The time has come to admit that Israel is a sick society, with an illness that demands treatment, President Reuven Rivlin said at the opening session on Sunday of a conference on From Hatred of the Stranger to Acceptance of the Other.
Both Rivlin and Prof. Ruth Arnon, president of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, which organized the conference at its premises on the capital’s Jabotinsky Street, spoke of the painful and bloody summer, and the resultant resurgence of animosity between Arabs and Jews that had escalated to new heights.
Referring to the mutual expressions of hatred and incitement, Arnon said that Jews, who in the Diaspora had been exposed to anti-Semitism and persecution, should be more sensitive to the dangers of incitement. “But are we?” she asked.
Rivlin wondered aloud whether Jews and Arabs had abandoned the secret of dialogue.
With regard to Jews he said: “I’m not asking if they’ve forgotten how to be Jews, but if they’ve forgotten how to be decent human beings. Have they forgotten how to converse?” In Rivlin’s eyes, the academy has a vital task to reduce violence in Israeli society by encouraging dialogue and the study of different cultures and languages with the aim of promoting mutual understanding, so that there can be civilized meetings between the sectors of society.
He urged the academy to take on this challenge and to eradicate the violence that threatens to scar Israel’s image.
Education Minister Shai Piron was confident that differences can be overcome and cited his own family as an example. He grew up in a home in which his father was Sephardi and politically right wing, whereas his mother was Ashkenazi and left wing. And yet, he never detected any antagonism. He did not realize until he was an adult and went out into the world, the extent to which differences can cause havoc, he said.
The Education Ministry is starting a heritage project whereby Jewish and Arab youth, both religious and secular, will study side by side and learn each other’s traditions, Piron said.
Holocaust studies professor Yehuda Bauer of the Hebrew University said that racism based on color is marginal in Israel. Racism in Israel is generally of a nationalist nature, he said. He was most concerned about religious racism and incitement that usually emanates from extremist fringe elements, because these people are often the most violent and most dangerous, he declared.
The most difficult task confronting the academy, Bauer said, out was how to define incitement in relation to freedom of speech. He cautioned that freedom of speech must never be sacrificed on the altar of incitement. His own definition of incitement was when an individual or a group, through speech or written material, harms and humiliates another individual or group, sparking others to engage in physical or psychological violence against them and even going so far as to kill them.