There is no excuse for the deeply disturbing act in Jerusalem’s Zion Square last Thursday night when a number of Jewish youths chased an Arab teenager and beat him into unconsciousness, with large numbers of people looking on, not intervening.
The incident made the front-page of The New York Times on Tuesday, coupled with news of the firebombing of a Palestinian taxi, allegedly by Jewish extremists. The Times report suggested a growing mood of contempt for Arabs, particularly among younger Israeli Jews.
It is difficult to separate out politics from objective reality in Israeli society in assessing the depth of the problem.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described the attack in Jerusalem as “terrible,” and went on: “This is something that we cannot accept — not as Jews, not as Israelis. This is not our way… and we condemn it in word and deed. We will quickly bring to justice those responsible for this reprehensible incident. We say as clearly as possible: The State of Israel is a democratic and enlightened state… This is what makes us unique in the environment around us, and this will continue to make us unique. I hope that one day our environment will change as well. But we will be persistent in our complete opposition to racism and violence.”
For all of the prime minister’s words, though, it is also clear that relations between Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs are an ongoing and perhaps worsening problem — one that leaders in Jerusalem bemoan but do too little to address. From time to time there are flashpoints, prompting the creation of blue-ribbon panels, and there is talk of the need for more affirmative action in the work force and efforts to close the wide economic gap between the two communities. But coexistence has yet to become a priority, and it is only a matter of time before Arab frustration and anger will turn violent, and sustained, if left largely unaddressed.
It is true that Israeli Arabs, many of whom now prefer to call themselves Palestinians, in keeping with their political views, have far more rights than their brothers and sisters in Arab states. And for all their insistence on the creation of a Palestinian state, the majority of Israeli Arabs say they would not be interested in moving there. But that does not obviate the need to promote and deepen coexistence.
Israelis often say it is demeaning to compare their behavior in terms of human rights and democratic values to that of their Palestinian neighbors. But they are quick to point out that the great majority of initiatives in Jewish-Arab coexistence are launched and supported by Jewish groups and individuals, and the government itself, and that an Arab mob attacking a Jew would not make front-page news in the American press because such violence would not be surprising. Indeed, incidents of extreme anti-Semitic rhetoric and behavior in the Arab world are commonplace, everyday occurrences that are not considered newsworthy.
Putting these complex issues in context is important, especially given the harsh media attention Israel receives. But it is equally important to acknowledge the reality of an Israeli society seen as drifting toward violent impulses, and doing our best to address the problem before it is too late.