An innocent boy almost died on the streets of Jerusalem on a hot Thursday afternoon of the last week of July. The happy ending is that the boy did not lose his life, and was “only” moderately injured. But this is a story within a bigger story which may still end in tragedy.
A boy, his aunt and cousins were out shopping on Jaffa Road in downtown Jerusalem. The aunt popped into a store while the boy and his cousin waited outside. Suddenly a man in black approached the boy, grabbed and tore his shirt, and hit him in the face. The boy was scared and began to run. The man ran after him shouting “terrorist.”
The street was activated. People began to run after the boy. It seems that guns were drawn. The aunt heard the cries from within the shop and aunt ran out, realizing with horror that it was her sister’s child at the center of this chaos. He fell to the ground and people began to hit him.
She screamed at them to stop, that he was not a terrorist. Terrified that someone would shoot him, she ran over and threw her body on the boy’s until at last they stopped beating him. The boy was injured, but alive.
The entire incident was triggered when a shopkeeper voiced suspicion about the boy, though the concerns remain unsubstantiated. The man in black was apparently a security guard for the light rail, though the boy says the guard did not identify himself.
The boy is Arab, as are his aunt and cousins, the stranger and passersby Jewish.
The story, reported in Hebrew and Arabic media sources, including Haaretz, is one of rapid actions and reactions, and still unverified points of disagreement. What does seem quite clear however is that all it took was for one person to voice a concern that an Arab was suspicious, and within moments a cascade of actions, inferences and reactions almost ended in the loss of an innocent child’s life.
This requires asking questions not only about this particular incident, but about how we manage our fears, as individuals and as a society. I write “we” because I am part of the Israeli Jewish public, and in this case the question is how do we manage Jewish fear of Arab/Palestinian terrorism.
Living in conflict invariably, and understandably, leads to fear and suspicion between the two sides. But over the last few years the Israeli public has been exposed to almost relentless messaging from a wide range of Jewish politicians, security officials, religious leaders and soccer fans, tapping into fear of Arabs and conveying, implicitly or explicitly, that Arabs are the enemy, and therefore a threat.
To name just a few specific examples: Bibi’s last-minute rallying call during the last election that the “Arabs are coming in droves,” which is widely credited for his win despite polls that indicated otherwise. MK Yair Lapid’s “You have to shoot to kill whoever takes out a knife or a screwdriver or whatever” in the context of the knife attacks. In the same context and going even further, Chief Rabbi of Safed Shmuel Eliyahu’s statement, “We need to prosecute police officers and soldiers who leave terrorists alive after an attack.” The call for “Death to Arabs” heard at soccer games and in graffiti.
At the same time the burden of proof to verify the validity of these fears is constantly being reduced. The desire to prevent Arab/Palestinian violence against Jews is shifting to a place whereby often it can be enough to look Arab, speak in Arabic or with an Arabic accent, or have an Arabic name to arouse suspicion, which may be enough to merit self-defense measures on an act-first-ask-later basis regardless of the possible cost.
The problem is not the instinct of fear and the desire to protect, it is what we allow ourselves to do with that fear. I am not belittling the fear of terrorism. But I am questioning the instinct that is being cultivated. Israel’s Arab and Jewish citizens encounter each other on a daily basis in stores, restaurants, workplaces (albeit too often as cleaners or construction workers), hospitals, and on buses, especially in a city like Jerusalem or in Israel’s mixed cities. This kind of normal daily interaction is overwhelmingly dominant. Its statistical representativeness ought to help curb fears of the rare acts of violence, horrifying as they are when they occur.
Of course that is not the case. What makes the news are the incidents of violence and tension between Jews and Arabs, not the predominant norm of daily, mundane interaction. Cognitive psychologist Daniel Kahneman offers relevant insights on this in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow: “The world in our head is not a precise replica of reality; our expectations about the frequency of events are distorted by the prevalence and emotional intensity of the messages to which we are exposed.”
Kahneman shows how the public’s estimates of risk factors can become skewed and lead to a disproportionate or even harmful response when events take place which may in fact be infrequent, but if public discourse focuses intensively and emotionally on them, it can lead to the widely held belief that such an event is typical and must be addressed accordingly. Cognitive psychologists call this an availability cascade, and American scholar Cass Sunstein and Turkish scholar Timur Kuran examine the risk management policies and practices that are based on disproportionate responses to fears are often ineffectual or even cause far greater harm. This is not a matter of mere academic concern. While there is not space here to present this issue in depth, it deserves careful analysis as it affects public attitudes, public policy and people’s lives.
In this context it means that Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Arabs, become prisoners of their own perceptions and fears about each other. It leaves no escape route from an eternity of conflict.
This does not have to be the case. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is real, but it is not inevitable. Tribal belonging is not inherently rigid nor does it predetermine a single destiny. Most people on both sides want neither to harm nor to be harmed, but living in conflict easily leads to categorical hatred and dehumanization of the other side. History is full of examples of the extremes to which societies have gone as a result. No human society has inherent protection from such extremes. Even protective measures such as constitutions, laws, basic values can all be perverted to justify extremism. And extremism does not usually conquer a society in one fell swoop. Rather it is more likely to descend gradually, inoculating people as it does, and blurring the boundaries between legitimate and illegitimate actions, beliefs and ethics.
The incident on Jaffa Road is a troubling story of Jewish dehumanization of Arabs. The only barrier between life and pointless, tragic death was the aunt’s body and determined will. We cannot count on such a hero to protect the next innocent victim. Whether we are civilians, security personnel or politicians, it is up to each of us to be vigilant in seeing the human being first. More often than not, a 14-yearold boy is just a 14-year-old boy. No more, no less.Rebecca Bardach lives in Jerusalem and works at Hand in Hand: Center for Jewish-Arab Education in Israel.
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