Sins of our fathers

Ethnic-political violence in Israeli society increases violence among children.

Jamal Joulani 521 (photo credit: MIRIAM ALSTER / FLASH 90)
Jamal Joulani 521
(photo credit: MIRIAM ALSTER / FLASH 90)
In the early hours of September 6, less than a month after a violent attack in downtown Jerusalem left Palestinian teen Jamal Joulani seriously wounded, 28-year-old Palestinian Ibrahim Abu Ta’a was assaulted in the Katamon neighborhood of the city. The assault occurred as Ibrahim and a Jewish friend were escorting a Jewish colleague to her home following a Mamilla Hotel staff party.
Five youths were arrested the following day. Eight other youths – including one girl – were later indicted in connection with the assault on Joulani.
In both incidents, the attackers were Jewish youths under the age of 18, allegedly motivated by anti-Arab sentiment; in Joulani’s case, the assailants shouted “Death to the Arabs” as they beat him up, while Abu Ta’a’s attackers said they believed he was taking advantage of a Jewish woman.
In that same period of late summer, boys even younger – aged 12 and 13 – were accused of throwing a fire bomb at a Palestinian taxi near their home in the West Bank settlement of Bat Ayin, injuring the driver and his passengers, five members of the same family. The boys were later placed under house arrest.
“I am still in shock that such a thing could happen, that people could do such a thing,” the softly spoken Abu Ta’a tells The Jerusalem Report from his bed in Shaare Tzedek Hospital, five days after the attacks, where he was awaiting surgery on his leg. “This is not how human beings should behave. They were like animals.” His Jewish friends tried desperately to help him but were outnumbered; the attackers fled only when the police arrived on the scene, says Abu Ta’a, who studied mathematics at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and who holds a degree in multimedia from the ORT College night school. His social circle includes both Arabs and Jews, he says.
The attack has turned his world upside down. Someone, he says, has to do something to stop these attacks. “I hope things won’t continue this way. This time it was me, but next time it could be someone else, and not necessarily an Arab. It could happen to anyone,” says Abu Ta’a.
Indeed, other attacks have been perpetrated by young Israeli Arabs. In recent years, at least two men have been killed by gangs – one by four Arab youths in the town of Ramle, near Ben-Gurion Airport, as he was walking his dog at night, and the other beaten to death in front of his family on the Jaffa promenade by four young men from the Arab town of Jaljulya. Several months ago, adults and youth alike rampaged through a section of south Tel Aviv where many migrant workers and asylum seekers from Africa live.
But not all the seemingly increasing youth violence is racially or politically motivated.
As the school year began, cases of stabbings by students were reported in the coastal city of Herzliya and in the Galilee Bedouin town of Tuba Zangaria. In those cases, the weapons of choice were a pair of scissors and a pen, respectively.
In light of the situation, it is no surprise that a long-term study, which is soon to be published, has concluded that children exposed to ethnic and political violence are more aggressive than other children.
The younger the child when exposed to the violence, the more strongly they are affected, according to the study, which will be published in a forthcoming issue of “Child Development,” the journal of the Society for Research in Child Development in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The researchers behind the study, from the University of Michigan, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, looked at the chain of violence affecting Palestinian and Israeli youth.
Exposure to all types of violence was linked to increased aggressive behavior among the children, which the researchers attribute to a “chain of influence” in which the ethnicpolitical violence increases violence in otherareas of the children’s environment, including families, schools and neighborhoods and which, in turn, increases aggressive behavior among children.
The researchers were surprised to find that this exposure led to quite a substantial increase in not only aggressive behavior, but in aggressive behavior against their own peers, in addition to the expected increased risk of developing symptoms of post-traumatic stress.
The study was unique in that researchers conducted interviews with children from both sides of the conflict.
It included 600 Palestinian, 451 Israeli Jewish and 450 Israeli Arab families over a threeyear period starting in 2007 and focused on children aged 8, 11, and 14 at the start of the study, says Prof. Simha F. Landau, Professor Emeritus of Criminology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Parents were interviewed in order to filter out other sources of violence in the children’s life, Landau notes to The Jerusalem Report.
“Children are affected by political stress in many ways in real life and they learn that it is OK to behave violently. Not just political violence, but also other violence, like violence in schools,” Shira Dvir Gvirsman, a lecturer at Netanya Academic College, who worked on the study with Landau, tells The Report.
“We do see a higher level of violence in every aspect of life.”
Adults, particularly parents, play an important role in helping children cope with stressful and violent realities, she says.
A child does not have to live through a violent incident to be affected by it, says Gvirsman.
Just seeing graphic images of violence in the media – even from distant places such as Syria – can also have an impact on a child, as can playing and observing violent video games.
“Violence is an epidemic and every [image of] violence affects them. While a terrorist attack can affect 100 children, a broadcast of the images on the news reaches a million people – and a lot of children – and it has a tremendous affect. We have the news on in our living rooms and tend to forget what effect it may have on our children. Parents need to be more careful,” she says.
A society locked in a long-term struggle, where the other is demonized and dehumanized, where forms of aggression such as settler attacks on Palestinians go unpunished and are seen as normative behavior, is bound to suffer from the consequences of that aggression seeping into other aspects of their lives, says Landau.
Nonetheless, he says, he and his colleagues do not claim that political violence is “the root of all evil.”
“Life is quite complicated and children are exposed to external and internal factors. Aggression can’t be determined by one single factor,” cautions Landau, who has been researching violence in Israeli society since the late 1980s. “We also found an interesting interaction between parents who use violence to punish their children and violent behavior. Children are affected by their parents’ behavior.”
For Anat Hoffman, executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center, the pressing questions are where – in a state which professes to be based on Jewish ideals and ethics – are the voices of the rabbis, and what is being done to prevent certain rabbis from continuing incitement against others? “I am very concerned about incitement by some rabbis, and the government is doing nothing to stop it,” she tells The Report. “An atmosphere of incitement is a very dangerous one. These kids are exposed to something very dangerous. One would expect the rabbis to be leading the way, and it is very disappointing that this is not what we are hearing.”
One of the first words a traditional Jew must recite when he wakes up in the morning is “conquer your impulses with the force of a lion,” she notes.
After the incident in Bat Ayin, the settlement’s rabbi felt the need to speak out about the violence. An open letter to his community by American-born Rabbi Daniel Kohn did not relate to the guilt or innocence of the boys involved, although he said he would find it very strange for them to have been involved.
“Let it be said here clearly: such acts are forbidden and obscene! They point to confusion and lack consideration of all opinions.
Do not be deceived by ideas that incite you to evil. Build yourself through Torah and work, build our country with dedication and hard work, join a yeshiva or the army. Remember that it is permissible to protest the government’s distortions, but legally. Dealing with our enemies should be done only by legal means,” Kohn stressed in the letter.
“Adolescents in general tend to see things in black and white. The letter was to every parent to be responsible educators of their children,” Kohn tells The Report. He added that there is a sense of growing frustration among the youth, who believe they are witnessing the Israeli government become less committed to the Zionist ideals of building the land. “This creates a disconnect for adolescents, who really want to participate in the building up of the land.”
So is there really an increase in acts of violence by youth? It depends on how you look at it, says Landau. Police reports show that violence in Israel in general has gone down by 5 percent in the last eight months, and according to the National Council for the Child, the rate of juvenile criminal cases opened over the last decade has declined from 47.2 cases per one thousand teens in 2000, to 34.7 cases per one thousand teens in 2011, a decrease of 12.5 percent. Still, Anat Hoffman maintains that violence against gay youths is three times more common than in the past.
“There are always myths and headlines, but I am speaking of data from the police and the Ministry of Education,” National Council for the Child chairman Dr. Yitzhak Kadman tells The Report. He acknowledges that while the number of cases may have decreased, the seriousness of the cases may have in fact increased, the age of the perpetrators includes those younger than 15 years, and many more girls are participating in violent attacks than before.
Although it is clear that violence has not disappeared, there is “no need to panic,” he says. “We need to ask why this has happened. No doctor can give you a prescription before he knows the illness,” Kadman notes. The violence with which Israel lives is just one part of it. Once we know what has created this, then we can treat it. Most violence occurs because of a great neglect of youth in need.
We deal too much with putting out fires and guilt after the incident.
“You can’t hear the slogan ‘Death to the Arabs’ chanted on a regular basis at soccer matches without any intervention from police or government members and then not think you actually have to go do something about it,” Kadman says. If you have crowded classrooms of 40 students, it is just a matter of time before someone accidentally bumps into the wrong person triggering some sort of violence, he says.
“The social issues are very complex but people don’t want to hear complex answers,” he says. “The police should be the last station. But here the train never stops at the Ministry of Education, or the Ministry of Health. It just goes full speed to the police station. The police can’t save everybody.”
Schools themselves have become a more violent place, says Moshe Kron, director of the Magal rehabilitation center for young addicts in Jerusalem. Young people who come to the center talk of carrying weapons out of a lack of a sense of security.
Today, where there is no full-time nurse at schools, there is less access to psychological or counseling help for those children who feel endangered, so while well-off parents might be able to get their children the help they need, others from more needy families are left by the wayside, and we are seeing the results in society, says Kron.
While reluctant to dispute official data, Simha Landau points out that official records depend on people actually reporting an incident, which doesn’t always happen.
“The official figure is one thing, and sentiment is another, and here the role of the media and how it presents the world around us comes into play. There can be a situation where recorded violence goes down, but the feeling of citizens that things have never been so bad – due to a large extent to the impact of the media – complicates things. It is futile to ask if things are more or less violent now.”
“We can’t live in a society without violence,” says Landau. “Our job is to minimize it. There has been a lot of collateral damage here which will affect future generations. There are a lot of traumatized individuals.”
Israelis are only fooling themselves if they think that there can be a society of violent adults without violent children, says Kadman.
“Preaching won’t help if [children] see adults behaving otherwise. We can’t be a society of violent drivers, violent Knesset Members and violent soccer spectators and expect our children not to be violent,” he asserts.
“When adults are violent, children will also be violent. Children don’t grow up in a sterile environment.”
Sometimes, says Moshe Kron, it seems that children have been made the scapegoat for the issue of violence in Israeli society.
“I am not sure there is more violence among the youth. I think there is more violence among adults. The whole society is violent, how we speak to each other, wait in line, and the way we drive on the streets.
Our situation is not good but it is easy to use children as the scapegoats,” he says. “There is a lack of patience, a lack of acceptance of the other, a dehumanization of the other, but I am not sure that is true just in Israeli society. It is true in Western society.”