President Reuven Rivlin lashed out against racism in Israeli society, telling a Jerusalem conference the country was “sick” earlier this week.
The remarks came at a conference sponsored by the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, as high-profile Israeli politicians and intelligentsia wrestled with the issue of xenophobia in society.
The leaders and thinkers gathered for the day-and-a-half event and bemoaned the current situation and the damage it is doing to Israeli society and culture, though few could offer any far-reaching concrete solutions to the problem.
“Israeli society is sick and we must treat the disease,” said Rivlin, who has focused on anti-discrimination efforts since taking office nearly three months ago.
Rivlin was referring to a wave of racism, hatred and incitement against both Palestinians and left-wing Jewish Israelis that swelled within Israel, on the streets and on social media, during this past summer’s conflict with Hamas in Gaza.
However, as with most illnesses, the symptoms did not appear out of nowhere. Processes of disease had been underway well before this year, politicians at the conference said.
“The wave of violence on the eve of the war did not come from zero,” said Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, referring in general to the violent response to the kidnapping and murder of Eyal Yifrach, Naftali Fraenkel and Gilad Shaer by Palestinian terrorists, and in particular to the retaliatory random murder of East Jerusalem teenager Mohammed Abu Khdeir, who was kidnapped and burnt while still alive by Jews.
Many at the conference mentioned that the challenge of racism was especially daunting because of the particular nature of Israeli society, which operates against the backdrop of a long-standing, unresolved national conflict.
And while high-minded ideas were floated, the conference was notably short of representatives from minority communities including Arab Israelis, Mizrahi Jews and the ultra-Orthodox.
Educational, religious and legal approaches for ousting xenophobia were examined, but each alone fell short. Speakers implied that a combination of the three might be effective, but the complexity of the situation prevented anyone from suggesting a possible recipe for success.
While Livni touted new anti-discrimination initiatives within the Justice Ministry, legal experts, speaking on Monday morning, suggested that the law alone would not be able to put an end to racism and divisiveness in Israel.
“Can law overcome racism? No. At least not by itself,” said State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan. “The social and educational struggle against racism is more important.”
To support his point, Nitzan explained how the extremely narrow Israeli legal definition of “racism” makes it hard to prosecute inciters. In addition, he noted that the publication of a quote or reference from a religious text is not legally considered incitement.
‘Israeli society is sick and we must treat the disease’
“This can be problematic, because religious leaders make racist statements,” Nitzan said.
As an illustration, he brought the example of Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, candidate for chief rabbi of Jerusalem, who has issued religious rulings, backed by his interpretation of halacha, forbidding Jews from renting apartments to Arabs or foreign workers.
All the legal experts on the panel agreed that free speech must be protected, and that individuals only be prosecuted for speech that clearly incites to violence.
“Law must deal with behavior, not speech,” said Hebrew University law professor Ruth Gavison.
Michael Karyani, also from the Hebrew University law faculty, echoed an assertion by Gavison that the law can be only part of the answer.
“Laws cannot change basic social values. It’s the other way around,” he said.
Karyani, a Palestinian who lives in the mixed community of Neve Shalom outside Jerusalem, said Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel needed to determine who they are collectively, and to figure out what unites them.
Speakers on the education panel that followed suggested that this could be too tall an order for a country in which the majority Jewish population itself is fractured into innumerable sectors that don’t interact very much, if at all, with one another — let alone with Arab-Israelis.
“The different streams in the education system [public, religious-public, Haredi, private, Arab] separate kids from one another. Israeli kids grow up from a very young age in a context of separation,” said Eyal Naveh, a professor of history at Tel Aviv University.
Naveh warned that unchecked separation leads to exclusion, which can lead to discrimination, and ultimately to racism and incitement.
While Naveh and others among the education experts remain optimistic about the potential for education to combat intolerance and hatred, Gavriel Salomon, an educational psychologist from the University of Haifa, is more doubtful.
“In 15 years of research, we have not found any evidence that education programs for co-existence leave an impression even two months later,” he reported.
“Not everyone can overcome the fear of getting to know the other’s narrative,” he said.
According to Salomon, if anti-racism curricula and programs are to have any chance of working, they need to be long-term and to be integrated into all subjects taught in the school. They must take not only a cognitive approach, but a social one as well. Equally important, parents must be involved in and supportive of the process.
‘Israeli kids grow up from a very young age in a context of separation’
Many of the presenters, including Education Minister Shai Piron and settler movement leader Rabbi Yoel Bin-Nun, pointed to fear as the main obstacle to overcome in efforts to bring about change.
“Fear and terror are being used as a strategic weapon,” said Bin-Nun. “We can’t allow ourselves to be caught up with fear and intimidation.
“In our conceptualization of ourselves, we are a society of minorities. And minorities are afraid of losing their identities,” said Eyal Kaminka of the Yad Vashem International School for Holocaust Studies.
“It is natural to be afraid, and fear can lead to hate. But the point is not to fear. The point is to overcome the fear and to do the right thing,” he said.