Turning Down the Volume

While our leaders are responsible for preparing us to face external threats, they must urgently begin to take similar responsibility for all the varieties of internal violence already afflicting us.

Even as our elected leaders turn up the volume regarding the threat from Iran, the past week has provided grim reminders of the dangers we Israelis face from internal violence. Unsuspecting pedestrians were killed by a callous hit-and-run driver and Arabs were random victims of Jewish hate crimes.

While our leaders are of course responsible for preparing us against potential external threats, they must urgently begin to take similar responsibility for all the varieties of internal violence already afflicting us.

From a national perspective, such violence is in some sense more strategically dangerous than the external variety. After all, Israeli folklore has it that outside threats serve as a unifying societal force, while violence at home - often striking along fragile fault-lines - is fundamentally corrosive.

The human and economic cost of internal violence, the shadow of fear it casts over our lives and the threat it presents to society - all are especially exasperating, because its causes are so well understood, largely surmountable and - worst of all - substantially of our own making.

As a still-young country facing ongoing external conflict and characterized by deep internal divides, Israeli society is especially prone to many kinds of physical violence. In these circumstances, the extremely aggressive character of much of our public and political discourse is particularly dangerous, and moderating its tone is a critical step to reducing the violence.

In Israel - quite distinct from the Western democracies with which we rightly choose to compare ourselves - violent public discourse by elected leaders, directed against others at home and abroad, remains a popular political weapon. Abuse of civil servants for carrying out their public duties, racist barbs against Arab and Ethiopian citizens, attacks on non-Orthodox Jews exercising freedom of worship, slurs against women for somehow "encouraging" sexual harassment, stereotyping of the ultra-Orthodox - are all popular stepping-stones to political advancement.

Anyone who doubts the intimacy of the connection between violent public discourse and actual violence need only reflect on the words of one of the teenage suspects at the center of a vicious attack on a Palestinian youth in Jerusalem last week. His wicked expression of motives and his regret - that the victim survived - were reminiscent of the racist rants of more than a few prominent elected politicians and state-funded rabbis.

Even though most Western democracies periodically struggle with familiar forms of prejudice - especially at times like this, of economic austerity and high immigration - we in all likelihood have no idea how many Western politicians and religious leaders are old-style bigots, racists, homophobes, xenophobes and misogynists - and that is exactly the point. While ideally no leaders should harbor such unacceptable attitudes, where they do linger they are generally concealed as shameful political liabilities rather than deployed as political assets. While not ideal, politically correct hypocrisy from our leaders is infinitely preferable to inflammatory bigotry.

Ideally, the Israeli public will - over time - rid us of venomous leaders by withholding political support from them. Indeed, in this regard, we have some reason to be optimistic. Despite constant exposure to incitement, public-opinion research - commissioned by the NGO I lead and others - reveal that the great majority of Israelis of all backgrounds are deeply concerned by the blight of verbal and physical violence and want to live in a more respectful society.

Working toward what most of us want and dealing with the malignant impact of toxic public discourse is a challenge. Only once a more positive and respectful public discourse is created will essential practical steps to reduce violence - increased law enforcement, comprehensive citizenship education, provision of equal employment opportunities and much more - become higher priorities and more effective. Alienated and fearful, we urgently need a common civil language, consensual and comfortable for the many diverse groups that constitute Israeli society. Such a language - of shared citizenship - must accommodate our legitimate disagreements with sensitivity, while delegitimizing the expression of views the great majority of us know to be wrong.

As a Jewish Zionist, for example, I am unwilling to concede Israel's special role as national homeland for the Jewish people. But precisely as such, I am required to appreciate that not all of Israel's citizens are Jews or Zionists. I must accept that all groups - like women, the LGBT community, members of all Jewish denominations and all the different "others," including refugees who come under our care - expect and deserve to be treated with basic decency.

Achieving such change must entail increased understanding between responsible representatives of all the groups that comprise Israeli society. Furthermore, an appreciation of the common roots of so many different kinds of violence is essential. While the triggers are varied - nationality, religion, gender, skin color, sexual orientation - the underlying causes of dehumanization and fear are fomented by ignorance and a belief that violence is the legitimate and effective default response to adversity.

Given the current circumstances - and as with so much else in contemporary Israel - responsibility to lead change will disproportionately fall to nongovernmental organizations. To be effective we will be required to energize public opinion through unprecedented cooperation with many willing partners within the governmental, business and philanthropic communities. This work will be done in the face of violent criticism by those public figures currently setting the poisonous tone, which is still the only noise they know how to make.

Mike Prashker is founder and director of Merchavim: The Institute for the Advancement of Shared Citizenship in Israel (www.machon-merchavim.org.il ).