The nation's schools were asked this week to mark the UN-sponsored International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (March 21 ). The Ministry of Education's website offered study materials on the subject, and Dalit Stauber, the ministry's director general, instructed principals to devote a full hour to discussion of a racially motivated assault on two female teachers in Jerusalem 10 days ago. (On separate occasions, two Arab teachers were assaulted by Jewish teens, for no apparent reason. )
So, everything is fine. We can relax - anyone who has been unsettled by the proliferation of attacks against Arabs in recent weeks may be saying. The Ministry of Education is handling the problem. But there could be no greater delusion.
Racism is not restricted to schools with students of any particular social background. Teachers in Jerusalem relate that it has infiltrated prestigious institutions, both civics and history classes and also schoolyard recesses. Once the school day is over, they say, it makes its way into the shopping mall and public transportation. This is also the case elsewhere in the country. Over the past four years, the Education Ministry has been apathetic, at best, to efforts to battle racism and to promote the study of coexistence between Jews and Arabs. In other cases, it has even censored information relating to more than a few incidents. This was the sort of spirit imparted by the commander in chief, Gideon Sa'ar (until this week education minister ), within a short period of time. Racism only spread under the patronage of this sort of apathy, and teachers and principals who see the struggle against ethnic prejudice as part of their educational role were left to wage that struggle alone.
"I am a proud racist," said a teenage boy at Jerusalem's Malha mall, draped in a Beitar Jerusalem scarf, shortly before last week's game against Maccabi Haifa. "The menorah of Beitar symbolizes the Jewish people. The menorah is holy, Jerusalem is holy, and we are holy. That is why no Arab may set foot [on the field] in Teddy Stadium. This is a team of Jews and only Jews."
His friends, standing around him - all high-school students from the capital's northern Pisgat Ze'ev neighborhood - blurted out that they, too, hate Arabs and are proud of it. Added one, "an Arab is preferable to a leftist. The worst of all are those from among your own people who defend people whose object in life is to slaughter you."
These statements cannot be considered merely harsh rhetoric spewed out prior to a soccer game (incidentally, one that Beitar lost ). Hatred of Arabs is constant; it is categorical.
"I do not want to see Arabs anywhere - not in the streets, not at the mall, not on the light railway," says Ron (the name is a pseudonym, as are those of the other students ), a 12th-grader at the Sieff and Marks High School in Jerusalem's Beit Hakerem neighborhood. "There is a small part within every Arab, even those who say they want to live with us in peace, that can without warning jump on you and stab you with a knife. There is nothing you can do about it: In their roots they are against Jews."
Sieff is an ordinary, middle-class school, as are its students. Polls conducted around the country in the past two to three years offer data suggesting that the statements made by Ron and his peers should not come as a surprise. In one survey, about one-half of Jewish youngsters responded that Israel's Arab citizens do not deserve the same rights as Jews; 56 percent agreed that they shouldn't be allowed to serve in the Knesset. Another poll revealed that 60 percent of Jewish youths believe that strong leaders are preferable when it comes to imposing the rule of law, and that 46 percent do not believe in the possibility of Jewish-Arab coexistence.
Even if it did not take note of these polls, the Ministry of Education should have at least listened to the statements of civics teachers, who allege that it's become almost impossible for them to even conduct a class discussion about human rights. But the ministry did just the opposite.
"We have to be strong, and stand up against an environment that doesn't want us here," continues Ron. "I would not be willing to have an Arab boy learn in my school, because of the part of him that wants to kill me. I have my people, that is what is important, and I don't care about anyone else."
And he is not atypical.
The sign "Beitar is pure forever" that was held aloft by fans of the soccer team a few weeks ago does not shock such high-schoolers.
"The sign was wrong, but a Muslim should not play on the team," says Nir, an 11th grader. The issue came to the fore several months ago when the team announced that it was taking on two Muslim players from Chechnya. Fans reacted with anger and outrage.
"There are Arab teams where Muslim players can play. Beitar is a team with a Jewish character. If there would be a Muslim player, I would be unable to identify with the team," Nir says, adding, "I feel hatred for them, for all of them, but that is not racism. Racism is when you hate a person without reason. I don't feel safe near them. They brought it upon themselves, with all the terror attacks. Because they are here, part of my life is ruined."
"If they would open an Arabic-studies major at school, no one would take it," he continues. "I do not want to get to know Arabs or to come into contact with them. True, they live near us, but they are of no interest to me and it does not suit me to learn about their culture, because they are the enemy. There's no need to learn about them. Only my team, the Jews and Judaism, are of interest to me."
Visitors from Kafr Qassem
Sieff and Marks High School is one of the institutions that have decided not to give in. Its 11th-grade classes recently returned from a Jewish-Arab seminar at the Givat Haviva center for democracy education; students from the 12th grade visited the Israeli Arab town of Kafr Qassem and also hosted students from there. This was not so simple.
When the Arab students arrived at Sieff, there were pupils who said, "Look how low the school has fallen." During the initial moments of the seminar at Givat Haviva, several Sieff students wrapped themselves in large Israeli flags and sang songs of Beitar Jerusalem, "in order to show the Arabs what we think of them," as one of them put it later. When a student hung a sign in the hall bearing the slogan "Beitar should be pure," the teachers discussed in the classroom how it was that no one - even the most determined and blatant opponent of racism in the school - apparently thought to tear it down immediately. Educational success will be determined by a reduction in the number of students who take part in the next lynching. This cannot be discounted, particularly not when the common response to less extreme expressions of racial hatred is to look the other way.
"There are moments during lessons when I am afraid," says a civics teacher at another Jerusalem high school. "Subjects such as human rights, freedom of expression and majority-minority relations are perceived as being something that belongs to leftists, and the discussion very quickly devolves into political arguments. It isn't exactly an argument, but rather screaming between students and directed at me - how dare I give our enemies an opportunity to be heard? There is no tolerance. I leave these classes drained and frustrated. I have noticed that this year I am devoting fewer classes to these 'problematic' subjects. I no longer have the strength to enter this mine field."
A conversation with young people on these subjects can drive one to despair. Fear of every encounter with Arabs dominates a great deal of what they say, and it stems from an undermining of the self-identity they have formed, part of which has to do with denial of the "other." There is nothing quite like fear to ensure obedience and maintenance of the existing order. The teenagers express a lack of faith, not only in the chance of reaching a political settlement with the Palestinians, but also in the media and in some of their teachers.
Many of them are proud to say that they are repeating things that they have heard at home. Lilly Halperin, an educator who developed a program to battle racially based violence, which has been implemented in Jerusalem and elsewhere, says the tendency to express shock at the racism of young people is actually a way for adults to absolve themselves of responsibility. The youth are the scapegoat, she says: "They are a weak target that is easy to attack, enabling society to avoid the painful coming-to-terms with the true problem."
Nonetheless, the staff at Sieff refuse to give in to despair. Last year, in the framework of a preparatory session prior to the traditional school trip to Poland, one student said: "We should do a Holocaust to the Arabs." Other students, clearly upset, reacted by saying that one mustn't say such things. Ido Plezental, a teacher of civics, history and Arabic, decided to discuss these issues rather than stifle them. After they returned to Israel, the same student told Plezental that she understood she had been wrong and that now she had nothing against Arabs.
A conference was to be held last Sunday at the Seminar Hakibbutzim Teachers College, in conjunction with the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, focusing on the war the educational establishment should be waging against racism - not only that expressed toward the Muslim athletes on Beitar or against Arabs, but against every group, ranging from immigrants from Ethiopia to labor migrants.
"We must dismantle the students' fear," says Amnon Rabinovich, a civics teacher at Sieff. "This is an extremely powerful emotion, and there are good reasons for it, as well. We have students here who lost family members in terror attacks. To get a child to say that he is afraid is the start of an educational process, and is the antithesis of everything that these students see around them. It is particularly difficult for educators to deal with racism. It take a lot of courage to talk about education in favor of loving your fellow man."
"School is the only place where we can deal with racism," adds Plezental. "Putting them in jail won't help. The only way is to try to free the racist from the classical perception of victims, which is largely based on ignorance. That is something that the school can correct."