Can criticism cure racism?


Hope burns

From where I sit, Jerusalem is nearly 6,000 miles away—and yet I can hear the hopes for a better future for the children of that contested city burning. Yes, around 2,000 people from all walks of life in Israel came out to demonstrate solidarity with the mission of the Hand in Hand bilingual school in Jerusalem. Unfortunately, the school’s burning by extremists on November 29 points to a problem too deep to be reached by a single march or an inspiring chant. It will take hearing a few real and unpleasant things about us to get started bringing about change.

Take for instance, that after the fact, one arsonist’s mother explained, “It’s disgusting that Jews and Arabs learn side by side…if we didn’t have a country governed by law, I would have done the same.” It’s comments like these that leave a gaping hole where my optimism normally resides.

What needs to be addressed here is a rising tide of racism and xenophobia within Israeli society that goes unchecked. A tendency for ‘Price Tag’ attacks to be tolerated as part of the national dialogue within the country only deepens a prognosis that the patient, by which I mean any prospect for a meaningful introspection, is nigh at death’s door. Politicians–as I mentioned in my discussion of the failings of the Left—haven’t measured up when it comes to dealing with the violence aimed at ethnic and religious minorities in the country. Even if more political figures were to take a page from President Rivlin’s book and preach co-existence, what is missing is a serious effort on behalf of Israelis to look at and critique the way in which the ‘out groups’—Palestinians, citizens with divergent opinions, and other minorities—are demonized.

Meron Bevenisti, a former Mayor of Jerusalem, painted a picture of the situation, saying, “The problem is the privileged condition of the Jewish ethnic group over the others, those defined as the ‘enemies,’ the ‘terrorists.’ You divert attention, so that it is easier to define, and restrict your anger and fight a battle that to me is irrelevant.”

For a number of groups that call the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean their home, a lack of discussion and/or real challenges to this condition is an elephant in the room.

It’s time to reevaluate the impulse to shut out and vilify the ‘others’. What is needed is an education system that confronts a nasty history of xenophobia; a system, supported by the government, which realistically supports future generations of children in the hopes of building bridges rather than burning them (or the schools that envision them).

More on the impulse

As the war in Gaza raged this summer, tensions ran high between Israelis and their neighbors. When one couple—a Jewish woman and an Israeli-Arab man—married in Rishon Lezion, Bentzi Gupstein of the anti-assimilation Lehava organization called for a rally to oppose the marriage, saying, “we are still at war and she is marrying a member of the enemy.” In Gupstein’s mind, the need for solidarity in a time of crisis was paramount; condemnation was not only an option, but also necessary.

I wrote this piece several days before news broke that it was this same group of Israeli extremists who were responsible for the arson.  In spite of this unfortunate development, the message here remains the same:  violent explosions of racism impact all members of the community, even the most innocent.  It’ll require a long hard look in the mirror to deal with these issues.

What I am advocating for is not suppression of opinion; in fact, I’m interested in quite the opposite. Gupstein isn’t wrong to have feelings towards assimilation and Arab-Israeli marriage, nor are any extremists wrong to oppose the public education or government officials that preach co-existence. What is detestable is the propensity for these views, often founded in racism, to explode into violence. This type of violence never occurs in a vacuum, so it’s almost assured that when the burning of the Hand in Hand School, more violence will be committed in turn.

Critical lessons at home and abroad

This is not all to say that the situation is hopeless. Science has been saying for years that we’re all a tiny bit more racist or prejudiced then we’d like to think. Instead, I am trying to say that ‘circling the wagons’—an old pioneer method of fending off bands of attackers by closing ranks and pointing all guns outwards—is not endemic to Israel alone, but rather that it is something deeper; something deeply human.

Eran Halperin of the IDC in Herzliyya is among a wave of scientists who study the psychology of intergroup conflict. Utilizing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as an open laboratory, Eran and others investigate the ways by which conflict rooted in deep personal emotion can be resolved.

One study took Israelis and exposed them to Palestinians who were critical of members of their own nationality. The results demonstrated an increase in those Israelis’ interest in connecting with Palestinians, a traditional group of outsiders, if not the eternal enemy. And Israelis weren’t alone in finding reason to repair relations with the ‘other’ either.

Another study conducted in Bosnia and Herzegovina—victim of the very meaning of ‘Balkanization’—suggests that accepting responsibility for our actions by way of introspection will lead to a greater support for reconciliation.  Essentially, the key to improving our relations with other groups is by way of accepting responsibility for, and openly criticizing, our own actions.

Keep in mind that both scientific examinations of improving relationships with another group involves being open to critically evaluating ourselves.  And this whole need to take an honest look at our involvement in racist behavior isn’t solely a Middle Eastern monopoly.

Here at home, Americans are no strangers of rallying to the defense of their own group while pushing the focus onto another.

Take a look at members of the American white community. While demonstrations, die-ins, and conversations abound—both inside and outside the community—the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown at the hands of white police officers present an uncomfortable moment in which the white community must confront the prejudices and opinions of its own fold.

Former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani voiced his frustration with the perceived scrutiny the white community was falling under during an interview with “Meet the Press”, chiming in, “I find it very disappointing that you are not discussing the fact that 93 percent of blacks in America are killed by other blacks. I would like to see the attention paid to that that you are paying to this and the solutions to that.”

I’m not here to say Rudy Giuliani is an out-and-out racist. I’m saying that his impulse to avoid confronting the possibility of white violence arisen out of racism is part and parcel of a hidden danger within intergroup relations.

If a man of such political power and stature is unwilling to take a meaningful look at his own community, what is the chance he would manage to enact policies that opposed such prejudices?

This is where critically evaluating our groups, and ourselves, comes into the picture:

Combating strains of racism, in Israel and America, will require educational systems that support a form of conversation unprecedented in purpose. More schooling and more learning needs to take place in the public square wherein participants are encouraged to think critically of the way in which we relate to those we consider to be a part of, and apart from, our societies.

When educators and politicians alike can openly express the need for this kind of evaluation, you might just find a world where children’s schools aren’t the target of flame and hatred.

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