere of continuous tension and conflict, have internalized the hatred and are willing to turn violent I believe is very low.”
In fact, Rabbi Greenberg said, “the big story is that despite 60 years of continuous war and terror, Israelis have not developed a national hostility. … This disturbing development should be seen in context. In a democracy when there is an outburst and there is an attempt to see what went wrong — that is a sign of democracy. It is a sign of health to say there is a problem that has to be dealt with.”
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, pointed out that “virtually all Israelis” viewed what happened on the streets of the nation’s capital as “clearly unacceptable.”
“There is a lot of introspection now as a result of this incident and I hope there will be a further examination of what brings about such an occurrence,” he said. “But it is not representative of Israeli society or of the values of the people of Israel. I don’t think one can talk about Israel being engaged in a culture of hate.”
But Paiss pointed out that not only are Israeli Jewish attitudes strained when it comes to Arabs, but Israeli Jews also have strong feelings against the nearly 1,000 Africans who each month stream across Israel’s porous Sinai border seeking refuge in Israel.
She noted that Ethiopian Jews are also facing racism in Israel. Last year, she said, there was “an uproar by Israeli Jewish parents in Petach Tikva who said there were too many Jewish Ethiopian children in their schools. Our civil rights group in Israel went to court to prevent the schools from setting a quota. So it’s very bad to be an Arab Israeli citizen in Israel, worse to be a refugee and not much better being an Ethiopian Jew.”
But the problem of refugees is a complex one for Israel, which has deported many of them. An estimated 60,000 remain.
Hoenlein said it is wrong to “throw all these issues into one pot. These are not the same issues, and they should not be lumped together. Immigration is an issue all over the world. … Israelis in Tel Aviv were tolerant when they first came, but then crime went up and there was competition for jobs and their quality of life was affected. That is why Israel is now building a barrier [in the Sinai].”
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