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The house is burning

Only an all-out reassessment will stem Israel's rising bigotry and get the country back on solid moral ground

Israel is in emotional turmoil. Last Thursday afternoon, Yishai Schlissel committed his second hate crime in a decade: 16 year-old Shira Banki succumbed to her wounds three days after she was stabbed; five others are still recuperating. A few hours after the stabbing, Ali Saad Dawabshe was burned alive; his parents and brother are fighting for their lives. A direct line connects these crimes, which are but the latest in a series of unspeakable attacks against Jewish and Arab civilians — all innocent victims of a long, festering process of rising bigotry and moral laxity.

No outpouring of condemnation for the perpetrators and those who have allowed them to flourish will prevent the next assault. No mere denunciation of home-grown extremists will avert a recurrence of such horrors. No amount of breast-beating will suffice to restore sanity. Israel is undergoing a moral earthquake that is the culmination of too many years of side-stepping its own founding values. Its inner fortitude depends on its ability to reconfigure its normative compass and unwaveringly abide by its precepts.

There are multiple views on the roots of the current upheaval in Israeli society. For many, the latest cases of homegrown violence are but a sorry manifestation of widespread ineptitude in uprooting the wild oats that have sprung up in Israel’s human garden — perhaps an outcome of a misplaced indulgence towards locally-nurtured extremism. Those who advocate deriding the most fanatic militants and taking steps to excoriate them from the core of Israeli society hope to recover the apparent equilibrium upended by recent events and regain the moral high ground. But these voices — including those of the Prime Minister and many leaders across the political spectrum — obviously failed to absorb the words of President Reuven Rivlin on Saturday night: “Every society has extremist fringes, but today we have to ask: What is it about the public atmosphere that allows extremism and extremists to walk in confidence, in broad daylight? What is it that has enabled these weeds to threaten the safety of the entire garden?”

Others, however, appear to have internalized his message. Along with their outrage, they have expressed a sense of shame and have asked for collective forgiveness. This is the beginning of an extended, honest, undoubtedly painful, but ultimately essential, search for identifying the sources of the prevailing ethical disarray and the means to its rectification.

The first sparks of what has developed into a major conflagration were ignited immediately after 1967, with the Labor government decision to permit Jewish settlement beyond the Green Line. They were further spread when the Likud encouraged this enterprise. Under the guise of security, instrumentalist arguments were allowed to trump deep-seated hesitations about the consequences of perpetuating Israeli rule over the Palestinian people against their will.

During the ensuing three decades, Israel was seriously divided between those who favored the sanctity of the land over the sanctity of the people and those who sought a just solution to the century-old conflict between Israel and its neighbors. The assassination of Yitzhak Rabin by Yigal Amir brought this argument to a lethal head. Together with the collapse of the Oslo process, it also marked the ascendance of a divine-rooted territorial worldview over a people-based normative order in Israel’s public domain.

The dimming of the prospects for a peaceful resolution of the conflict then set the stage for the eruption of recurrent brushfires that have unleashed spouts of violence between Israel and its Palestinian neighbors. It did not take long for these outbursts to spread from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip into the heart of Israel. The 2005 Disengagement from Gaza revealed the extent of the schism within the country; it also, ironically, prepared the climate for overlooking the defiance of the rule of law in the name of higher, allegedly patriotic, principles.

Indeed, over the past ten years, Israel’s growing international isolation has coincided with the consolidation of a hegemonic neo-nationalist ethic that favors an ethnocentric interpretation of Israeli needs, interests and aspirations. This monolithic mindset — propped up by a weak and frequently opportunistic opposition — left little room either for substantive criticism or for reasoned dissent. Two related notions undermined the validity of legitimate disagreement: the externally-oriented, “the entire world is against us,” and a new domestic corollary asserting that divergence from the reigning discourse is akin to betrayal.

The elevation of patriotism to a moral high ground that overrides and, when necessary, substitutes for the values of equality, liberty, and justice, has given vent to a series of ongoing witch-hunts conducted by official, semi-official, and even self-appointed, patriotic patrols. The monopolization of collective morality in this way has allowed for the constant hounding not only of Muslims and Christians by “Price Tag” fanatics, but also of Arab citizens of Israel as a collective. Their loyalty is questioned and attempts have been made to circumscribe their rights.

The High Court of Justice — the last resort of citizens against the abuse of power — has been the target of relentless attacks in the name of neo-nationalist purity. Human and civil rights groups are under persistent assault for doing their job in uncovering violations of basic liberties. Their activities have been discredited and efforts to de-legitimize and de-fund them proceed apace. Artists, performers and academics have been subjected to scrutiny, while the rights of asylum-seekers have been ignored and those of other minorities (from Ethiopian citizens of Israel to members of the LGBT community) systematically neglected.

The conflation of patriotism with human morality reached a head, as the volume and scope of racial intolerance and blatant bigotry climbed to new heights during last summer’s Gaza war and the subsequent election campaign. Examples abound: from physical attacks on Arabs in the streets of Jerusalem, to the venomous denunciation of opposition parties by right-wing diehards, who insisted on framing the electoral race as a pitched battle of “us vs. them”. Nobody exemplified the trek of the normative unravelling of Israeli society from the margins to the corridors of power better than Binyamin Netanyahu on Election Day, when he called on his backers to vote in order to counter “the Arabs going in droves to the polls on busses funded by left-wing NGOs”.

It was only a matter of time before these many uncontrolled brushfires coddled over the years would burst into flames. The unbridled fanaticism rampant in the social networks and in the talkbacks of every single digital outlet has been echoed in the past few months in the Knesset, which has become a forum for the articulation of unrestrained contempt for the other. Suffice it to say that when a Deputy Minister of the Interior has the gall to tell a duly-elected Arab member of the Knesset that “we are doing you favor for allowing you to be here,” without suffering any undue consequences, then all democratic and moral constraints have been removed. It is a very small step indeed from officially-condoned hate discourse to the implementation of its message.

Israel is burning. This fire cannot be contained simply by decrying extremism or by stepping up efforts to punish the perpetrators of recent crimes. Nor can it be diminished by shifting the moral burden to the other side, as the Prime Minister attempted to do just yesterday: “We deplore and condemn these murderers. We will pursue them to the end,” he said. “They name public squares after the murderers of children. This distinction cannot be blurred or covered up.”

The fire that is consuming the soul of Israel can only by doused if Israel, and only Israel, takes full responsibility for its values, its words and its actions. It now has to readjust its moral compass and live by the standards of equality, justice and tolerance it set for itself when it was founded. These guidelines must be stringently followed both in the public discourse the country supports and in the conduct that it expects of each and every one of its citizens.

If Israelis do not engage in such a reassessment, the flames will grow and consume us all. Just today more fuel was added in posts calling for the demise of the President of the State: “You bloody loser, your end will be worse than Ariel Sharon’s, you will see. I pray that another ‘Yigal Amir’ will rise to cleanse you and the Arabs from our Jewish country, and so I wish you ill health and any other suffering…” When the house is on fire, only a wrenching, thorough, fundamental moral reassessment can pave the way for its reconstruction on solid, firmly pluralistic, foundations.

About the Author
Professor Naomi Chazan, former Deputy Speaker of the Knesset and professor (emerita) of political science at the Hebrew University, is co-director of WIPS, the Center for the Advancement of Women in the Public Sphere at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.
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