Rattling the cage: The racism of Israeli youth

75% of Jewish high schoolers say Arabs are 'uneducated'; 75% say they are 'uncivilized.'

larry derfner 88 (photo credit: )
larry derfner 88
(photo credit: )
Every year or two a new study about the attitudes of Israeli Jewish youth toward Arabs comes out, and the findings are always depressing. Consistently, a majority of Jewish teenagers in this country is found to view Arabs as dangerous, to dislike them, to consider them unworthy of equal rights as Israeli citizens, and to wish many of them, most of them or all of them, gone. The charitable interpretation of these survey results is: "What do you expect? Israel is at war with Arabs. Israelis are getting killed by Arabs. Israeli Arabs wish they, not the Jews, were running this country, they identify with Israel's enemies, they're not exactly in love with the Jews, either, so what do you expect Jews to think of them? And if Jewish youth are more anti-Arab than their parents, that's natural - young people tend to be more extreme than their elders, whether to the Left or Right." For those who are bothered that most Jewish Israeli youth have hostile attitudes toward Arabs, including Arab citizens of their own country, there are two solutions: In the immediate term education, and in the long-term peace. If we teach Jewish youth to see Israeli Arabs as fellow citizens instead of as enemies - and teach Israeli Arabs the same about Jews - then the hatreds will diminish. And this "people-to-people" peacemaking will create a better climate for Israeli and Arab leaders, including Palestinian leaders, to make peace between the nations. So we're creating a "virtuous cycle": Less hatred means more peace, which means less hatred, which means more peace, and so on. This is the optimistic view. But then last week another one of these opinion polls of Israeli youth came out, this time conducted by researchers at the University of Haifa, and if there was a charitable interpretation and hopeful lesson to be taken from past surveys of this kind, I defy anybody who is troubled by anti-Arab racism to find the ray of hope in this latest one. This time it wasn't just a majority, but three-quarters of the Israeli Jewish high school pupils surveyed - 800 pupils from 11 schools - who expressed contempt for Arabs. Seventy-five percent said Arabs were "uneducated"; 75% also said Arabs were "uncivilized." And here's the most stunning result: 74% of the Jewish high school students who were polled said Arabs were "unclean." Unclean. To say Arabs are unclean is not a hard-line political statement. It's not an unduly harsh comment on Arab behavior. To say Arabs are unclean is to evince an irrational, hysterical, impenetrable, absolute hatred for an entire ethnic group - which, in fact, happens not to be unclean, no more than Jews are. To say Arabs are unclean is an expression of racism in about its purest, most virulent form. "We were not surprised by the outcome of the research," said the Education Faculty's Dr. Haggai Kupermintz, who headed the study. "Anyone who is familiar with the field knows that these warped perceptions exist, but these findings are at the most severe extreme of a disturbing phenomenon." THE FINDINGS are bad news both for the rightward-leaning Israeli mainstream and the liberal minority. The Right is always saying how Arabs are taught to hate Jews, how it's bred into them at home, in school, in the mosque, in their media. But the Haifa researchers also polled 800 Israeli Arab high school pupils from 11 schools, and found that while their attitudes toward Jews are awful, they're considerably less awful than the Jewish students' attitudes toward them: 27% of Arab pupils thought Jews were uneducated, 40% thought they were uncivilized and 57% thought Jews were unclean. So who's got the worse attitude problem in this country? Who's more filled with hatred? One other right-wing myth was exposed - again - by this latest survey. For years Israelis have been demanding that the Palestinians remove all the anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic references from their schoolbooks and media, because this, you see, is the root of the conflict: They hate Israel because they're taught to as children and encouraged to as adults. But Israeli Jewish kids don't read in their schoolbooks that Arabs are unclean. They don't hear it in the media, either. Yet that's what three-quarters of them think. So we can stop hocking the Palestinians about their schoolbooks and media; Israeli Jews are living proof that a country can have the most liberal and enlightened schools, TV, radio and newspapers, and the people can still come out racist as all hell. The bad news for the Left is this: All these endless "encounters" that have been held over the decades between Jewish and Arab youths, all these dialogues and group discussions and role-playing and hugging and crying - the Israeli expression that comes to mind is haval al hazman. A waste of time. A waste of money, too. Jewish-Arab encounters are a cottage industry in Israel. Between the New Israel Fund, the Abraham Fund, the EU, the US, the Ford Foundation and who knows how many other philanthropies, not to mention Israel's own Education Ministry, untold millions of dollars and man-hours have been invested in "breaking down barriers" between young Israeli Jews and young Israeli Arabs, in bringing them "face-to- face with the Other." And after all that, 74% of young Israeli Jews think Arabs are unclean, and 57% of young Israeli Arabs think Jews are unclean. But then, who knows - maybe if it weren't for all these encounters, the numbers would have been 84% and 67%. So the optimists would counsel: "Let's not lose hope." I'm trying not to. But I don't know. There are all sorts of possible explanations for Israeli racism, and only some of them have to do with war. Others have to do with class, and power, and religion, and many centuries of history, and other reasons I can't think of. But the fact is that Israel is fertile ground for racism, much more so, for instance, than America, where I grew up. I'm trying very hard to raise my Israeli-born kids not to be bigots, and I have some hope of succeeding. I think a lot of other Israeli parents may also succeed. But even if we do, I'm afraid our children will be in a minority in this country. And, barring some miracle, it will be a dwindling minority. At last week's conference where the University of Haifa researchers presented their findings, Kupermintz, according to a press release, "further stated that the survey was conducted in October 2004, and that if it was to be held today, he believes the results would be much more extreme." Another Israeli expression comes to mind: Hakol yihye b'seder, rak tagid li matai, v'aich. Everything will be all right, just tell me when, and how.