An open society

In Israel, we have for some time faced the same dilemmas of balancing protection of individual rights with the need to defend ourselves

November 20, 2014 22:25
3 minute read.
Jewish and arab at Rami Levy supermarket in Jerusalem

Jewish and Arab customers at a Rami Levy supermarket in Jerusalem.. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

In times of crisis, the sorts of benefits afforded by open societies – civil liberties, freedom of the press, human rights – often come under attack. For the US, Guantanamo Bay, CIA interrogation techniques and crackdowns on national security leaks have strained the boundaries of liberal values.

In Israel, we have for some time faced the same dilemmas of balancing protection of individual rights with the need to defend ourselves against those among us who would use murderous violence for despicable ends.

In the wake of Tuesday’s appalling murder in Har Nof’s Kehillat Bnei Torah synagogue, the political leadership has taken a number of prevention and deterrence measures.

Most, such as increasing the number of security guards stationed at kindergartens, malls, public institutions and other sites; beefing up police forces; and encouraging citizens to volunteer for neighborhood patrols, are not just legitimate, they are obligatory.

Some measures, such as the one taken Wednesday by Ashkelon Mayor Itamar Shimoni, are unacceptable and probably illegal. Apparently under pressure from parents, Shimoni declared that Arab workers will no longer be allowed on construction sites at kindergartens in the city where bomb shelters designed to protect against rockets shot from the Gaza Strip are being built.

The residents of Ashkelon – and of other communities – have legitimate concerns. On the streets of Jerusalem, which has been at the center of a maelstrom of deadly car- and van-rammings, stabbings, and rock-throwings, citizens are understandably shaken. Keeping a constant lookout for an errant car or a knife-wielding attacker has become part of life, residents of the capital told The Jerusalem Post’s Daniel K. Eisenbud.

And broad swathes of the Arab population in Israel seem to in some sense understand, if not fully justify, the uptick of violence directed at Jews as an expected result of “the occupation” or of “settler violence on Haram al-Sharif [the Temple Mount].” Egged’s Arab bus drivers in Jerusalem were striking for the fourth consecutive day on Thursday in protest against the death of Yussuf al-Ramuni, despite the fact that an autopsy conducted by an Arab coroner found that Ramuni committed suicide. These drivers seem to believe the lies being told to them in the Arab press. Many more Arab citizens do as well.

It is only natural that Jewish Israelis have become apprehensive over the future of relations with their Arab fellow citizens. Many have concluded that they can no longer trust any Arab. All should be held suspect.

But we must tear our minds away from this very human tendency to generalize. Rationally, we know that the vast majority of Arab Israelis are not murderers, nor do they support murderous attacks against Israeli Jews.

We must remember that the threads and imbrications that bind and layer the discrepant strata of Israeli society – Jewish, Muslim, Christian – are strong as well as subtle, ancient as well as modern. Novelist David Grossman noted in his 1993 nonfiction account of Israel’s Arabs titled Sleeping on a Wire that more Israeli Arabs probably speak Hebrew than do American Jews. And while the humiliating memory of 1948 is still vivid for Israeli Arabs, there is also the realization and reconciliation with the fact that our peoples are destined to live together in this land.

In explaining his decision this summer to leave Israel for good, the writer Sayed Kashua, whose chosen language of expression is Hebrew, said he had hoped he could bring together Jews and Arabs through his storytelling.

“I began to write, believing that all I had to do to change things would be to write the other side, to tell the stories I heard from my grandmother.”

But he gave up, convinced that “an absolute majority in the country does not recognize the rights of an Arab to live.”

Kashua was deeply mistaken. But collective punishment of the sort proposed by Ashkelon’s mayor does nothing to foster the sort of environment needed for coexistence and mutual respect. The strength of an open society is its ability to channel and encourage the talents, strengths and creative powers of a diverse and multifaceted society. Suspicion, unfair generalizations and hatred discourage cooperation and ultimately weaken our society.

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