Arab caregivers in our children’s schools — an Israeli-Jewish reflection

Some parents have called for the firing of Arab caretakers from our children’s schools. I understand the fear. Yet, I refuse to be quiet — reflections regarding a challenging Israeli-Jewish conversation.

The violence of the past weeks in Israel has been painful — painful in terms of human loss and full of fear and anger, which can fog our minds. Extreme situations sometimes clarify right from wrong, sometimes confuse them and sometimes, highlight the complexity of our reality. I would like to acknowledge the complexity by sharing one particular, very active conversation among parents and educators here in Israel:

Some parents have called for the firing of Arab caretakers from our children’s schools. The demand has not stemmed from revenge — at least not on a conscious level. It comes from fear, from the huge responsibility we feel for our children, and the deep desire to protect them. Parents ask themselves, “How will I look in the mirror if the cleaner at school stands up tomorrow and stabs my child or her friends?”

I understand the fear. Yet, hearing this, I feel fire burning inside me. “Have we forgotten the generalizations, fear and racism, that fed on each other to legitimate the persecution of Jews? How can we act that way toward others?” I ask.

“People are being stabbed and shot in the streets,” I am told.

I refuse to be quiet when Arabs and other minorities are fired because of their religious or national identity. But, in the turmoil of voices, an important question becomes clear to me: How can we have this conversation in a productive way?

I spoke to many around be, and also wrote to my colleagues in the United States. Just this simple act made me more tangibly aware of the segregation of Israeli society. It became clear to me how it might sound foreign, even primitive, to a minority who live as empowered, engaged citizens in a society that has accepted that separate cannot be equal.

My belief and experience teaches me that Jewish language can greatly contribute to any important conversation. Thus, here are a few ideas that came up throughout the conversations I have been part of these last few weeks. (Special thanks to my colleagues at Mechon Hadar, the Hartman Institute and fellow parents for their inputl.)

1 – Generalizations:

Avraham challenged God’s generalization regarding the people of Sodom. “האף תספה צדיק עם רשע” — will you destroy the righteous with the wicked?! How might we think about this story in Israel today? On the one hand, we are not God. We don’t have the ability to distinguish between good and evil people — at least not at-a-glance. So maybe we have the right, even the obligation, to generalize for self-protection. On the other hand, and possibly exactly because of this state of uncertainty, it is the human, Avraham, who demands that protection of the innocent must prevail over destruction of the evil. We must err on the side of compassion.

In today’s terms: there is an assumption that firing Palestinians will better serve our security. Though I do not share this assumption, I must converse with those who believe it. Do we have a halakhic or moral system that allows us to discriminate “just in case”? If so, are there times of emergency where in the short term it is legitimate to act in “survival mode” and in ways that morally we would find unacceptable in long-term, non-emergency situations? What are the implications of each choice — on emotional, religious, social, and security levels?

2 – Responsibility:

We have begun reading the Book of Genesis anew. God calls out to people, to mankind, to be partners in the on-going creation of the world. This partnership takes many forms:

One, for many of us, is as a parent. Am I acting responsibly by sending my kids to school on foot every morning and not driving them?

Another form of partnership is sovereignty. For me this is partially played out through my responsibility as an Israeli citizen. I realized through the conversations I had, that part of what makes owning responsibility challenging is that our Israeli reality, like many realities, is subjectively constructed, by myself, by others, through media and voices of leadership. Thus, there are some basic relevant questions that remain disputed or unanswered: How and where did everything begin? What is the context in which we understand the violence of the last few days, and soon weeks, to exist? How do we address short-term needs and envision long-term goals?

Returning to the Book of Genesis, it is after the flood that God first tells a human being — Noah — that the human being is made in the image of God. Perhaps God particularly wants us to remember at such times — when life is in peril — that we are each made in the divine image. Indeed, a fundamental challenge of the story of creation is to treat human beings as צלם אלוקים, images of God. Rabbi Yitz Greenberg teaches us to recognize three dignities within the understanding of Tzelem Elohim: 1) each soul is distinct, 2) of infinite value, and 3) equal to all other souls. If we take this challenge seriously, how do we talk to the Arab cleaner at school? How do we look at her? What responsibility do we have over his financial situation?

3 – Fear:

Today in the parents’ WhatsApp group, someone wrote, “the security of our children comes first, above all values”. My mind drifted to the halachic notion that ספק פיקוח נפש דוחה שבת — one can break the Shabbat in order to save a life even in a situation of possible and not definite risk. If we are in a situation of ספק פיקוח נפש — possibly life threatening, do our values become comparable to the Shabbat? Perhaps this person is right and our values need be pushed aside for the sake of life? In response a friend pointed out that one reason given to legitimate the breaking of Shabbat is על מנת שישמור שבתות הרבה — so the person might be able to keep many other sabbaths in the future. This is a central point of dispute: what kind of life will be possible after treating minorities in this way? What price will we pay for asking the Arab cleaners to come clean the school only after school hours, even temporarily and in a state of emergency? And might we be in a state of ייהרג ואל יעבור — one in which we should accept the possibility of being killed rather than transgressing?

Arabs and other minority groups need to continue being an integral part of Jewish-Israelis day to day lives. Fear is a psychological, educational and religious challenge. In the current conversation even accepting that fear is a driving force of people’s behaviors, on both sides, is not simple. But confronting fear as an impetus might open up new possibilities for response.

Thank you to R. Susan Silverman for her input.

About the Author
R. Avital Hochstein: Hartman Institute & Mechon Hadar - Avital Hochstein is a teacher and researcher. She is the Mechon Hadar Israel - Director, and a 'Maskilot' fellow at the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. Co-authored "Women Out Women In – The Place of Women in Midrash" (published in 2008) with Prof. Chana Safrai. Currently pursuing her PhD on issues of Talmud and Gender.