Don't demonize good people

There is no excuse for tarring an entire sector with the behavior of a few hooligans.

religious zionists 298.8 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
religious zionists 298.8
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
It is a highly unedifying spectacle to witness Israelis demonizing Israelis. Unfortunately, in recent times this has extended beyond post-Zionists and other alienated Israelis to many rank-and-file citizens. In the last elections Shinui garnered many votes by exploiting those aspects of haredi life that generated fear and dislike - refusal to serve in the army, failure to contribute productively to the economy, and, in some cases, even ambivalence toward the state itself. The party fanned such prejudices for political purposes, sinking political discourse to the lowest common denominator. It is especially sad to witness such bigotry among Jews, whose bitter experiences in the Diaspora so often related to ruling groups cynically exploiting them as scapegoats for the failures of society, or as a means to divert the attention of the people from their problems. It has, of course, also been standard fare for anti-Semites to highlight the real or fabricated deficiencies of individual Jews in order to defame the entire Jewish people. Shinui has imploded, but its former vilification of haredim has now been redirected by other hate-peddlers to religious Zionists and settlers, the new group currently being demonized with a vengeance and exploited as scapegoats for Israel's security problems. THE HATRED generated against settlers is likely to have more far-reaching negative consequences than the campaign against the haredim. The latter are a relatively isolated group, whereas religious Zionists are an integral element of society occupying important roles in every field of Israeli life and endeavor. The settlers, who had been encouraged by successive governments of all shades of opinion to settle the land in Judea and Samaria, represent a highly constructive element in the nation. They also served on the front lines and bore the brunt of Palestinian terrorism, suffering more casualties than any other sector of the community. In fact, religious settlers assumed the role of a new Zionist vanguard filling the void left after the secular kibbutz elites of the earlier days of statehood gradually disappeared. They emerged as the antithesis of the Tel Aviv consumerism and post-Zionist trends that diluted the Zionist ethos that had dominated the state in its formative years. In contrast to the post-Zionist and yuppie circles, evasion of the draft or emigration is simply inconceivable in these quarters. In fact their patriotism and love of the land, combined with the inclination of their youth to serve in army combat units, transformed many of them into role models for civic behavior. Not surprisingly, the displacement from Gaza devastated and embittered most religious Zionists and has made the entire settler movement concerned about the future. Israelis who had transformed deserts into thriving agricultural communities and witnessed their loved ones and neighbors being killed by terrorists were treated like pariahs by a government which failed to perform its elementary obligations. To this day the vast majority of those who were so painfully displaced from their homes in Gaza have not been resettled; most lack a livelihood; many of their children still not attending permanent schools, are traumatized and require psychological counseling. Even many Israelis who supported the withdrawal are outraged at such callous behavior by their government, which has not even displayed remorse at its abysmal failure to act decently toward these citizens. The manner in which the settlers are being portrayed in election rhetoric is equally disconcerting. Following the cue of a number of politicians, the media is having a field day, irresponsibly presenting extremist elements as though they reflect the norm, creating an atmosphere of hysteria and hatred against the entire Israeli settler community. Needless to say, such demonization in no way excuses the violence of a small number of hooligans. Scenes of young Israeli hoodlums wearing masks and violently confronting law enforcement officials can only be described as obscene. No responsible person would deny the need to ensure that people who behave in a violent manner and refuse to abide by the laws of the land be dealt with severely. There is also no doubt that settler movement spokesmen who assumed a passive role in such circumstances have contributed to undermining the standing of the entire settler community. They must be far more vocal and explicit in condemning and dissociating themselves from such illegal behavior. In the current climate, however, it is not surprising that when every violent incident is highlighted as though it typified settler behavior, the public perception of settlers as a group has deteriorated substantially and assumed a highly negative profile. Regrettably, it is not realized that the vast majority of settlers have always been, and remain, law-abiding model citizens. In fact their lifestyle is remarkably reminiscent of the pre-state secular Zionist pioneers who also chose to settle with their families in barren areas frequently surrounded by hostile Arabs. It is, therefore, surely the obligation of politicians and the media to ensure that a small minority of degenerates in a community are not portrayed as the norm. Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert must also caution the police that encouragement by the government to take resolute action to enforce the rule of law must not be regarded as carte blanche to employ violence indiscriminately. Police must take particular care to avoid harming innocent bystanders or those involved in peaceful and lawful demonstrations. Unfortunately, since Olmert encouraged the police to act with greater firmness there have been documented cases of innocent people undergoing police brutality. Thankfully this does not apply to the IDF, whose record in this problematic area has, by and large, been exemplary. Olmert stands at a crossroads. He must clearly demonstrate that he has the welfare of all Israelis at heart and ensure that the forthcoming election debates are not transformed into diatribes against the very people with whom, until only recently, he shared a common political outlook. He has the choice of turning a blind eye while vulgar populism is channeled to gain votes by demonizing all settlers. Or he can act as a statesman and demonstrate his determination to heal and unify rather than intensify schisms. The demonization of any societal sector must be nipped in the bud. Woe to Israel if settlers and religious Zionists, who include the most devoted citizens in the land, are transformed into a political football and vilified as enemies of the state. It would have a devastating impact on our society, one for which we would pay a bitter price for generations to come. The writer chairs the Diaspora-Israel relations committee of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, and is a veteran Jewish international leader.