Culture Wars

What happened last week in Haifa? A sociological guide.

PLO? Did the Arab assailants from Haifa really inscribe the letters “PLO” on the head of one of two apparently off-duty soldiers last Friday night? PLO? Are we back in the 1970s, for heaven’s sake? There is no way that the minors who allegedly perpetrated the attack and were born sometime in the 1990s could even know what the PLO is. But it sounds Arab; it sounds very much like “nationalistic motivation.”

One online news site reported that they etched the words “Ya kalb” ‏(“You dog”‏). That sounds a lot more credible. “Ya kalb” is Arabic, every Jew knows what it means, and it is definitely typical Arab talk. Kalb is a word that Arabs use to express powerful nationalist feelings, as in “Kul kalb biji yomo” − “Every dog shall have his day” − which was a slogan in the late 1980s. And we all know that Arabs don’t really like dogs. It’s part of their culture.

Sayed Kasua - Amos Biderman - March 2, 2012

Ya Allah, how did I get into such a tangle? And why does it always happen to me? This evening I have to deliver a lecture of an hour and a half at a conference of the Israeli Sociology Society. My topic: “Between Multiculturalism and Culture Wars.”
The talk is in another few hours and I absolutely must not escape to the Internet, I admonished myself as I opened a new text document and stuck a title at the top: sociology. I hate sociology with a passion. If it were a conference of political science, history, even economics, I would feel more at ease. But sociology? The department I dropped out of, the department that caused me deep shame and guilt feelings? I never understood a thing in sociology. I couldn’t grasp the meaning of basic concepts. Such as “culture.”

I have no choice but to go to the Internet for information. According to Wikipedia, culture is “an integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon the capacity for symbolic thought and social learning.” Well, that’s a start, I thought to myself as I moved to another news site, to follow the developments in the case of the soldiers from Haifa. “Yahud, yahud,” ‏(“Jew, Jew”‏) the reporters quoted the wounded soldiers as saying. The Arabs said “yahud” − and then attacked the soldiers, who in one report were said to have been in uniform, and in another, in regular clothes. But “soldiers” and “yahud” sounds a lot better, a lot more consistent with Arab culture. In the end, the totality of an Arab’s values, beliefs and worldviews will make him want to assault soldiers. It’s a cultural thing.

Now I’m starting to get it. You can’t fight it. It’s all sociology − it’s all the behavior of people. What I didn’t manage to take in during three years in academia now sounds quite clear. This case of Arabs attacking soldiers in Haifa is an excellent theme for the lecture. Haifa, a mixed city, has always been considered multicultural. Yet, over the weekend a culture war develops there, in the form of a brawl, but a culture brawl is still better than nothing. Suddenly a term leaps to mind from the depths of oblivion: “case study.” The incident in Haifa is definitely one of those.

I tell you, if the Internet didn’t exist we would have to invent it. The news sites don’t let me down: They continue to provide amazing material for an in-depth sociological cultural analysis − and all in connection with the Arabs who supposedly attacked two soldiers in Haifa.

Now the parents of the detained Arabs are speaking. One talks about children who were barbecuing meat over a fire. You tell me, is that not an Arab ritual, one of the cornerstones of Arab culture? Over a fire − what’s more sociological than that?

According to the Arab narrative, they are sitting there in some yard, cute kids listening to Arab music and barbecuing meat, when suddenly a large group of young Jews appears on the scene and wants to join the party, and take their food and their drinks ‏(in the end, they will probably want to change the music, too‏).
Just like in 1948. Historic “baggage.” The Palestinians were sitting there, each under his vine and his fig tree, when a foreign group invaded and wanted the fig tree and the vine.
According to the Arab version, the boys refused to let the foreign Jews in, and the latter started to throw stones and attack the house where the peaceful celebrants were.

Undoubtedly the assailed Arabs’ honor was sullied, and according to their cultural codes they sought revenge. The Arabs went into the street, in typical hotheaded fashion, and grabbed a scapegoat, who had to be a Jew. In this case there were two soldiers − it’s immaterial whether they were in uniform or not − trying to find help and a haven at Rambam Medical Center, which brings light and healing to Arabs, too. The two supposedly encountered a gang of rioters whose bloodthirsty eyes saw only a defenseless Jewish minority in front of them. But just as there are Arab codes, there are also Jewish codes in this country. “That such a thing could happen in the Jewish state?” the reporters bewailed.

“It was apparently an act of hooliganism and not nationalistically motivated,” the headlines − taken from the police themselves − now declared, in a major about-face.
I knew it. I knew someone would understand that it’s all a matter of cultural misunderstanding. That it has nothing to do with nationality, but only with cultural baggage and sociological interpretation, based on narratives, symbols and texts more than on hard facts. PLO? Give me a break: Even in Ramallah they don’t know what that is anymore.

I was very pleased to read the headlines declaring it was all a matter of hooliganism, which had nothing to do with the Arab-Israeli conflict. Really, that’s all we need now. I was surprised that the announcement that calmed the nerves was actually issued by the police. And I was especially pleased that the whole thing was perfect for my lecture tonight.

I was absolutely delighted by my case study of Haifa as a classic example both of multiculturalism and of cultural dueling. Until a judge named Zaid Falah, who remanded the suspects, talked about dark regimes, cited the Declaration of Independence and Israeli democracy, and insisted on drawing a comparison with an atrocity like the lynching of the Israeli soldiers some years ago in Ramallah.

Judge Falah wrecked my whole cultural theory. Sociology did not offer an interpretation for his remarks. I tried to decipher them by applying the concept of “Israelization,” but that didn’t work, and even “culture shock” didn’t do the trick.
The totality of my values, beliefs and worldviews then led me to soccer culture; only there did I find a sociological ritual that could explain the judge’s behavior.