Human dignity of Palestinians and Israelis

Dignity, self-esteem and respect by others are considered by many cultures to be of utmost importance to each individual.

IDF checkpoint 390 (photo credit: REUTERS)
IDF checkpoint 390
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Dignity, self-esteem and respect by others are considered by many cultures to be of utmost importance to each individual. In some communities, including many in the Middle East, they are even more important than financial comfort and personal safety. They contribute immensely to personal resilience and social coherence.
Observations of and listening to Israelis and Palestinians reveal similarities in perceptions of dignity and the potential consequences of its violation, but opposing implications for national resilience.
Dignity is subjective and its violation is extremely culturally sensitive. The perception of violated human dignity depends on the receiving side, which might or might not perceive her/himself as being victimized. The perpetrator might not intend to cause damage and might not even perceive any violation.
The prevalence of complaints in our region as well as non-scientific, random or self-selected media interviews during protests reveal several common denominators of perceived perpetrators.
On the top of the list of many people is stonewalled bureaucracy, non-responsive clerks who hide behind rigid strict rules and use their position of focused power to show off with citizens-clients who seek their help.
Instead of functioning as public servants, these low-level clerks – who are the day-to-day faces of the administration – are perceived as small-time tyrants who annoy the poor people who depend on their services.
The situation is worse when the regime is perceived as insensitive and oppressive. Then the institutions that initiate the regulations, procedures and penalties are blamed and the individuals who execute the “law” are perceived as the mechanized hands of the mighty ruling monster and not as individual humans who may also experience frustrations and miseries.
In June, I experienced several bureaucratic behaviors during two trips from Jerusalem to Amman through the Hussein (Allenby) Bridge border crossing.
I chose this route despite warnings that it is complicated, because the actual distance between Jerusalem and Amman is only a one-hour drive.
Let’s start with the factual bottom line: the Allenby border crossing is not worse than any busy international airport, though much is left to be desired.
Official attitudes and interactions with the public vary. On one trip to Amman, I shared a taxi with several Palestinians. At the entrance to the Israeli border compound, there was a routine ID check.
The male security employee emphatically insisted that he needed to confirm a woman’s identity, but she was covered from head to toe and refused to reveal her face to a man.
The guard smiled and in Arabic explained that he would immediately bring a female colleague. In less than a minute, the civilian entered the office with her alone and within less than two minutes emerged with smiling eyes and off we went.
One of her male relatives told me in Hebrew, “You see, some Israelis can be nice, if they want to.”
At the terminal, lines were long and slow and provided ample time to Palestinian travelers to complain, though – from what I observed – with no apparent substantiation.
On the contrary, on a trip back to Israel, I – an Israeli and American – was the one who was discriminated against. The border custom clerk looked at my Israeli passport and waved me out. At the exit, the official noticed that I did not have the required paper note. He brought me to his supervisor, who started with an accusation that I had attempted “to sneak into Israel.”
When I attempted to reason with him, he claimed that he “will prove that I am wrong,” insisting that I admit my “ill-intentions.”
When he paused, I asked him, “So, what do you want me to do?” which he perceived as conceding defeat. He shared his victory with his underlings, who were watching the proceedings. I did not argue with the authority, who was busy showing the wrong person “who is boss.”
He sent me back to the end of the line, to the same border clerk. She smiled at me and waved me through again. This time, I insisted on getting the printed note and in 45 minutes I was in Jerusalem.
This included three minutes at the check point at the entrance to Jerusalem. The east-Jerusalem shared taxi was singled out for inspection, and the Palestinian passengers assumed a “porcupine position” in anticipation of maltreatment.
However, the security person just glanced at us for a brief moment and waved us back to the highway.
One of the passengers even complained about the humiliation of this non-event. For me, this non-incident was a demonstration of hypersensitivity of vulnerable people to repeated factual or perceptual experiences.
The discrepancy between facts and perceptions of the check points emphasizes that their mere existence is considered a humiliating aggression.
The violation of human dignity there is perceived as targeting Palestinians as a group and not as individuals.
Therefore, it contributes to crystallizing a group identity and the need to protect the group against the aggressive “other group.”
The outcome of violations of human dignity of individual Israelis is different. I have encountered “an Israeli style of argument” many times. Often it turns into a showoff incident of who has the upper hand and who is the winner, with no relevance to content and substance.
The jingle for that attitude may be the words from the once-popular song (from the musical Kazablan) – “Kol Hakavod”: “Le’mi, le’mi yesh yoter kavod” – “Who has more honor?” While it is merely unproductive in interpersonal interactions, it is a violation of human dignity when it is practiced by public servants in their interactions with civilians who seek their assistance.
This is especially true when people of the weakest strata of society are being maltreated: Elderly, disabled, financially broke, sick, new immigrants – especially those with darker skin, less educated and the like.
This is an issue of day-to-day life. Politicians and management are blamed and are responsible. This is no less important than financial and economic issues (and nobody would deny their significance).
The big picture of administration is the sum of its details. The government should initiate people-friendly procedures and train officials who are the daily face of the bureaucracy to treat their customers cordially. The people behind the glass windows are the salespeople of the government.
This is especially important for weaker people who often find it difficult to fend for themselves and struggle with bureaucratic rigidity. They are also more vulnerable to the consequences of failed negotiations.
When your own government is being held responsible for undignified, discriminatory and arrogant attitudes, the result is often social disintegration, providing fertile ground for the ascendency of a populist movement.
We have seen such a process all over the region around Israel. Can it happen here, in Israel? Yes.
For progress to occur, the first step is the recognition of importance of human dignity in the fabric of a diversified democracy.
Human dignity is not only a metaphor, it is a practical issue of day-to-day interaction of government and its administration with human beings, citizens and non-citizens alike.
Education and reeducation are of huge importance.
Explicit regulations for behavior and honoring human dignity should be issued. Employees should be trained. Execution and performance should be monitored like any other government function or dysfunction.
Political and administrative leaderships should be held accountable for not honoring human dignity in all levels of their domains.
The writer is chairman of the WPA Section on Interdisciplinary Collaboration, chairman of PEMRN and professor and director of biobehavioral research at SUNY-AB.