Israel's discipline problem

Crime debate has become distorted reflection of debate over peace process.

idf sodlier out in the open 248 IDF (photo credit: IDF)
idf sodlier out in the open 248 IDF
(photo credit: IDF)
The wave of crime and corruption that has shocked the public for the past few years has at last unleashed a backlash in popular opinion. In truth, we only remember a few - for example, the murders of four-year-old Rose Pizam, whose body was found last year in a red suitcase in the Yarkon River, and Leonard Karp, who was brutally lynched in front of his helpless family on a Tel Aviv beach several weeks ago - among the long list of shocking acts that have brought many to the awareness that something must change. Spectacular crimes like these join others which under better circumstances might have been equally memorable, and are at any rate more typical. And then there's the corruption and white-collar crime. Just last week former ministers Avraham Hirchson and Shlomo Benizri began prison sentences, and former prime minister Ehud Olmert was indicted - all of them for fraud. The public is angry, and rightly so. In fact, the extremely harsh sentences handed down to Hirchson and Benizri - five and four years of hard jail time respectively - reflect the already galvanized public frustration. A toughening of police enforcement and judicial sentencing is on the way. The public has reached a consensus regarding the need to stem corruption and crime along with the "culture of impunity" that permits it to fester. The growth of unabashed anarchy among diverse segments of the population no longer escapes Israel's relentless self-criticism. But there is no consensus on how to eradicate it, or even any clear direction on the part of politicians. Theories abound on what went wrong, mostly put forward by those with political axes to grind. "The occupation desensitizes." "Discrimination and racism create collective frustration." "The wealth gap encourages resentment." It should not be necessary to point out the often dissembling, at best myopic, quality of such explanations. RISING YOUTH crime legitimately concerns Israelis. When youth becomes violent, one part of the public rushes for cover in the language of justice and security, while the other wrings its hands and wonders "what went wrong with us?" The crime debate thus becomes a distorted reflection of the dispute over the peace process. Lonely and isolated voices have for some years been wondering what can be done about the discipline problems in the schools. If a "culture of anarchy" is to be eliminated, education - particularly early education - is key. Violent crime is unacceptable, but when daily disrespect and incivility now passes without turning heads, that should be no less shocking. Israel prides itself on its sense of humor and informal habits. Sandals to weddings and funerals. The titles of Mr. and Mrs. mainly serve comic purposes. And for some reason Tel Aviv bus drivers, alone among the working classes, wear ties on the job. These national quirks - to foreigners endearing at times, at others irritating - are only one side of the coin. For a growing minority, informality has given way to a total lack of self-restraint and raging incivility. Parents do not admonish their children, "That's not how we speak to strangers." Kindergarten teachers do not use the phrase "no ifs, ands or buts" to quell tantrums. The brashest and loudest get their way, from early childhood onward. The army will settle them down, parents tell themselves. But the fighting army is no longer an army of all its citizens. And at least until recently, it too suffered from similar discipline problems. In August 2008, the headlines told of "Another revolt in the Golani Brigade." An officer explained to the press: "Audacious soldiers wanted to receive the privileges of [more] veteran soldiers." Until Gabi Ashkenazi became chief of General Staff, bringing with him a renewed martial spirit, the army's problems seemed unchecked. Ashkenazi threw a soldier in jail for calling him "Bro, my hero," and another was sentenced for yawning during a memorial ceremony in honor of the late Yitzhak Rabin. The makeshift hierarchy between veteran and rookie soldiers had broken down once more before 'An officer explained to the press, "Audacious soldiers wanted to receive the privileges of [more] veteran soldiers." THERE IS a nascent and general readiness to deal with the discipline problem, but it requires direction. Ashkenazi's shock treatment for the army needs a much more subtle and profound parallel in the public school system. The IDF and its methods cannot be relied upon to solve this problem for civil society. The necessarily ham-fisted masculinity of the army, combined with the often equally caricatured femininity of much pre-army education, only contribute to the problem. Here and there, student discipline is now being openly discussed. In a throwback to decades past, this year a few schools require students to stand when their teacher enters the room. In these few schools, students no longer call teachers by their first name. But in larger parts of the system, almost unconscious disrespect for teachers is the norm. The ringing of cell phones is the only thing louder than student chatter. Little girls come to school with outfits to make Britney Spears proud. Teachers report being subject to verbal and occasionally physical abuse. Intimidation and bullying take center stage. The problem is particularly tough, because it is precisely the culture and habits of the older generation, now mutated, that must be replaced in the younger generation. The problem requires serious collective thought. To begin, education could moderate its domination by female teachers, from cradle to army. Male role models outside the home and army are essential for the development of boys. Organized competition, from sports to debating, could be made mandatory in parallel with the empowerment of teachers and principals to punish severe disobedience. Good behavior and achievements must at any rate come to be truly rewarded, in the eyes of the students and not in name alone. Israel's crisis of criminality and incivility has deep sociological roots, and it will solve itself in time only if Israeli children are provided with a new sense of dignity: respect for each other, for their elders, and above all for themselves. The writer is a public relations professional and freelance writer based in Jerusalem.