Alon Tal

Healing Arab Israeli terror

On the shameful increase in violence and racism towards the country's Arab citizens and what to do about it

The war is over. At least for now. The collective and individual pain and heartache of hundreds of individual Israeli families will take time to heal. Without greater moderation among Hamas leadership, it is not clear to me what Israelis can do to ameliorate the horrendous toll in Gaza. But it is surely our responsibility as a society to expedite healing on our side of the border. Regrettably, few are talking about one of the most unfortunate victims of the past six weeks: The sense of safety and belonging among Israel’s Arab citizens, which has suffered inordinate damage during the past two months.

As Operation Protective Edge drew to a close and the Eid al Fitr holiday commenced, I started to visit and talk to Arab friends of mine across Israel. It seemed time that the sane and moderate majority on all sides reaffirm our commitment to living together. I expected to hear angry rebukes about the loss of human life in Gaza and the absence of diplomatic initiative or vision by Israel’s government. The main message I received, however, was very different. My friends told me simply: “We have never been more afraid of living in Israel.”

Today’s anxiety is not about the Israeli police or the army. Lessons from the violent days of October 2000, when twelve Arab citizens were killed in clashes with police, were learned and manifested in the efficient and temperate managing of the the most recent spate of demonstrations. This impressive progress does not go unrecognized by Arab Israelis. No, their fear is from ordinary Jewish Israelis, who are increasingly violent and racist in their interactions with Arab citizens.

It would be nice if we could write off the unimaginable fear and unbearable suffering of sixteen-year-old Mohammed Abu Khdeir at the hands of ideologically motivated Jewish murderers as an isolated incident. But the phenomenon of Jewish “Cossacks” started long before June with the litany of “Price Tag” vandalism.

During the war, this hatred spiraled to new levels of physical abuse among Arab citizens. Innumerable stories range from small acts of abuse, like spitting and physical shoving of Arab women on Haifa busses, to the ordeal experienced by Amir Shwiki and Samer Mahfouz from Beit Hanina. These 20-year-olds were beaten unconsciousness with iron bars and baseball bats by Jewish hoodlums as they waited for the Jerusalem light rail.

One friend from the Galilee told me he had to take his wife and two children the next day to Tiberias, but that quite frankly, for the first time in his life, he was scared for their physical safety. It is tragic that his anxiety is not irrational. The sheer quantity and toxicity of the vitriol and threats spewed by racist Israelis across the social media should be enough to terrify anyone who loves their children.

In retrospect, the collective apprehension of Israel’s Arab minority should not have surprised me. I have a Moslem student from the West Bank who resisted her parents pleas for her to come home before the end of the exam period. They were terrified for her well-being, believing that her traditional dress made her a conspicuous target. In the end they were mollified by my driving her from the safety of the Ben Gurion University campus directly home to Beit Jalla, obviating her need to pass through the gauntlet of the Beer Sheba Central Bus Station. Although we passed the trip in pleasant conversation, in retrospect it was one of my most shameful moments as an Israeli citizen.

What has happened to our Jewish state? How did we come to tolerate such disgraceful new norms towards minorities – most of whom have been astonishingly loyal to the state from the country’s inception. The phenomenon is particularly ironic in light of the consternation over the unprecedented levels of Anti-Semitism in France and the growing angst among European Jews for their physical safety. How easy to self-righteously bash the French for their apathy in the face of such prejudice. But how different are we in Israel when our Arab citizens face such an intolerable reality?

We in the Jewish community have always had our lunatics and fanatics: But Meir Kahana was disqualified from serving in the Knesset and Prime Minister Yizhak Rabin stood in front of the Knesset and told the world that as a Jew and human being he was ashamed by the disgrace of Baruch Goldstein’s murderous attack. Are we doing enough today?

It is an inconvenient fact that needs to be stated that most of these acts of hatred — small and large — come from people affiliated with right-wing political camps and disproportionately so in the religious right. It is absolutely wrong to stigmatize an entire sector. But it is also true that religious leadership has done precious little to rein in its “errant weeds”, hill-top youth and racist leaders.

Under pressure, Noam Perel, secretary-general of World Bnei Akiva apologized for his facebook post: “An entire nation and thousands of years of history demand revenge.” The call for vengeance came out days before the murder of Abu Khdeir. Perel claims he was misunderstood and eventually retracted. But all Zionists need to ask what kind of Zionism B’nei Akiva is teaching a new generation today? The fact that so many national religious leaders came to his defense, “closing ranks” and dismissing public criticism as exaggerated, does little to encourage the kind of accountability youth movements should be instilling in young leaders.

The most common mitzvah in the Bible, appearing 36 times, is the commandment to respect the disenfranchised – and the non-Jew in our midst. Unfortunately, translating this into a personal commitment has not received much attention in formal and informal Jewish education in Israel. It is unfortunate, because it could be different. Jewish Home Minister, Naftali Bennet has shown that religious Zionism can be different, making unusual efforts in his ministry to empower Arab Israeli women and integrate them into the job market. But too many religious leaders prefer to focus on interpretations of Jewish law that suggest that Israel’s Arabs are not deserving of equal protection.

The abuse and alienation of Israeli Arabs is not a problem of a single sector. As Israelis, we all bear responsibility for the menacing turn of events and the ugly face of our society. Because the present wave of viciousness really is not the result of public policy, but of hateful individual Israelis, it is not just the job of policy makers to address it. It is up to us all of us well.

The first thing that we need to do is to change the local discourse about Arab citizens. There should be zero tolerance for blatantly racist statement. Jews need to speak out against people who preach hatred and against mobs – that so commonly call for “Death to Arabs.” Filing a police complaint against such phenomena is not only good citizenship, it is mitzvah — a Jewish religious obligation.

You can also reach out on an individual level. If you have Arab acquaintances, visit them and let them know that the majority of Jewish Israelis are not calling for vengeance, but for conciliation. Yes, go shopping in Sderot, but also enjoy the low prices in an Arab town. The many thousands of public spaces where Jews and Arabs cross one another’s paths offer countless opportunities for simple, healing gestures.

And yes – the government can and should do more. Enforcement against the relentless voices of incitement needs to be far more stringent. Israeli leaders need not only to visit the families of fallen soldiers, but to make time to confer with Arab-Israeli leadership. Together we need to think about how we can do a better job of embracing Arab citizens and letting them know that they have a place in the state of Israel.

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.