“Yesterday, I went to a ceremony honoring the memory of Irwin Green, a very special man from Detroit who worked tirelessly towards bringing Jews and Arabs closer together”, I told my daughter Sivan over breakfast, before she headed off for another day in first grade. “Where?”, she asked. “In Nazareth” I replied. “In Upper Nazareth, where the kindergarten teachers live?” she continued. “Not in Upper Nazareth – in Arab Nazareth” I answered. “What? Arabs live there? Arabs like the Greeks? Arabs are cruel, right dad?” Sivan had evidently drawn an association with the Hannukah story she’d heard in class just a few days earlier.
When I returned that same night from the ceremony for Mr. Green, I asked my older son Guy, who is 17 years old, how many of his classmates ever spoke with an Arab youth their age. Guy is unusual among his friends in his exposure to those outside his immediate community. Not only because of his father. He volunteers in the Magen David Adom (Israeli Red Cross) along with Arab youth, and played volleyball with a team in the Arab village of Ilabun. An Arab team – one of the tops in the league. “Dad, I’m no example, but other than me, most of the kids my age never exchanged a word with an Arab, unless you count the Bedouin security guard at the school or the Arab cook who works in the catering on Shabbat.”
A few months ago, little Sivan went for a walk with a friend in our community of Hoshaya on a Shabbat afternoon, and the two of them disappeared. After two hours of frantic searching, in the intense heat of the Israeli summer, we found them next to the grocery store, hunting for treasures. As we returned home, my beloved daughter’s hand safely in mine, we saw the Arab security guard who patrols the community on Shabbat. “You see, Sivan? Even Hoshaya’s guard was out looking for you” I said, trying to impress her. “But dad” she replied. “Are guards allowed to drive on Shabbat?” “He’s not Jewish” I explained. “He’s Arab and that’s why he can drive on Shabbat.” “But dad, aren’t Arab people bad? Isn’t he dangerous for us?” The realization that the guard who protects us is actually Arab, I could see, was terrifying.
Recently a survey was published by the Israeli Institute for Democracy. Its worrisome results showed that among Israel’s Jewish population, there has been an increase in the suspicion, distrust and fear of Arab citizens.
Fear is perhaps the main factor that feeds the flames of the Israeli-Arab conflict, and what prevents any movement forward towards reaching a solution. In parallel, fear is the factor in this conflict for which a solution (to fear) is not a zero sum solution. In other words, the allocation of lands between the two sides of the conflict is more problematic, since every bit of land that goes to one side is taken from the other. On the other hand, fear is an emotion that, if reduced on one side, does not take anything away from the other.
Why are we and our children afraid of our Arab neighbors? What is the source of this fear? I tried to put together an inventory list of fear factors:
Education and Myth: We have been raised from our earliest days on a very simple approach: we are good and they are bad. Darkness helps emphasize the light and white stands out against black. If you want it to be clear who are the good guys, then you need to emphasize who are the bad ones.
The series of books I loved as a child was “The Young Athletes”. On those pages, Alon the Forward and Rafi the Goalie brought victory and honor to the young State of Israel - something that the Israeli national soccer team was never able to do. These stories inevitably featured a villain, sometimes Nazi but usually Arab, who tried through his devious ways to confound the young heroes on their way to fame and glory. A similar theme was also found in other popular books such as the Hasamba series, Azit the Paratrooper dog, and others. Physical fitness, willpower, determination, rigorous training – and even romance – were not enough to ignite the spirit of the young reader. There had to be an evil Arab to spice up the story, and if he had a big and dirty mustache and black eyes piercing with fury, so much the better….
Even in Israel’s holidays, the theme of the good versus the bad sets the tone. Except for the New Year holidays and Tu b’Shvat, where the seasons of the year and nature play a major role, in all the other holidays – Hannukah, Purim and Pesach, there are the “bad guys” (Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Persians, Amalekites) who are vanquished by the “good guys” (us). A wise Jew once explained to me that all Jewish holidays come down to one thing: “They wanted to kill us – we killed them – let’s eat!”
An easier way to explain things, to children and also to ourselves. Imagine the Hannukah story as follows: The Greek Empire had spread throughout the world and was influencing the countries it conquered in many ways, both positive and negative. On the one hand, they espoused materialism, worship of the strong and the beautiful, and dismissal of the spiritual and abstract. On the other hand, they brought with them advanced technologies, better medical care, and municipal order … Even among the Jews within the kingdom of Judah there were different streams. One embraced progress, science and coexistence with the surrounding peoples, including making compromises on principles for the sake of peace in the kingdom. Another stream was nationalistic, strictly adherent to tradition and to obeying the rules of the sacred teachings as they understood them. This latter group was ready to sacrifice life and livelihood in the name of following religious principles…. Sound familiar? Perhaps. Sound simple and easy to explain? I’m not so sure.
Language: Encounters with a foreign language can cause fear and alienation. The Arabic vocabulary of the average Israeli Jew is limited to a few words of slang that have penetrated into Hebrew, such as “Kif?” “Sakhten” and “Ahalan”, as well as some useful key phrases from the army such as “Halt or I’ll shoot you”… Even important initiatives for teaching Arabic in schools frequently fail because of the children’s deep-seated fear of a language they perceive as belonging to the enemy. A deeper understanding of the Arabic language would enable Jewish Israelis not only to better appreciate its richness and multitude of expressions, but would mainly remedy a situation whereby every call of the Muslim Muazzin to prayer sounds to the Jewish ear like a call to arms.
Political considerations: Unfortunately, the power of fear as a means to enlist citizens for political support is usually stronger than the power of hope. For this reason, many politicians cynically but effectively inspire fear in their constituents as a way to engage them and secure their support. The further Israel moves away from a longed-for peace and the deeper the belief that there is no one to talk to penetrates further into the national consciousness, along with the conviction that the whole world is against us, thus the power and centrality of fear increases as an effective means for political manipulation.
Trauma of Persecution: “That fact that you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you”, goes a wise saying. The Jewish people are indeed steeped in persecution, terror attacks, and attempts of extermination. In the historical perspective, we are still in the same period when the Holocaust of the Jewish people took place. Thus, in spite of everything written above, the Jews have a good and proven reason to believe, as it is written in the Pesach Haggadah, that “in every generation someone is attempting to exterminate us”. Among those who have persecute and attacked Jews over the last hundred years, Arabs have a place of honor. Without any need for deep investigations, clearly Israeli paranoia is based in reality!
The Arab population also has a part in the balance of fear. Why are the Arabs afraid of the Jews?
History: The State of Israel was established in the heart of the Middle East, surrounded by Arab nations and peoples. Even those who don’t believe in the Divine intervention can’t remain indifferent to the remarkable way a state was created for and by Jews who barely survived systematic extermination of their people in Europe. Yet in the process, and during the military conflicts that arose every few years afterwards, the victims were the Arab residents of the land. Even if you take into account the progress and relative economic wellbeing that came along with the blossoming of Zionism in Israel, the local Arabs became the conquered, refugees, and second- or even third-class citizens. This is a historical fact.
The minority is generally suspicious of the majority: The Jewish majority has the strength in Israel. Even in countries that are calmer and less conflicted than Israel, the minorities often suspect and fear the majority – although certainly not as much as when the peoples of the minority and the majority are still in the midst of a blood-soaked, existential conflict.
Incitement: As many Jewish politicians make cynical use of fear of Arabs to reinforce a general feeling of anxiety, so do their Arab counterparts. When an Arab politician is supported by a nationalist and belligerent platform, and when those who call for following a path of peace are perceived in the Arab public as defeatists, it’s no wonder that the voice of fear is heard louder and more clearly.
So what do we do with all this?
A simple, easy solution does not exist in our neighborhood. I usually find myself telling visitors and friends from overseas, that it is impossible, and even forbidden to look at the Israeli situation and the spectrum of problems and challenges it faces, through black/white or right/wrong glasses. “Whoever tries to tell you that the solutions are simple is either blind, a liar, or both”, I explain to them. Still, recognizing fear as being at the root of the Arab-Jewish conflict is critical. This would enable us to separate between fears and the real, significant and complex issues such as demography, geography and division of resources, on the one hand, and focus on ways to deal with our mutual fears, such as getting to know “the other”, learning their language, creating dialogue and breaking down stereotypes, on the other.