In Focus: Hype or hypothesis?
Is the recent rash of violent incidents involving Israeli youth indicative of a trend?
POLICE DETAIN youths taking part in a protest Photo: Ronen Zvulun/Reuters
It was only the third day of classes at Yovel High School in Herzliya when two
10th-graders got into an argument. It ended when one student stabbed the other
with a pair of scissors, landing the teenage victim in Meir Medical Center in
Kfar Saba in moderate condition.
On the same day, several 10thgraders got
into an argument at a high school in Tuba-Zanghariya, a Beduin- Arab village in
the Galilee. One stabbed the other several times in the throat with a pen. The
victim was taken to Ziv Medical Center in Safed in moderate
“We don’t know what the fight was over, because this is how it
is with 15- year-old boys around here,” says Yehuda Maman, a police spokesman
for the northern region. “Any disagreement can quickly deteriorate into a
Police arrested suspects in both stabbings, which
happened on Wednesday.
By Thursday, the two latest incidents of worrisome
youth violence quickly disappeared from the headlines. Some would dismiss these
as back-to-school brawls gone too far. But coming on the heels of two incidents
of appalling teenage-perpetrated violence – the near-fatal beating of an Arab
teenager by Jewish youths in Zion Square in Jerusalem and the firebombing of a
Palestinian taxi that seriously injured six members of a West Bank family –
others say more probing questions need to be asked. Is it hype or hypothesis to
say that Israeli youths are becoming more violent?
Indeed they are, as are
Palestinian youth, according to a new study published last week in Child
Development, a bimonthly US journal. An international team of researchers –
Israeli, Palestinian and American – came together in a multi-year study funded
by the US National Institutes of Health to examine violent behavior among more
than 1,000 children ages 8, 11 and 14. In a survey that the researchers say is
the first of its kind and that could be helpful for educators and parents of
children in conflict zones the world over, the study found a direct correlation
between exposure to political violence at large and acting out violently at home
or in school.
“We know that in many parts of the world there are
political conflicts that expose children to violence. But never before has it
been measured so accurately and repeatedly as in our study,” says Professor
Simha Landau, a criminologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Emek
Yezreel Academic College and the lead Israeli researcher on the
“It’s unusual in that we conducted a study of both sides
simultaneously,” he says. “Usually it’s just one side, and that side sees itself
as a victim.”
Landau and his fellow researcher in Israel, Shira Dvir
Gvirsman at the Netanya Academic College, teamed up with Prof. Khalil Shikaki,
the head of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah,
as well as with researchers at the University of Michigan and at Rutgers
Landau has been looking at this link since the late 1960s,
when he began to see a direct correlation between what can be classified as
political violence – be it war, low-level conflict or terrorism – and violent
behavior in general.
“The more you are involved in violence toward the
out-group, the more it spills over and is generalized to society within,” he
says. Other studies he’s done, and others by his international colleagues, he
says, show that people living amid war or post-war societies have demonstrated
an increase in homicide rates. “There’s a hypothesis that there’s a habituation
to violence, and it leads to a cheapening of human life.”
examined a sample of 451 Jewish children, 450 Israeli Arab children and 600
Palestinian children – 64% of them from the West Bank and 36% from the Gaza
Strip – during three points in time between 2007 and 2010.
At the time of
the first interview, onethird of the children were eight years old, one-third
were 11 years old, and one-third were 14 years old.
The age spread was
significant in the study because it showed that the younger children were more
impressionable, in terms of the impact of violence, than the young
“Importantly, we found that late childhood was a critical period,”
Rowell Huesmann, a University of Michigan psychologist who is a
coauthor of the study, wrote in a summary of the study. “The children who were
[eight] at the start of our study were more susceptible than older children to
the effects of witnessing violence.”
Among all children questioned, 51.8%
reported that there were incidents of violence in their families during the
first time period, in 2007, and this figure rose to 58.7% by 2010.
was a rise in reports of school violence over this period, jumping 6.4% to
Unsurprisingly, the Palestinian children reported higher rates of
witnessing violence, of knowing a friend or relative who had died or of having
seen violent images on the news or on the Internet. These images, says Dvir Gvirsman,
also play a role that is underestimated.
It might be slightly less
damaging to see violent images rather than events themselves, but violent images
affect many more children, she says. About 95% of the Israeli children and 100%
of the Palestinian children said they had seen violent images of the
Of those surveyed, some 90% of the Palestinians and 40% of
Israelis said they had seen some of these violent events in person, once or
twice a year.
Also notable was the extent to which geography matters.
Israeli children who are growing up closer to the “front lines” – communities
near Gaza that often get hit by Kassam rockets, for example, or towns in the
North that have been hit by missiles launched by Hezbollah in Lebanon, are more
likely to develop aggressive or anxious behaviors than Israeli children
“Generally we see the trend that with children up North or
around Gaza, there is a higher tendency toward violence among the kids who are
closer to political violence, as well as PTSD [Post-traumatic stress disorder],”
Dvir Gvirsman says.
The grinding, seemingly insoluble conflict is clearly
not the only culprit, Landau adds. Many things contribute to violent behavior,
of course. The culture of one’s home and community play an equally important
role. How parents respond and whether they resort to violence as punishment of
their children’s behavior, he notes, is particularly crucial.
But one of
the most interesting new things the study’s authors found is the extent to which
normative behavior – in other words, what’s considered normal and acceptable by
a child’s peers and elders – has had an impact on the increase of violence in
“We’ve found that there’s a mediating role that
normative beliefs play between exposure to violence on one hand and aggressive
behavior on the other,” says Landau.
For example, children were asked to
agree or disagree with a statement such as: “It’s OK to hit someone if he hits
me, or if I’m angry or frustrated.”
“The higher the normative belief that
it’s OK, the higher level of aggression,” Landau says. “We measured that, but
also the normative beliefs of aggression toward the ‘out-group.’ Those who shout
“death to the Arabs” are more prone to hit an Arab when they have the
opportunity. “ That incitement to violence is often shouted at football matches
and dismissed as light-hearted hooliganism. But when it is also shouted by a
crowd beating Arab youths, as it was two weeks ago in Zion Square, it
demonstrates how problematic some of the socalled normative behavior in Israeli
society has become.
Until now, the problem has been brushed aside as a
one for educators and occasionally police to deal with, but not necessarily as
something to be addressed at the highest levels of government.
violence has reached really dangerous levels in these recent incidents, and the
idea that children [ages] 12 or 13 could commit such atrocious acts, if this is
not a warning or a writing on the wall, I don’t know what can be. Besides saying
that the situation is quite awful, we need to see various social and educational
agencies, from the Prime Minister’s Office downwards, come up with a plan to
cope with and to minimize acts of this kind. Just saying it’s complicated and
doing nothing doesn’t work. We’re shedding light in a corner that has really
Professor Paul Boxer, who is a specialist in violent and
anti-social behavior at Rutgers University and is one of the leading researchers
on the study, said the study will be helpful for understanding what children,
parents and teachers go through in other conflict zones.
“I think what is
unique about this conflict is the duration and entrenchment of the conflict in
everyday life in the region. From our theoretical standpoint, this really does
ensure that we are examining events that emerge from very deeplyseated cultural
and religious belief systems and ideologies,” Boxer says. “Our results show that
interventions at the level of the family, school and community could be quite
useful. For example, support groups for families in neighborhoods where the risk
of exposure to ethnic-political violence is greater, or for youth in schools
near those neighborhoods.
“Given what we know about how aggression is
learned, it is critical that adults come together to model appropriate,
prosocial solutions to interpersonal conflict to counteract the legitimization
of and habituation to violence occurring at the political level.”