Shechtman, Tamimi and Israel’s group identity

Inside Out: Nobel Prize award and the death of Palestinian activist seem unrelated, but shed light on filters through which Israelis view events.

Prof. Dan Shechtman receiving the Nobel Prize 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Ints Kalnins)
Prof. Dan Shechtman receiving the Nobel Prize 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Ints Kalnins)
Two seemingly unrelated events were reported prominently by the Israeli media at the beginning of this week. The first was the Nobel Prize that was awarded to Professor Dan Shechtman of the Technion for his ground-breaking work in the field of quasi-crystals. The second was the death of Mustafa Tamimi, a Palestinian man who was killed during a West Bank demonstration after being struck in the head by a tear gas canister that reportedly had been fired at close range by an IDF soldier.
The two events, indeed, are unrelated in almost every sense. That said, they do shed light on the filters through which Israelis view events, filters that are the product of group consciousness and affect identification.
Overwhelmingly, Israelis took pride in the personal achievement by Shechtman, who is the tenth Israeli ever to receive this prestigious award. By all standards, that is a major national achievement for a country just 63 years old and with such a small population to boot.
It goes without saying, of course, that Shechtman’s achievement, like that of other Israeli Nobel laureates, does not truly reflect on the abilities, skills, diligence and ingenuity of anyone but himself, though of course it does reflect well on the Technion and other institutions of higher education in Israel.
Despite the absence of a direct link between Shechtman and most of his compatriots, most Israelis justly perceived Shechtman to be a representative of the good in their society – its values, priorities and innate skills – and they were naturally proud, feeling they shared his accomplishment by association.
Alternately, few Israelis identified emotionally with the events surrounding Tamimi’s death. There were two exceptions. A first group, mainly from the outer edges of the Left, was immediately moved to cast it as a damning reflection of the ills of Israeli society as a whole, and voiced that sentiment in blogs, Facebook posts and elsewhere. The second group, mainly from the outer edges of the Right (one had only to read the talkbacks on The Jerusalem Post’s own report to see this) responded to the news with nothing short of sanctimonious alacrity, swiftly asserting that Tamimi essentially had received his just deserts.
Needless to say, the facts of the event had not yet been fully established, but that stopped neither group from passing judgment. It was enough for them to know that Tamimi was a Palestinian who had faced off against IDF soldiers. If the Israeli occupation is always in the wrong in the fringe Left’s opinion, the Palestinians are always in the wrong for the fringe Right.
In both cases, group identification created such powerful filters that the facts were of little consequence.
Both groups view the world through a “them or us” filter and judge everything almost solely based on that criterion.
Most Israelis, however, who belong to neither fringe segment of society, responded to Tamimi’s death with a shrug of the shoulders. That equanimity is a different byproduct of group consciousness. Tamimi, as a Palestinian, belonged not only to a different group, but to an adversarial group that is engaged in a national struggle against Israel. It is only natural for most Israelis not to get overly worked up over his death, particularly since it occurred in the context of the broader national conflict.
IN ITS most extreme form, the filters of group consciousness prevent one from being able to identify with members of other groups as individuals, as fellow human beings deserving of empathy. Instead, the filters allow one to view others, particularly members of adversarial groups, solely as members of that group.
Jews suffered because of this for more than two millennia, in the course of which anti-Semites demonized and attacked them not for who they were as individuals, but in their capacity as “Jews.”
The perpetrators of price tag attacks have acted in a similar way. In their desire to avenge Palestinian attacks on settlers, they have arbitrarily chosen Arab and Muslim targets, venting their anger at happenstance members of the adversarial group who coincidentally crossed their paths.
Those attacks seem even more blatantly cynical and racist when Arabs and Muslims are attacked to avenge perceived injustices against settlers that are committed not by Arab Muslims but by the Israeli civil administration and army. For the perpetrators of price tag violence, the “them and us” filter of reality blinds them to any other ethical consideration, first and foremost the Torah’s instruction to “love your neighbor as yourself.”
Those filters have an impact on the relations between groups that form Israeli society as well. Settlers and haredim (ultra-Orthodox Jews) also often complain that they are viewed by too large a segment of Israeli society not as individuals but as stereotyped “settlers” or “haredim” in a way that has negative connotations. All too often, they feel that assumptions are made about them as individuals – by the media and by the “other” Israel – which aren’t fair.
But they, too, are not immune to group filters that cloud their view of the other. It is not uncommon to hear national-religious settlers, for example, vaunt the qualities of their own group (“we volunteer, we’re pioneers, we’re the true Zionists, we have ‘real’ values”) and dismiss the other group as vapid, if not altogether degenerate (“they belong to a hedonist, drug-abusing society that has lost touch with its own heritage and moral code”).
The propensity to celebrate one’s own group and to malign the other naturally works in the other direction with equal force, producing a secular-liberal narrative of “we’re enlightened and progressive whereas they’re backward religious zealots.”
Obviously, people’s predisposition to identify with members of their own group is an essential precondition for any society to form and flourish. There is nothing wrong with taking pride in a compatriot’s achievements, just as there is nothing wrong with rooting for the local team to win a game. But that tendency, when taken to an extreme, can be blinding and, consequently, destructive.
Every healthy society needs to recognize the pitfalls of racism, elitism and stereotyping, which cloud their ability to empathize with other human beings, regardless of their group affiliation. Every healthy society should aspire to keep those tendencies in check.
When Israelis find it hard to view individual members of an adversarial group, such as the Palestinians, as individuals with whom they can empathize as human beings – they ought to recognize that as a problem that warrants attention. When Israelis find themselves unable to view other members of their own society as individuals and to empathize with them – they ought to recognize that as a problem that warrants attention. When Israelis view their own subgroup as the only group with positive characteristics, and malign all other groups – they ought to recognize that as a problem that warrants attention.
That is the key to maintaining a healthy society that is capable of loving its neighbor as itself.
The writer is a veteran Israeli writer and translator.