Is my Arabophobia rational?

I started writing this before the news about the bomb in Bat-Yam, which provides a gruesome example of my thoughts. Where else in the world does an unattended bag on a bus raise alarm?

So yes, I – like many other Israelis – have what I call “Arabophobia.”

Let me start off with the spoiler – NO, of course my Arabophobia is irrational. That’s also why I call it a phobia. I am 27 years old, and have never had any memorably negative experience involving an Arab. Moreover, I have quite a few positive memories of my interactions with Arabs. Just to be clear, “Arab” isn’t just the oriental figure of a dark-skinned man wearing a keffiyeh. “Arab” means mostly Israeli Arabs, but also Palestinians. People I see every day, almost anywhere.

Living in Israel isn’t as dangerous as it is portrayed by the Media. There are more casualties from road accidents than from terror acts. Even in 2002, the bloodiest year of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the casualty toll of road accidents was higher than the death toll of terrorism.

So why do I have a constant fear of Arabs? Why do I get so paranoid when I walk past an Arab on the street, or when an Arab sits next to me on the bus? Why am I always suspicious when I hear Arabic?

I have thought of this issue every time I felt that paranoia creeping, and I have had some time to try analyzing it. I can give two major reasons that this fear is imprinted on me.

So far in my life I never been hit by a car (thank god). I can’t think of anyone close to me who was hit by a car, and I don’t have any trauma from such an event, growing up in a place where there was very little traffic. Yet, I always am very cautious when I cross the road. Why do I do that? I have crossed the road hundreds of times, but even when I have the green light, I pay attention to oncoming vehicles. I never had to dodge anything, and I still do it. I simply know that there’s a chance it might happen, and if it would ever happen, that will be the place. The vehicles are a constant potential threat to me as I cross the road. I can never know if the driver is fully aware of the situation, and I am not going to risk my life trusting them.

The same goes for my encounters with Arabs. The most dangerous strangers to me, as an Israeli, are Arabs. Any stranger could pose a threat to me, but usually the situation is the threat, and not the stranger. But some Arabs don’t need an excuse to hurt me – me being an Israeli is excuse enough. I cannot tell which Arab might have these intentions, just as I can’t tell which driver is not paying attention to me on the road. And I am not going to risk my life for it.

The latest events in Israel provide me with an excellent example. An unattended bag on a bus shouldn’t be a threat in a normal situation. But in Israel it is a cause for alarm – and rightfully so! In 90% or more of the cases, it really is just an innocent unattended bag. We all have to clear the area and wait till the bag is checked. But keeping guard up, in spite of all those false alarms, is what saved so many lives on a bus in Bat-Yam (a part of the Tel-Aviv metropolis).

The second reason is a bit less obvious.

A fear of Arabs was instilled in me long before the major wave of terror acts. As I grew up, I was taught the history of Israel, and the Israeli-Arab conflict plays a major role in that history, without a doubt. And the things I learned nurtured a phobia. I learned that Jews who had great neighbor relations with Arabs were murdered, tortured and mutilated by the same neighbors. They used to babysit each other’s children, having the most trustful relations. And even when the Jews were offered protection by the Haganah, they refused.  Indeed some of the Arab neighbors offered shelter, but some turned into amok driven murderers. If that sounds intense to you, imagine what impression it would have on a child. I learned that the mosques were used as sites for propaganda. That in some cases an amok driven crowd would leave mosques and scour streets and houses in search of Jewish blood.

And it terrified me.

I remember waking up as a child in the middle of the night to the sound of the muezzin from a nearby mosque. I had no idea what was being recited, but I was terrified by the idea it was calling for Jewish blood. I used to hide under my blankets, as if that could provide me any protection.

I am pinning the blame for this phobia on Israel’s education system. I am sure it was never intentional, since teachers are indeed teaching our history. And we don’t teach to incite hatred, as does the other side of this conflict. But our history is burdened with emotions, and if we don’t pay attention we will pass those emotions on to the next generation, and thus keep the conflict alive. We don’t have to forget our history, but there is a need for some revision. A child is too naive to be taught the horrible details of the conflict. I think that only later in life they can be mentally ready to learn those things with knowledge of the bigger picture, and without getting too emotionally involved.

About the Author
Tal Shipov is a student at the Hebrew university in Jerusalem in his 3rd year. His parents fled the Soviet Union in the early 80’s and spoke out on behalf of Soviet Jewry from Israel. Tal was born in Israel, but brought up in a Russian, secular environment in a religious settlement. He spent most of his time in the (relatively) big city of Jerusalem.