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The racism in our midst

The rising incidence of hate crime is a near and present danger to Israel's security and sustainability

Five vicious cases of hate crimes were recorded during the past two weeks alone. Hana Amtir, a pregnant Palestinian-Jerusalemite, was attacked by young girls while waiting for her husband at the light-rail station in town just because she wore a hijab. Not far away, two teachers – Suha Abu-Zmiru and Revital Wolkov – were assaulted as they came to pay a shiva call at the home of their principal. Hassan Osroof, a municipal worker, was battered by a gang of drunken youth while cleaning the streets of Tel-Aviv when he admitted that he was an Arab. And the Sharqawi couple met the same fate on the shores of the Kinneret. Violence against the other is fast becoming a plague which, like the hoards of locusts that are invading the fields of the Negev, threatens to consume every fertile corner of Israeli society unless aggressively eradicated.

Hanna Amtir was attacked in Jerusalem (photo: Yonatan Sindel/Flash 90)
Hanna Amtir was attacked in Jerusalem (photo: Yonatan Sindel/Flash 90)

These incidents are the latest manifestations of an extended series of acts directed mostly, although not only, against Arabs. Beyond the plethora of constant taunts and regular humiliations which sadly have become commonplace, some egregious examples will suffice. In April 2008, on the eve of the day commemorating the Holocaust, two young Palestinians, Ahmad Abu Kamal and Walid Kavshak, were brutally beaten by eleven Jewish youngsters in Givat Zeev, near Jerusalem. Hussam Rawidi was killed by three Jewish hooligans in Jerusalem in February 2011. This past August, Jamal Giuliani was mauled by dozens in Zion Square. For the past few years, groups of “Price Tag” activists have pestered Palestinians with impunity on a daily basis.

These racist acts have a dangerous spillover effect. The murder of gay teens in the Bar Noar in Tel-Aviv is a case in point. So, too, is the torching of an apartment of Eritrean refugees in Jerusalem a few months ago, or the ongoing physical harassment of asylum seekers in south Tel-Aviv. Ethiopian Jews suffer discrimination and abuse; so, too, do women at the hands of ultra-orthodox in the public sphere. The rash of hate crimes is casting a stigma not only on all Israelis; it is fast becoming a blight on Israel itself.

Yet official Israel has been much too forgiving in response to the growing number of hate-based assaults. To be sure, President Shimon Peres regularly decries these acts and some cabinet ministers (most recently Moshe Ya’alon) echo his sentiments. The Inspector-General of the Police, issued a (first) categorical condemnation this past Friday. Prime Minister Netanyahu has also spoken out periodically against such attacks. But beyond these general declarations, nothing much has been done to make it clear that there is no room for racism of any sort in this country. Many of those responsible for hate crimes have yet to be apprehended; some of those arrested have been allowed to plea-bargain and charges against them reduced; those found guilty have gotten off with unbelievably light sentences.

The list of excuses for this lackadaisical treatment is legion. For far too long, it was convenient to dismiss racist incidents as the work of over-zealous youth reacting emotionally to their hostile environment. An entire lexicon has emerged to whitewash the unacceptable. Hate-mongers are depicted as a few “bad apples”; vigilantes are viewed as misguided youth. Efforts to understand and reeducate have become a substitute for unequivocal opprobrium and denunciation.

Behind these weak and ineffective responses lies the consolidation of a culture that promotes ethnocentrism at the expense of humanism and mutual respect. Living in a state of prolonged conflict inevitably nurtures a mindset of demonization of the other – otherwise it is difficult to justify and sustain continued rule over another people. Collective wariness against Arabs in general and Palestinians in particular has enabled the depiction of assaults on individuals as acts of patriotism. In extreme cases, the victims themselves have been blamed for their own fate. And where fear and a sense of victimhood prevail, tolerance cannot thrive. For quite some time, lacking a clear and lucid delineation of normative boundaries, the public sphere in Israel has become a breeding ground for zealots, xenophobes, racists, chauvinists and bigots.

No country, surely not one that prides itself on being a democracy, can afford to look the other way in the face of such appalling conduct. Civic violence – especially the most reprehensible sort rooted in prejudice – tears apart any society. In Israel, it carries the additional stain of defying Jewish history by overlooking actions which are reminiscent of those perpetrated against Jews elsewhere. Unquestionably, these incidents add fuel to the growing anti-Israel fervor. But above all, hate-based crimes are immoral. They target individuals and groups for who they are and not for what they do. They spew suspicion and acrimony, unleash chaos and make a mockery of the principles of pluralism and tolerance. No self-respecting society, regardless of the extent of polarization on political matters, can allow such de-humanization to spread in its midst.

The time for condoning racist acts is over. The incoming government, which prides itself on promoting a civic agenda, must take the lead in creating an environment safe for all the country’s diverse citizens. The first step must be normative: a categorical declaration that hate crimes of any sort are antithetical to the fundamental values of Israel and will be treated as a near and present danger to its security and an ongoing threat to its sustainability.

Placing racism beyond the pale requires the adoption of a series of clear remedies. First, new legislation must be introduced to define hate crimes as akin to terrorist acts and to raise the penalties for those involved (MK Nitzan Horowitz of Meretz has proposed such a bill, which should be one of the first supported by the new coalition). Second, the authorities must be given the tools to implement the law and to bring those accused of discrimination to trial (the establishment of a special unit to investigate such crimes in the Jerusalem police is a step in the right direction). And third, the punishment for hate crimes must be increased in order to endow it with a deterrent effect. There really can be no compromise on these matters by the judicial system.

Ethnic, religious and national-based violence can be controlled and even eliminated. But in order to do so it must be understood that there are no mitigating circumstances for these actions. Just like weeds in a garden, in order to avoid them taking over the entire area, they have to be destroyed. Israel needs a very strong herbicide now to uproot acts of racism so that it will not become a racist society. This is perhaps its key charge as a collective; it is one of the most important challenges for each and every one of its citizens.

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.