When we did military exercises in the IDF, the “enemy forces” were always Arabs. Especially in basic training, this could be very theatrical. The commanders playing the enemy would wear Keffiyehs and blast the latest Palestinian hits on loudspeakers. They would choose Arab names to call each other.
When I was a commander, I asked why we were doing this and whether it was really necessary. I was told that it wasn’t a big deal, and that it was the most logical thing to do — after all, what forces are our trainees likely to face in their operational service? Never mind the fact that my air defense unit will rarely ever encounter enemy forces face to face.
I eventually just went along with it. It is always hard to break from traditions and norms in the army, and almost impossible to make others do so. It even made me laugh a little in the moment.
I’m not laughing about it anymore.
We were inadvertently reenforcing a message that my soldiers had been hearing their whole lives. “Your enemy looks like this” can easily become, “if they look like this, they are your enemy.”
This message and the dehumanization it conveys is as dangerous as it is deeply immoral. Especially when 20% of Israeli citizens are Arab. Even more so when in communities like Jerusalem we interact with Palestinian Arabs nearly every day, shopping in the same stores and visiting the same parks.
Iyad Halak was a young, autistic, Palestinian who was shot by police while cowering in fear. His caregiver told reporters that she yelled to the police to stop, desperately trying to explain that Iyad was disabled and not a threat to anyone.
I have heard too many people unwilling to criticize the police, even in this horrifying case. These people say that they can’t possibly pass judgment without having “been there in the moment.” They are able to empathize with the police, but not with Iyad, and with the prevalence of dehumanizing messages about Arabs in our society, it is not impossible to understand why.
We cannot leave passing judgment to parties so dependent on the outcome and with such a long history of repeated transgressions. We must stop the dehumanization of people with whom we live side by side.
We must be critical and we must be vocal. We must demand justice for Iyad because he can no longer demand it for himself, and without justice, we will not have peace.