Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

Israel’s Arab Crime Wave Is NOT Ethnic

Did you know that for several years, Israel has been involved in another “war” – this one inside the country? Israeli Arabs have been murdering each other at a horrific rate. That stopped the first three months of the Gaza War, but has returned with a vengeance: around 25 in the past two months alone! Indeed, during the past few years only Colombia and Mexico have a higher per capita murder rate than Israel’s Arabs.

So what should we conclude – that Arabs are murderous criminals whereas Jews merely commit white collar crimes? Not at all.

One hundred years ago, the Jews in America were in the forefront of an astonishing crime wave that lasted for a few decades. Yes, some of it was “white collar” as in bootlegging liquor during Prohibition. But murder was de rigueur as well. Jewish mobster names are notoriously familiar to anyone even vaguely familiar with early to mid-20th century America: Mickey Cohen, Louis “Lepke” Buchalter, Arnold Rothstein, Dutch Schultz, Bugsy Siegel, Meyer Lansky – and others less widely known but having “classic” Jewish family names: Abrams, Berman, Bernstein, Blumenfeld, Cohen, Epstein, Friedman… the list goes on (for a comprehensive list of American Jewish mobsters, see: Some even gave “mobsterism” an unusual Jewish spin. For example, Sam “Red” Levine was the hitman for Lucky Luciano. Levine was an Orthodox Jew (!) who always wore a kipah (under his hat), only ate kosher food, and dutifully observed the Sabbath!! Thus, he was loathe to murder anyone from Friday evening through Saturday nightfall. However, if he had no choice but to “make the hit” on Shabbat, he would first put on prayer shawl, recite his Shabbat prayers, and then go and do the job!!!

This rather lengthy introduction should put to rest anyone who thinks Jews are “too namby-pamby” to be big-time criminals (although Prof. Bob Rockaway’s brilliant book on this phenomenon is tongue-in-cheek entitled But He Was Good to his Mother). Similarly (albeit conversely), it should also become clear that the Israeli Arab sector that is suffering today from an explosion of murders and other organized crime activity (“protection” etc.), is not culturally inclined to such mayhem. The source lies elsewhere.

A solid clue is the fact that at different historical times, the U.S. suffered from Irish crime, Italian crime, African-American crime, and more recently, Central American crime. What did, and do, all these have in common? In a word: poverty. In a few words: cultural outsiders, lack of educational opportunities, discrimination, residential segregation.

When any social group finds itself at the bottom of the heap with few opportunities – and many times, significant barriers – to advancement, it is only natural for some of its people to take to crime, given that other economic channels are blocked. This is especially the case when the country has a high level of economic inequality, which explains why the level of crime in Israel circa the 1950s and 1960s was so low: everyone was relatively poor. It is relative deprivation that leads to criminal activity (or worse: revolution).

Israel’s Arab sector has suffered from governmental neglect – and in some critical areas, from outright discrimination. Housing permits, and residential zoning in general, have left the Arab sector scrunched up (might I dare say “ghettoized”) in their original places of abode, even if there has never been legislation prohibiting Israel’s Arabs (or anyone else) from moving to wherever they wish. (Incredibly, the State of Israel has never established a new Arab city in the country, something that it does consistently for Israeli Jews.) Nevertheless, for completely understandable reasons the vast majority have chosen to stay within their ethno-cultural, residential confines. The fact that learning Arabic is not mandatory for Israeli Jews in their schools essentially means that any Arab wishing to live in Jewish communities knows in advance that the neighborhood won’t be bilingual. Add to this the (perhaps understandable) Israeli Jews’ fear of Arab terrorism and one has the perfect recipe for de facto, national segregation.

On top of this is the much lower government investment in Arab schools – in part the fault of Israel’s central government, and in part (school buildings, educational infrastructure etc.) because of Arab municipalities’ poverty. Just to give one statistical example among many: whereas 80% of non-haredi Jewish youth pass their high school matriculation exams, the numbers among Arab high school students is a paltry 45%. It’s no surprise, then, that among 18-24-year-old male Arabs, the level of employment has dropped from 61% to 47% (as they don’t do army service, it’s either college or work for them; around 30% are officially unemployed.)

A few years ago, the Israeli government began to realize that for the country’s own national self-interest, the Arab sector had to be brought up to steam, and several billion shekels (over a span of a few years) were budgeted for this. That’s a modest but encouraging start.

Unfortunately, the socio-economic rot had become so deeply ingrained after many decades of neglect that the criminal genie already left the bottle awhile back – and the results are now being felt by Israeli Arabs and Jews alike. The former, in the obscene number of murders these past few years; the latter, suffering from “protection” shakedowns in the North and “cattle rustling” in the South.

None of this is to say that Israel’s Arabs are blameless. Most mayors and municipal councils are elected by “hamula” (extended family) connections, and not on the basis of competence. Many residents don’t pay their municipal tax (“arnona”) and the municipalities do little to collect – leaving them without sufficient resources to provide the basics to their constituents. Some Arabs have great difficulty accepting modern mores regarding women’s rights – leading to significant domestic violence. Finally, few Israeli Arabs are willing to join the police force, leaving the cops with little possibility of utilizing “locals” to fight crime.
In short, Israel’s Arabs are not “culturally predisposed” to crime – just as America’s Jewish immigrants a century ago weren’t either (whoever heard of organized Jewish crime in 19th century Europe?). The problem is primarily economic and social. Israelis and their recent governments are finally wrapping their heads around that fact, but the problem won’t be solved very quickly given how long it has been festering. Nevertheless, as the saying goes: better late than never. And several real solutions are indeed on the table. But that’s fodder for a future column…

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) presently serves as Academic Head of the Communications Department at the Peres Academic Center (Rehovot). Previously, he taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published five books and 69 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. His new book (in Hebrew, with Tali Friedman): RELIGIOUS ZIONISTS RABBIS' FREEDOM OF SPEECH: Between Halakha, Israeli Law, and Communications in Israel's Democracy (Niv Publishing, 2024). For more information about Prof. Lehman-Wilzig's publications (academic and popular), see:
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