Bright spots and dark horizons

Israel has some way to go before it becomes a fully tolerant, open society.

The story was shocking enough, but what really shocked me was the radio host’s line of questioning.
Let’s start with the story. The night after Shavuot, at around 3:30 am, a 15-year-old boy was knocked over by a motor scooter while crossing the road. The 15- year-old wasn’t the only injured party. The motor scooter was also carrying a pillion passenger, a 13- year-old boy, who was thrown off the back of the bike and badly injured. The condition of the person riding the scooter is (at the time of writing) unknown, for the simple reason that he rode off, leaving two people lying injured and unattended in the middle of the road in the Carmel district of Haifa.
In the morning, Army Radio’s Rino Tsror, a leading presenter, interviewed the police officer in charge of investigating the accident, and asked all the standard questions a radio host asks in situations like this. He also voiced the appropriate shock and concern at the ages of those involved, and stressed his lack of comprehension as to how somebody could run somebody down, in the process badly injuring the passenger they were carrying, and then just drive off without tending to the injured and calling for help.
So far, so normal – as much as this type of accident is normal (unfortunately given the horrific car crash in Haifa on Saturday morning, these events are indeed becoming regrettably common).
And then Tsror, grappling for the politically correct way to ask the question, asked the police officer which part of the city the pillion passenger – and by implication, the rider of the scooter – came from. The police officer, understanding what Tsror was really trying to ask, refused to play along, and simply answered “the greater Haifa area.”
For those for whom the codes of Israeli discourse are still hidden, Tsror was not indulging in mere geographic curiosity; he wanted to know whether the scooter rider was a Jew or Arab – something easily discernible in Haifa (and of course, all over Israel) depending on where a person lives.
NOW WHAT possible difference does it make to a “simple” hit-and-run story whether the driver was a Jew or Arab? Unlike the case of Kafr Kassem resident Islam Ibrahim Issa, who is suspected of the Nakba Day truck rampage in Tel Aviv which killed Aviv Morag, there was no hint of nationalistic motives behind last week’s scooter accident.
And it’s not as if Jews could never be guilty of running somebody over and then fleeing the scene. Tal Mor, from Kfar Baruch, is currently on trial for manslaughter after running over and killing cyclist Shneur Cheshin last year. Mor is also charged with fleeing the scene and failing to offer assistance, along with other charges such as driving under the influence of alcohol and drugs, possession of drugs, obstruction of justice and driving without a valid license or insurance.
So why did Tsror feel the need to try and ascertain whether the suspected scooter driver was a Jew or Arab? I can’t answer this for him and, given the fact that Tsror generally gives the impression on being on the side of society’s underdogs, his line of questioning was doubly surprising.
Of course, it’s not just Arabs who are sometimes dealt with in this way in the media (which, as well as setting the public agenda, also acts as a reflection of a society’s values and prejudices). Haredim who run afoul of the law also receive more than average media attention for their crimes, not because of the crimes themselves, but because of the criminal’s haredi background, which is often highlighted, whether this background is relevant or not.
THE TRUTH is that Israel has some way to go before it becomes a fully tolerant, open society. There are some bright spots, as highlighted by this weekend’s Gay Pride parade in Tel Aviv which, due to Tel Aviv’s special character, is a jubilant celebration rather than the political demonstration that marks Jerusalem’s annual Gay Pride march.
But while the country’s gay, lesbian and transgender communities were having fun on Tel Aviv’s Gordon beach, celebrating their sexual identity, the coalition’s ministers and MKs plus spouses chose to spend a bonding weekend in Safed, one of the country’s most intolerant cities. This is a city whose chief rabbi last year issued a halachic ruling prohibiting Jews from renting homes to Arabs in the center of town, and where Arab students enrolled at the Safed Academic College have been the target of ugly public attacks.
Not surprisingly, given this government’s record of legislation discriminating against the country’s Arab population, there were no calls for tolerance and respect for the Other at this gathering, or a condemnation of Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu’s religious ruling. In fact, the ministers and MKs probably felt very much at home in Safed’s “special” atmosphere – something we should all find troubling, whether we are Jew or Arab, religious or secular, gay or straight.
The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.