Benjamin Netanyahu recently denounced “incitement” to hatred as one of the key obstacles to Israeli-Palestinian peace. “It all starts with education,” added Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon. They were talking about Palestinian incitement, of course. But it got me thinking.
In 2012, former Shin Bet head Yuval Diskin warned that, “Over the past 10-15 years Israel has become more and more racist. All of the studies point to this.”
Sadly, he’s correct. Last year, according to the respected Israeli Democracy Institute, 48 percent of Israeli Jews said living next to an Arab family would bother them. In addition, 43 percent want the government to encourage Arabs to leave Israel. A majority thinks important government decisions—not only on security, but even on economic and social issues—should require a Jewish majority. A Haaretz poll last August of Jewish Israeli 16 and 17 year olds found that 42 percent would object to having an Arab teacher.
What explains these hateful answers? Maybe it’s incitement?
A while back, I tried out the theory on an American Jewish hawk. I mentioned that there’s a public park in Hebron named for the notorious racist Meir Kahane, which includes the grave of Baruch Goldstein, who murdered 29 Palestinians in 1994. There’s a moshav, a postage stamp and various streets named for David Raziel, who masterminded a July 6, 1938 attack in which Irgun operatives placed bombs in Haifa’s Arab market, killing 23 people. Many Israeli students attend schools run by Shas, whose spiritual leader, the late Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, called Palestinians “snakes,” Arabs “evildoers,” Islam “ugly” and declared that “goyim are born only to serve us.” Many Israeli textbooks no longer show the Green Line.
When I presented this theory to my hawkish interlocutor, he looked at me like I was crazy. He didn’t deny the accuracy of my examples. He didn’t even deny that many Jewish Israelis dislike Palestinians and Arabs. But he explained, in the exasperated tone of one explaining something blindingly obvious, that this hostility stems not from postage stamps, textbooks or the statements of famous rabbis. It stems from the trauma of everyday life. Did I really not understand the second intifada’s impact on average Israelis: the horror of not knowing if the bus you step into will suddenly blow up; the anxiety of wondering if your kids will come home safe from the pizza parlor? Did I not realize that for the people of southern Israel, traumatized by rocket fire from Gaza, this suffering continues? Could I not see that if many Israelis, regrettably, harbor hostile feelings toward Palestinians, those feelings stem from the most powerful incubator of all: lived experience.
My hawkish acquaintance was right. Right about Israeli hatred and right about Palestinian hatred too.
Let me be absolutely clear: I agree with Netanyahu that Palestinian textbooks and media too often justify hatred, and even violence, toward Jews. I too am appalled when Palestinians publicly glorify suicide bombers or traffic in anti-Semitic stereotypes. I think America should push Israel and the Palestinians to restart the “anti-incitement” committee established in 1998 to monitor violence-inducing speech. And I don’t consider Israeli and Palestinian incitement equivalent. There’s good evidence, for instance, that Palestinian textbooks are more hostile to Israel than the other way around.
But despite all this, Netanyahu’s new focus on incitement largely misses the point. I’ve met many Palestinians who hate Israel. But I’ve never met one who attributes that hatred to street signs or textbooks. Instead, they talk about parents evicted from their homes, cousins jailed, lands taken, travel permits denied. One Palestinian friend, born inside the green line, told me about being unable to live with his West Bank-born wife inside Israel. Another told me that her husband, born near Bethlehem, has five brothers, all of whom have been shot by Israeli soldiers. I’ve lost count of the number of Palestinian, Arab and Muslim acquaintances who have recounted humiliating experiences at Ben Gurion Airport. In my experience, at least, Palestinians explain their anger toward Israelis in roughly the same way my hawkish acquaintance explained Jewish anger toward Palestinians: as the product of bitter, personal experience.
Benjamin Netanyahu can do something about that. Channel 10 recently reported that over the second half of last year, Israel increased its budget for the settlements tenfold. That means countless, fresh Palestinian stories of suffering and fury. When it comes to combatting the incitement that leads Palestinians to hate, Netanyahu need not wait for Abbas. He can start with himself.
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