Dignity, self-esteem and respect by others are considered by many cultures to be
of utmost importance to each individual. In some communities, including many in
the Middle East, they are even more important than financial comfort and
personal safety. They contribute immensely to personal resilience and social
Observations of and listening to Israelis and Palestinians
reveal similarities in perceptions of dignity and the potential consequences of
its violation, but opposing implications for national resilience.
is subjective and its violation is extremely culturally sensitive. The
perception of violated human dignity depends on the receiving side, which might
or might not perceive her/himself as being victimized. The perpetrator might not
intend to cause damage and might not even perceive any violation.
prevalence of complaints in our region as well as non-scientific, random or
self-selected media interviews during protests reveal several common
denominators of perceived perpetrators.
On the top of the list of many
people is stonewalled bureaucracy, non-responsive clerks who hide behind rigid
strict rules and use their position of focused power to show off with
citizens-clients who seek their help.
Instead of functioning as public
servants, these low-level clerks – who are the day-to-day faces of the
administration – are perceived as small-time tyrants who annoy the poor people
who depend on their services.
The situation is worse when the regime is
perceived as insensitive and oppressive. Then the institutions that initiate the
regulations, procedures and penalties are blamed and the individuals who execute
the “law” are perceived as the mechanized hands of the mighty ruling monster and
not as individual humans who may also experience frustrations and
In June, I experienced several bureaucratic behaviors during
two trips from Jerusalem to Amman through the Hussein (Allenby) Bridge border
I chose this route despite warnings that it is complicated,
because the actual distance between Jerusalem and Amman is only a one-hour
Let’s start with the factual bottom line: the Allenby border
crossing is not worse than any busy international airport, though much is left
to be desired.
Official attitudes and interactions with the public vary.
On one trip to Amman, I shared a taxi with several Palestinians. At the entrance
to the Israeli border compound, there was a routine ID check.
security employee emphatically insisted that he needed to confirm a woman’s
identity, but she was covered from head to toe and refused to reveal her face to
The guard smiled and in Arabic explained that he would immediately
bring a female colleague. In less than a minute, the civilian entered the office
with her alone and within less than two minutes emerged with smiling eyes and
off we went.
One of her male relatives told me in Hebrew, “You see, some
Israelis can be nice, if they want to.”
At the terminal, lines were long
and slow and provided ample time to Palestinian travelers to complain, though –
from what I observed – with no apparent substantiation.
On the contrary,
on a trip back to Israel, I – an Israeli and American – was the one who was
discriminated against. The border custom clerk looked at my Israeli passport and
waved me out. At the exit, the official noticed that I did not have the required
paper note. He brought me to his supervisor, who started with an accusation that
I had attempted “to sneak into Israel.”
When I attempted to reason with
him, he claimed that he “will prove that I am wrong,” insisting that I admit my
When he paused, I asked him, “So, what do you want me
to do?” which he perceived as conceding defeat. He shared his victory with his
underlings, who were watching the proceedings. I did not argue with the
authority, who was busy showing the wrong person “who is boss.”
me back to the end of the line, to the same border clerk. She smiled at me and
waved me through again. This time, I insisted on getting the printed note and in
45 minutes I was in Jerusalem.
This included three minutes at the check
point at the entrance to Jerusalem. The east-Jerusalem shared taxi was singled
out for inspection, and the Palestinian passengers assumed a “porcupine
position” in anticipation of maltreatment.
However, the security person
just glanced at us for a brief moment and waved us back to the
One of the passengers even complained about the humiliation of
this non-event. For me, this non-incident was a demonstration of
hypersensitivity of vulnerable people to repeated factual or perceptual
The discrepancy between facts and perceptions of the check
points emphasizes that their mere existence is considered a humiliating
The violation of human dignity there is perceived as
targeting Palestinians as a group and not as individuals.
contributes to crystallizing a group identity and the need to protect the group
against the aggressive “other group.”
The outcome of violations of human
dignity of individual Israelis is different. I have encountered “an Israeli
style of argument” many times. Often it turns into a showoff incident of who has
the upper hand and who is the winner, with no relevance to content and
The jingle for that attitude may be the words from the
once-popular song (from the musical Kazablan) – “Kol Hakavod”: “Le’mi, le’mi
yesh yoter kavod” – “Who has more honor?” While it is merely unproductive in
interpersonal interactions, it is a violation of human dignity when it is
practiced by public servants in their interactions with civilians who seek their
This is especially true when people of the weakest strata of
society are being maltreated: Elderly, disabled, financially broke, sick, new
immigrants – especially those with darker skin, less educated and the
This is an issue of day-to-day life. Politicians and management are
blamed and are responsible. This is no less important than financial and
economic issues (and nobody would deny their significance).
picture of administration is the sum of its details. The government should
initiate people-friendly procedures and train officials who are the daily face of
the bureaucracy to treat their customers cordially. The people behind the glass
windows are the salespeople of the government.
This is especially
important for weaker people who often find it difficult to fend for themselves
and struggle with bureaucratic rigidity. They are also more vulnerable to the
consequences of failed negotiations.
When your own government is being
held responsible for undignified, discriminatory and arrogant attitudes, the
result is often social disintegration, providing fertile ground for the
ascendency of a populist movement.
We have seen such a process all over
the region around Israel. Can it happen here, in Israel? Yes.
progress to occur, the first step is the recognition of importance of human
dignity in the fabric of a diversified democracy.
Human dignity is not
only a metaphor, it is a practical issue of day-to-day interaction of government
and its administration with human beings, citizens and non-citizens
Education and reeducation are of huge importance.
regulations for behavior and honoring human dignity should be issued. Employees
should be trained. Execution and performance should be monitored like any other
government function or dysfunction.
Political and administrative
leaderships should be held accountable for not honoring human dignity in all
levels of their domains.
The writer is chairman of the WPA Section on
Interdisciplinary Collaboration, chairman of PEMRN and professor and director of
biobehavioral research at SUNY-AB.