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Fear Of ‘The Other’ In Israeli Society

Fear Of ‘The Other’ In Israeli Society

The stories seem to come out of Israel on a daily basis. Tales of Israeli intolerance: toward fellow Arab citizens, toward foreign workers, toward people of color.

This is a highly disturbing trend, one that Israeli leadership across the political spectrum needs to examine and address. We at the Anti-Defamation League have issued a number of statements of condemnation.

In these kinds of matters, there is both an underlying theme that is useful in trying to explain and capture a trend in society, as well as a realization that it is not one issue but a series of issues that have to be looked at individually at the same time.

The underlying theme, which applies to the various scenarios, is an unease or even a fear of the “other.” That “other” could be an Israeli Arab or a Sudanese immigrant, but the unease or fear exists. What it leads to is a stereotyping of an entire community on the basis of the behavior of a few. All Arabs are accused of wanting to steal our daughters. All African immigrants are depicted as violent and destructive.

This kind of thinking makes it possible for people to say, “I don’t want that type in my neighborhood,” or can even lead to acts of violence.

There’s a need to go beyond this important generalization to look at each manifestation. First, is the statement signed on to by many municipal rabbis in Israel, placing a ban on selling or renting apartments to non-Jews, widely recognized to mean Arabs.

This event highlights the need to take seriously the 2001 report by the Orr Commission, a group charged with studying and making recommendations about the treatment of Arabs in Israeli society.

That report stressed the continuing gap in treatment of Arabs in Israel and ways to close that gap. Some of us who have been working on this issue for some time point out that the behavior of many Israeli Arab leaders, in their rejection of a Zionist state, makes the struggle for equality much more difficult. We don’t hesitate to say that they need to change their approach if they want to gain more sympathy from Jewish Israelis.

Having said that, there is no excuse for a statement that is so discriminatory. The foundational document of the state of Israel expresses clearly that Israel is a democratic state with full equality for its citizens, Jewish or not.

Yes, inflammatory statements have a negative impact on attitudes toward Israel around the world, even in friendly countries like the U.S. More important, however, is the impact they have within Israel, undermining the democratic fiber, creating a mean-spiritedness in society and enlarging already significant communal rifts.

A second manifestation is examples of violence against Israeli Arabs, not great in number, but a new phenomenon. Particularly disturbing is the report of a group of Jewish youngsters in Jerusalem luring Israeli Arabs into a secluded spot and attacking them. This, too, does not happen in a vacuum. Stereotyping the “other,” whether depicting them as enemies of the state or as threats to the safety of one’s family, makes such behavior possible.

And then there was the demonstration in Tel Aviv against infiltrators from Africa who have settled in poorer areas of the city. Those who demonstrated were quick to say that they are not racists but merely trying to deal with the violence that has come to their neighborhoods. Here we see the intersection of real-life problems with the impact of stereotyping and the absence of a sound government policy, much like what is happening in the U.S. with regard to illegal immigrants from Mexico. Several points are in order.

First, not everyone who opposes illegal immigrants is racist, though some undoubtedly are. The poorer people of the Hatikva Quarter, particularly, are feeling even more vulnerable in light of this changing social situation.

Second, the government needs to develop a comprehensive policy toward the people coming illegally from Africa, including security at the borders, whether through a fence or other means.

Third, as part of such a policy, Israel needs to do a better job in distinguishing between those who truly need asylum because of threats to their safety back home, and those who are taking advantage of an uncertain situation to gain illegal entry to Israel. There is an urgency about addressing this challenge because Israel could lose control of this situation, which would create far greater social problems than we have seen to date.

The solution to this complex issue does not lie in banning Africans from a neighborhood, as the demonstrators are calling for. It should, however, be a wake-up call to the government to act more expeditiously in dealing with the illegal immigrant issue in a fair and balanced way.

Let’s be clear: the intolerant views described here do not represent the views of all or even a majority of Israelis. However, it is critical for leaders across the political and communal spectrum to speak out against these manifestations.

Most of all, there is a need to focus on education: education for respect, education for appreciating diversity, education for civic responsibility in a democratic society, and education in understanding the deeply embedded Jewish value of how to treat the stranger in your midst.

Kenneth Jacobson is deputy national director of the Anti-Defamation League.


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