The latest evidence suggests that six Jewish hoodlums burned alive a 16-year-old Palestinian named Muhammad Abu Khdeir – a sickening crime. Most reactions have been predictable – and tedious. The Left is using this murder to equate Israeli democracy with Palestinian totalitarianism. Critics either claim relativistically that each side has its own extremists or that these Israelis fanatics – who, if they are ultra-Orthodox are usually repudiated by the Left – now represent Israeli society. Meanwhile, the Right, contrasting Israel’s rapid and mass repudiation of the murderers with Palestinian joy when terrorists strike, is trying to turn this mark of shame into a badge of honor.
Clearly, no society is perfect; all communities of imperfect human beings have their monsters, sick individuals who exploit and exaggerate certain mass social pathologies. Totalitarian societies are immoral because they embed monsters like terrorists into their characters and mission statements. Democratic societies strive to be better, expunging the monsters in their midst. When, nevertheless, our people commit heinous crimes, we take responsibility – our mass shame reflects the high standards we set for our community.
Bringing killers to justice becomes the first challenge.
Repudiating them, their actions, their inspirations and their enablers becomes the second challenge. The third and hardest challenge – the true test of a democracy’s self-corrective abilities – is the preventative one, namely undergoing the necessary self-scrutiny and self-correction to minimize chances of relapse.
Such self-policing and self-purging is easy to endorse, harder to execute. In 1995, Timothy McVeigh set off the deadliest homegrown terrorist bomb in American history in Oklahoma City. Some Democrats blamed the mainstream Right for incitement, and the broad social revulsion at the bombing helped Bill Clinton win reelection in 1996. But the more focused and effective social response targeted far-right militia movements.
Smart education, mass politics and aggressive policing shrank the militia movement from 858 groups in 1996 to 194 in 2000.
By contrast, four years later, when two students killed 13 people in Columbine High School before committing suicide, all the resulting soul searching produced no real social change. Rates of American teen violence have stabilized, but just this weekend 12 people died in over 82 shootings in Chicago alone, many teen-related.
Political attitudes and structures are more responsive to effective educational interventions and social cues than we usually think. We just need the right vision and strategy.
Smugly proclaiming, “There is no moral equivalence, we don’t celebrate our terrorists” encourages complacency.
Relying on our effective police force and our eloquent leaders – who have acquitted themselves honorably since the Khdeir murder – is not enough.
Even while acknowledging that these monsters are marginal, the incoming president Reuven Rivlin should make fighting anti-Arab bigotry (it’s not racism when it’s nationally-based), and promoting civility as his primary missions. All the parties in the Knesset should support him enthusiastically.
Moreover, “Tag Meir” (tag of light) should become a mass movement. The organization, which is sending over 600 people on a mass condolence call to the Khdeir family in Shuafat, is a Left-to-Right coalition which responds with money, volunteer help, apologies and love whenever a “tag mechir,” or “price tag” attack of Jews against Arabs occurs. It is not “their job” to do this – every Israeli is responsible for fighting this scourge.
Beyond politics, Israel must confront the underlying ideological distortion feeding these monsters. True, terrorists murdering Israeli children and rocketing Israeli homes contribute to the problem. But extremists use dehumanizing prisms to convert Palestinian crimes into Israeli intolerance. Land is not more important than people. Yes, the Bible taught Jews that the land of Israel is holy, but the Bible first taught the world that human life is sacred. Yes, Zionism returned us to the land, but it just as passionately envisioned Israel as a model democratic society.
Zionism is one of the least racist, least biologically- based forms of nationalism, because converts to the Jewish religion automatically join the Jewish nation.
That fact should shape Israel’s aspiration to be an enlightened, accepting, open yet proud country.
A systematic educational and political campaign should defy the haters and idolaters who so worship land they will sacrifice humans and their own humanity to serve extreme goals. Demonizing and dehumanizing Arabs must end. Sensitize children and parents, students and teachers, soccer fans and soccer owners, political activists and political leaders, to the words they use, the assumptions they make, the stereotypes they perpetuate. Israeli Arabs’ status has improved since their days under extended military rule; we now need more progress toward acceptance, not just that pinched word “tolerance,” respecting Palestinians as valid co-claimants for our land and Israeli Arabs as fellow citizens.
We need self-respect while respecting others; this must be part of an integrated Zionist education explaining who we are, what our rights are, and who we wish to be. We should stretch, seeing democratic Israel’s story in all its multi-dimensional complexity and glory.
We need a new commitment to Arabic language education for Israeli Jews. Israel is not a suburb of North America or Europe. All first graders should start learning spoken Arabic language intensely, as the key to Arab culture and coexistence. It is often hard to hate a people whose language you love to speak.
President Rivlin’s first official speech should launch this initiative. His first official act should be to appoint an all-party commission filled with political leaders, intellectual experts and celebrities to oversee this transformation in attitudes toward Arabs – and make it work. There are successful models now from many Western societies showing how to change social and political attitudes. Off of this tragedy, Israel should recommit itself to fostering a new, more open, atmosphere; not to score points in some anti-delegitimization derby we may never win, but to fulfill the Jewish, Zionist and democratic ideals that define our state.
The author is professor of history at McGill University and will be teaching at the IDC-Herzliya in the fall. He is the author of eight books on US history, including, most recently, Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism, published by Oxford University Press. Watch the new Moynihan’s Moment video! www.giltroy.com.