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The Israeli Jewish cocoon

American Jews' blindness to Palestinians and their experience is matched -- and fostered -- in Israel

The oracle of progressive American Jewry, Peter Beinart, argues in his important new essay in The New York Review of Books (“The American Jewish Cocoon,” September 4, 2013) that the Jewish community in the United States suffers from a dual malady regarding Palestinians: it lacks both elementary knowledge and even a drop of empathy. The same blinders appear in official Washington as well, resulting in an overwhelming ignorance which is not only dangerous per se, but has also fast become the basis for a growing antagonism towards Palestinians as a group. This syndrome results in that sad admixture of stupidity and loss of human sensitivity, which characterizes attitudes toward Palestinians in these influential quarters in the United States.

What Beinart fails to highlight is that the symptoms he diagnoses in the United States have their breeding ground in Israel. The attitudes prevalent in the American Jewish community are just a very pale reflection of what has developed in Israel over the years. It is precisely the triangular relationship between American Jews, their counterparts in Israel and the establishments on both sides of the ocean which makes this particular disease so contagiously potent and the need to find an antidote that much more pressing.

The robust Israeli strain of the cocoon, constructed masterfully over the past forty-five years, rests on three main pillars. The first consists of ensuring Palestinian invisibility. It is true that most Israelis come into contact with Palestinians fairly frequently: they still clean the streets of the cities, wash the dishes in restaurants, pave the roads, and increasingly – after over a decade-long hiatus – once more construct buildings and plow the fields. There are over 100,000 Palestinians with Israeli work permits today – and probably half as many again are employed in the country illegally. But with few exceptions they are simply not seen. They come in through the checkpoints at the crack of dawn and slip back again as the sun sets with nary a word to anyone save their direct bosses.

Even when large numbers of Palestinians come across the Green Line for a visit, as happened during the recent Eid el-Fitr, their presence along the beaches in Tel Aviv and the markets of Jaffa was barely noted by the average Israeli – as if they were entirely transparent. Ask any Jewish Jerusalemite when they last were on Sallah el Din Street, and they will laugh (if they don’t intimate that you have lost your mind). The Palestinians are unquestionably here, but they don’t really exist in the Israeli eye.

This lack of visibility is closely associated with the second pillar of the Israeli cocoon: the absence of knowledge. It is truly embarrassing how little most Israelis know about the daily lives of Palestinians. The problems of mobility, employment, education and health are unfamiliar. They are covered less in the media than ever before. And when they are, they are usually dismissed as another manifestation of the tired and bothersome leftist tendencies of the press, or even worse, of civil society organizations who make it their business to collect and disseminate information on what is taking place on the West Bank and how Palestinians subsist under Israeli rule (B’tselem, Yesh Din, Ir Amim).

The meager information available to Israelis about Palestinian history is even more troublesome (and so frequently pointed out that it would hardly bear mention if not for the ongoing efforts to further distort the little available). The best example is the constant tampering with the civics textbooks in recent years. After the only book that introduced the Palestinian narrative of 1948 was withdrawn following right-wing criticism, it is totally conceivable that an Israeli pupil can graduate from secondary school without having the foggiest notion what the Nakba means, let alone what it symbolizes to the Palestinian people. It’s as if the concerted effort to withhold uncomfortable information from tender minds is deemed more appropriate than learning how to deal with the complex antecedents of the context in which they live.

Since opportunities for real interchange are so few and far between, stereotypes have become a substitute for detailed knowledge. Many are perfectly content to learn about Palestinian culture from soap operas and contestants on reality shows, rather than from direct and ongoing encounters. Even enrollment in departments of Middle East history and Islamic culture at universities has diminished dramatically in recent years.

In these circumstances, it has been relatively easy to solidify the third pillar of the Israeli cocoon: the dehumanization of the individual Palestinian and the gradual demonization of Palestinians as a collective. It is almost a truism to note, once again, the passive response of most Israelis to the persistent attacks of “Price Tag” militants on Palestinian homes, fields, property and being. There is yet to be a real outcry against the virtual impunity granted to the perpetrators of these acts. And while youth gangs continue to assault Arabs on the streets and in the workplace, the authorities have been more than lax in imposing deterrent sentences on the ringleaders.

The extent to which the Palestinian plight has been systematically suppressed was vividly demonstrated during the past few weeks, when an outpouring of Israeli sympathy was expressed for the victims of the Syrian onslaught against its own civilians. For some reason, similar sentiments for Palestinians on Israel’s doorstep are much fewer and less heartfelt. The humanitarian drive seems to have passed over the Arabs in Israel’s midst.

In many respects, Israeli Jews see no Palestinians, hear no Palestinians and speak to no Palestinians. These now ingrained blinkers are the product of years of acrimony, violence, suspicion and distrust. But they has been assisted by restrictions on interactions between Israelis and Palestinians, making meetings on an equal footing a logistical nightmare and—as a result of Palestinian limitations as well—a rarity indeed.

With no real human contact, both sides are inflicted with growing intolerance towards the other which is expressed in increasing narrow mindedness within each society. The adverse ramifications of this syndrome cannot be exaggerated. It affects not only the worldview of Israelis, but also of Jews and their allies abroad. Peter Beinart, therefore, need not be surprised that Israeli hosts rarely introduce Jewish leaders to Palestinians: they themselves haven’t met any.

Israelis—and all Jews—should know better. As the historical victims of misconception, ignorance and consequent contempt, it behooves those living in independent Israel and in free societies to shun that self-encapsulation that bred such hostility towards them in the past. Some curiosity, interest and, yes, human concern can go a long way towards creating a different atmosphere. Just as all Jews and Israelis are not alike, so too, do Palestinians differ one from the other. Learning to recognize these distinctions and understand them is an important step towards healing the ill effects of the cocoon that has come to engulf too many Israelis and their allies. And it could give a tremendous boost to the negotiations now taking place that might yet bring about a just solution to that conflict that has unleashed such immense human insensitivity under the guise of protective insularity.

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.