“Yesterday, I went to Nazareth, to a ceremony honoring Irwin Green, a very special man who worked hard towards bringing Jews and Arabs closer together,” I told my daughter Sivan over breakfast, before she headed off to first grade. “Nazareth? Where the Arabs live? Arabs are cruel, like the Greeks, right Dad?” Sivan had evidently drawn an association with the Chanukah story she’d just heard in class.
A recent survey published by the Israeli Institute for Democracy showed that distrust and fear of Arab citizens among Israel’s Jewish population are on the rise. Fear is perhaps the main factor feeding the flames of the Israeli-Arab conflict, and what prevents any movement towards reaching a solution. Yet fear, unlike other issues, is not a zero-sum factor in this conflict. Unlike the allocation of lands, where every meter going to one side is taken from the other, fear, when reduced on one side, is not at the expense of the other.
Why are we and our children afraid of our Arab neighbors? I tried to put together a list of fear factors:
Education and Myth: We were raised from our earliest days on a very simple approach: we are good and they are bad. In the children’s books I grew up on, the young (Jewish) heroes inevitably overcame the scheming villains, who were sometimes Nazis but usually Arabs, and if they had big and dirty mustaches, so much the better…. Even in our holidays, Chanukah, Purim and Pesach feature “bad guys” (Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Amalekites) who are vanquished by “good guys” (us). Someone once explained that all Jewish holidays come down to: “They wanted to kill us – we killed them – let’s eat!”
An easier way to explain things: Imagine the Chanukah story as follows: The Greek Empire had spread throughout the world, influencing the countries it conquered in many ways. On the one hand, they espoused materialism and worship of the strong and the beautiful. On the other, they brought advanced technologies and municipal order. Even within the Kingdom of Judah, the Jews followed different streams: one embracing progress, science and peaceful coexistence with the surrounding peoples, and the other, nationalistic, strictly adherent to scripture and tradition, and ready to sacrifice life and livelihood in the name of religious principles. Sound familiar? Perhaps. Simple and easy to explain? I’m not so sure.
Language: The Arabic vocabulary of the average Israeli Jew is limited to a few words of slang, such as “Sakhten” and “Ahlan”, as well as useful phrases from the army such as “Halt or I’ll shoot you”… Teaching Arabic in schools often meets resistance, largely because of students’ deep-seated fears. A better knowledge of Arabic would enable Jewish Israelis not only to appreciate its richness, but would also remedy a situation whereby every call of the Muslim Muezzin to prayer sounds to Jewish ears like a call to arms.
Political considerations: Unfortunately, the power of fear as a means to enlist political support is usually stronger than the power of hope. For this reason, many politicians cynically but effectively inspire fear in their constituents. The further Israel moves away from peace and the deeper the belief that there is no one to talk to penetrate into the national consciousness, along with the conviction that the world is against us, thus the power of fear increases as an effective means for political manipulation.
Trauma of Persecution: “The fact that you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you”, goes a wise saying. From an historical perspective, we are still in the same period when the Holocaust of the Jewish people took place. Among those who have persecuted and attacked Jews over the last hundred years, Arabs have a place of honor. Without any need for deep investigations, clearly Israeli paranoia is based in reality!
The Arab population also has a part in the balance of fear. Why are the Arabs afraid of the Jews?
History: The State of Israel was established in the heart of the Middle East, surrounded by Arab nations and peoples. Even those who don’t believe in divine intervention can’t remain indifferent to the remarkable way this new state was created. Yet in the process, the victims were the Arab residents of the land. Even taking into account the progress and relative economic wellbeing that came with the blossoming of Zionism in Israel, the local Arabs became the conquered, refugees, and second- or even third-class citizens. This is an historical fact.
So what do we do with all this?
A simple, easy solution does not exist in this neighborhood. Still, recognizing fear as being at the root of the Arab-Jewish conflict is critical. This would enable us to separate away fears from the real and complex issues such as demography, geography and division of resources, on the one hand, and focus on ways to deal with our mutual fears, such as getting to know “the other”, learning their language, creating dialogue and breaking down stereotypes, on the other.
Sagi Melamed serves as vice president of External Affairs at the Max Stern Yezreel Valley College, located in the Afula-Gilboa Partnership 2000 Region. His wife Betsy grew up in West Haven, where her parents still live. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org. For more articles, see: http://email@example.com