Let's Face It: Israel Has a Racism Problem

When an Arab attacks a Jew, he’s a terrorist, he’s been taught to hate. When a Jew attacks an Arab, he’s just a loner, an oddball, a bad egg. But we’ve seen so many bad eggs at this point that something here has begun to stink.

A schoolteacher was attacked on a Jerusalem street last week for no other reason than that she was wearing the headscarf of a religious Muslim woman. The pack of religious teenagers who accosted Wahad Abu-Zamira and her colleague Revital Valkov called the latter “a Jewish bitch who has Arab friends.”

A week earlier, a different Arab woman was attacked while she was waiting at a station of the Jerusalem light rail – the same rapid transit line which, when it opened not a year and-a-half ago, was touted as a peace train that would encourage coexistence between East and West Jerusalem. Teenage girls punched the woman – an ugly image caught on camera and transmitted across the world – but insist the veiled woman pushed them first.

Lest we pretend this is solely a Jerusalem problem, there was a similar racist incident in Upper Nazareth on Saturday night. But let’s also stop pretending that this is an aberration: just a few bad eggs, the riff-raff, a mean little cell of soccer fans that calls itself La Familia, that gang of fans who want Beitar Jerusalem’s two recently acquired players, Chechan Muslims, off the team.

Let’s face it: Israel has a racism problem. Not just in the middle of a war or intifada, when expressions of hatred can be explained away against the backdrop of terrorism and rocket attacks, but also during times of “quiet,” as Israelis like to call it – because no one dares call it peace.

A woman being attacked while wearing a hijab in Jerusalem should disturb us as much as a Jew getting beat up for wearing a kippa in Paris. But acts of racism and hate crimes are becoming such a regular feature in the news lately that they almost seem like background noise, the price of life in a country with a perpetually unsolved conflict.

The Ministry of Education issued a statement after the latest attack, condemning the behavior towards Abu-Zamira, who is after all its employee – she and Valkov teach at a Ramat Hasharon junior high school and had come to Jerusalem to pay a condolence call at the home of the school’s principal. Haaretz reported the ministry’s statement in a story late last week:

“Because a number of violent and racist incidents have occurred recently, Education Ministry director-general Dalit Stauber has instructed that this coming Sunday, March 10, an hour of class time be devoted to a discussion on how to prevent such phenomena and their destructive ramifications for society,” the ministry said in a statement, adding that relevant materials would be posted on the ministry website.

I decided to follow up on this directive to spend an hour of class time discussing the problem. I posted the question on two Facebook groups of parents who live in Israel – which together make up a total of about 1,450 members. Many people responded to say that they’d spoken about it with their teenagers, and not one found that the issue had actually been addressed as promised.

When I posed this to the Education Ministry and asked for a response to the apparent non-compliance of many schools, spokesman Shaul Pe’er sent me a one-line email in response: “All schools in Israel dealt with the matter!”

Phew. So glad that's been dealt with.

I asked my friend Debora Siegel, a veteran teacher of English at Jerusalem’s prestigious Leyada, the popular name for the Hebrew University High School. She hadn’t received any particular instruction to address the issue for an hour on Sunday, and she would know: She’s also a mehanechet, the Israeli equivalent of a homeroom teacher. But it happens she brought it up in class, which she’s been doing more often, because the incidents seem to be growing in number.

“It feels like it’s getting worse and worse, though the kids tell me it’s always going on and it’s not new, that it’s just in the news more,” says Siegel, who immigrated to Israel from the U.S. and brings in texts from American writers such as Maya Angelou and Flannery O'Connor, along with readings on the civil rights movement. “I feel that the racism is more rampant, and that it’s happening all over the country. I notice it more from the kids’ mouths and in the newspapers. It’s not just about Arabs, it’s against foreign workers, it’s against Haredim.”

The school has been working on its own initiative, for example, to build bridges with schools in East Jerusalem. On Tuesday a group of students from Beit Hanina will be visiting Leyada and talking about their views on nonviolent protest, and how their lives are affected by living near a checkpoint.

Gilead Amir, the school’s principal, also doesn’t recall being informed of any specific directive from the Education Ministry to deal with the issue on March 10, though perhaps he missed it, he says.

“The idea to respond is good, and asking to us address the issue is something I support,” he says. “But it’s only meaningful when it comes as an enhancement to something that schools are dealing with as a part of their regular educational program. The point is not to stop and discuss the issue for an hour. What’s important is that it’s on the school’s agenda on a regular basis.” Leyada – a magnet school for bright kids – clearly thinks it’s a priority. It’s doubtful that the schools that need it most agree.

But the issue is so much larger than what the Ministry of Education says schools should do, and ultimately don’t do. Some of the most powerful messages are sent out by the police, when they release teenagers who are suspected of being responsible for the incident almost as soon as they’re arrested – as was the case in the attack on Abu-Samira.

Or when they accidentally lose hours of crucial taped testimony in the case of the “lynch” in Zion Square last summer, when an anti-Arab crowd of teenagers beat East Jerusalemite Jamal Julani within an inch of his life, leaving him unconscious and with no memory of the incident. (Two of the eight suspects will be convicted merely of “incitement to violence” in a plea bargain, the others’ cases are pending.) Or when no one is brought to justice in case of the Molotov cocktail attack on a Palestinian taxi during the same awful week last August; The attack horrifically burned seven members of the same family. (No arrests have been made in the attack on the Jayada family from Nahalin, other than the questioning of a few Bat Ayin youths who were released days later.)

A group called Tag Meir – or Light Tag, a pun on the growth of the "price tag" attacks perpetrated by extreme right-wingers – called for demonstration against the violence Sunday night.  The turnout was small – no more than 200 people – "especially compared to last year's rallies for economic reform held at the same spot," noted journalist Lauren Gelfond Feldinger in her Facebook status. No major politicians – including the prime minister, in front of whose house the protest was held – bothered to show up.

Perhaps the biggest problem is the double-standards. When an Arab attacks a Jew, he’s a terrorist, he’s with the movement, he’s been taught to hate. When a Jew attacks an Arab, he’s just a loner, an oddball, a bad egg. But we’ve seen so many bad eggs at this point that something here has begun to stink – and can no longer be explained away as a phenomenon on the fringes.

Dorit Jordan Dotan