The Upside of Acre

The systematic provision of better opportunities for the realization of all human potential, and the consequent reduction of frustrations among Jewish and Arab communities that would accompany this, especially in mixed towns, requires long-term investment.

For those, like me, whose chosen profession is to improve relations between Israelis of all backgrounds through education, optimism is a basic job requirement. It is therefore probably no surprise that a feeling of cautious optimism is replacing my initial horror at the Jewish-Arab violence that broke out earlier this month in Acre. Now that two weeks of relative quiet have passed, and despite some deplorable attempts to stir up people and exploit their pain, I'm still inclined to believe that this assessment may be based on more than my own psychological tendencies. Here's why:

For one, nobody was killed and the riots did not spread beyond Acre. Either of these scenarios could easily have happened, in which case we could all now be immersed in an Israeli tragedy, dwarfing even that resulting from the violence in the north in October 2000, following the outbreak of the second intifada, when 12 Arab citizens of Israel were killed by Israeli police. So was this pure luck or has anything actually changed?

In general, the language used by most political leaders and police to relate to the events in Acre has been civic rather than military in nature. No live fire was used against Arab citizens and the overall impression is that the police rightly viewed the events as a serious outbreak of criminal lawlessness between rival groups of Jewish and Arab citizens, not as a nationalist uprising by the latter.

We can also see some limited, but nevertheless significant, change in the language of some of the political and public leadership, even some of those generally inclined to exploit tensions. Jewish-Israeli leaders across a wide spectrum have not related to the disturbances in nationalist terms and have refrained from employing such emotionally loaded terms as "revolt" and "uprising." This represents an important shift from autumn 2000, whereby rioting Arab citizens are rightly condemned as such, alongside Jewish-Israeli rioters, rather than being singled out as a fifth column.

Despite some disturbing cases, in which local and national politicians have sought to exploit the events for divisive political gain (and even this could have been more widespread, considering how close we are to municipal elections), there are signs that a majority of local, government and civic forces are determined to take responsibility for the shared future of Acre's residents.

Taken together, the relatively "better" outcome, compared to 2000, and the language in which the clashes in Acre have generally been described, might indicate the beginning of a new civic awareness that is percolating, albeit still too slowly, into Jewish-Israeli consciousness.

Faced with the fact that a majority of school students in northern Israel are Muslim-, Druze- and Christian-Israelis, more Jewish-Israeli leaders are possibly beginning to give voice to the fact that all Israeli citizens, whatever their nationality or faith, share an interdependent future. Admittedly, this acknowledgment is normally expressed in language that conveys a sense of resignation, rather than much appreciation, let alone celebration, of our diversity.

Similarly, both local and national Arab leaders have generally distanced themselves from a purely nationalistic analysis of the violence. Most Arab leaders condemned Arab and Jewish law-breakers alike, and have not adopted the incendiary analysis emanating from some predictable parts of the Arab world, that the confrontation was the opening of a "new front" in the regional conflict.

In addition to the relatively broad agreement among Jewish and Arab leaders that the events in Acre were partly caused by economic hardships, there are also indications of a growing appreciation of the importance of issues related to identity, culture and respect for difference. According to this view, to build a decent, shared future, it is as important to relate to the sense of belonging of every Israeli citizen as to the improvement of infrastructure and job creation.

But while we can take some encouragement, we cannot be complacent. A simple dispute between neighbors or an innocent car crash could re-ignite a civic flame that could do enormous damage to our common home. We need to act forcefully on two fronts, preventive and responsive.

There are no quick preventive fixes. The systematic provision of better opportunities for the realization of all human potential, and the consequent reduction of frustrations among Jewish and Arab communities that would accompany this, especially in mixed towns, requires long-term investment.

Considerable new budgetary investments in systematic educational responses, of the kind in which I and many others are involved, are essential to prepare young Israelis, in all their diversity, to live together. As a society we must at last acknowledge that, like spending on education of all kinds, the only thing that ultimately costs more than making the necessary investments is failing to do so.

As concerns preparing a response to the probably inevitable next outbreak of Jewish-Arab violence, the State of Israel needs to take decisive steps. For example, just as the state trains and readies professional teams to respond to other disasters (earthquakes and chemical spills), a cohesive Jewish-Arab "rapid-response team" of religious, community and public leaders and professionals should be formed, which would quickly and efficiently support other agencies by implementing a comprehensive intervention plan. It makes obvious sense that this could reduce the damage of any future "troubles."

Of course, this relatively upbeat interpretation of the distressing events in Acre might be no more than the delusions of a compulsive-optimist, but maybe not?!

Mike Prashker is founder and director of MERCHAVIM: The Institute for the Advancement of Shared Citizenship in Israel, which promotes programs to educate Israeli children to live together better.