Alon Tal

Defeating Hamas also means preserving Israeli society’s integrity

While the IDF destroys Hamas, doing what needs to be done for the country’s security, we must also be vigilant in the protection of our country’s soul.

Israeli society is a mosaic. When a mosaic is smashed, all of its multi-colored pieces are damaged. Hamas may prioritize murdering Jews, but its brutality has not spared any of Israel’s citizens: Among the dead and missing are dozens of Bedouin Israelis.

The kibbutzim and farming communities on the border have long relied on Thai workers to help raise and pick their produce. So, it should not be surprising that some 22 of the dead in the October 7th massacre were Thai citizens. When the press reports that more than half of the 224 hostages in Gaza hold foreign passports, most people assume that this reflects a disproportionate number of immigrants from Western countries living on kibbutzim contiguous to Gaza. But in fact, 54 of the hostages in Gaza are Thai nationals, five are Nepalese, along with a handful of Chinese, Sri Lankans, Tanzanians, and, of course, Filipinos. Their families, too, are worried sick and praying for their release.

Notwithstanding pleas to stay, from their agricultural employers, during the past weeks, many Thai workers have chosen to leave Israel until the winds of war blow by. But many more are still here. We need to recognize that. I was especially touched listening to the radio this morning when Eritreans from south Tel Aviv were interviewed after they volunteered to come help pick the crops, which are in danger of wilting on the vine for lack of laborers. “Most of us have lived in Israel for more than ten years. Israel is our home. When Hamas attacked Israel – they attacked us too” one explained.

I find that moving because no sector in Israel has faced as much intolerance as the country’s foreign workers — most of whom migrated illegally into Israel from Africa, either to escape political unrest or to pursue economic opportunity. And yet, the vast majority are showing their detractors that today they are full members of Team Israel.

Their solidarity is heartwarming, if perhaps more symbolic in its dimensions than the extraordinary allegiance displayed by Israel’s Arab citizens since the war began. While Israel’s miscreant national security minister, Itamar Ben Gvir, gleefully predicted Israeli Arabs would become a fifth column – the opposite phenomenon has been the rule.

Arab Israelis have not spoken up in support of the Hamas regime, much less taken such a position to the street. Their quiet support for Israel’s war effort is heartwarming. An Arab bicycle store owner from Taibe went so far as to donate 50 bicycles to kibbutz refugees who find themselves homeless in hotels, without basic transportation. Even Israel’s taciturn police commissioner, Yaakov Shabtai, went on the record this week waxing enthusiastic: “I need to put in a good word about the exemplary behavior of Israeli Arabs”.

Unfortunately, for many Jewish citizens, the barbarity of the Hamas attack unleashed long-repressed fears about Arab intentions. Some towns have been unwilling to resume construction at building sites due to concerns over the proximity of Arab construction workers. There have been innumerable daily lapses into racist rhetoric and nasty slurs about the loyalty of Israeli Arab citizens. We can understand why people are afraid. But we cannot accept such bigotry.

Israeli novelist David Grossman wrote soon after the war began that if he could hazard a guess, Israeli society after the war “will be much more rightwing, militant and racist.” There are some signs that he may be right. But this next chapter of Israeli history has not yet been written. It is in our power to do better.

The nation marvels every day at the edifying effects of society’s newly rediscovered unity. Nobody wants Israel to go back to being the splintered, paranoid place it was for far too long — a place that allowed disingenuous politicians to exploit our differences to seed mistrust and prejudice. It is not too early to start talking about what sort of country Israel should be after the dust settles.

Surely, we will be less tolerant of intermittent terrorist attacks and more zealous in responding to possible security threats. But that doesn’t mean we need to lapse into a suspicious Sparta that distrusts any citizen who isn’t exactly like the majority. Arab citizens deserve a place at the table as well. Israeli law guarantees them evenhandedness.

At the heart of Israel’s propaganda message are the humanitarian, democratic values that distinguish Israeli society from that of its enemies. This means that we must refuse to make rash generalizations about Israeli minorities or disparage Palestinian culture per se. Hamas is not only an enemy to Jewish Israelis; it is an enemy to all of the country’s citizens.

When we succumb to fears about the intentions of Arab citizens of Israel, we give Hamas yet another victory. The objectives of this war must include not only the unconditional defeat of the fanatical Islamic regime in Gaza, but the defeat of evil in our midst that feeds on fear and spawns intolerance. The Middle East has changed for the better in recent years. Moderation is on the rise. Israel needs to double down on this friendlier neighborhood and the hope of a better future.

About the Author
Alon Tal is a professor of Public Policy at Tel Aviv University. In 2021 and 2022, he was chair of the Knesset's Environment, Climate & Health subcommittee.