Sunday, December 30, 2001

Jewish Attitudes Towards Arabs

The names of the characters in this email have been changed.

Jewish attitudes towards Arabs are usually based on pity, fear, or anger. Each of these reactions seems to be related to the level of real life contact which one has with Arabs.

Those who react with pity tend to be those who are also the furthest removed from the threat. The city that votes most solidly left and has a reputation for being the breeding ground for most of the “Peace” activist groups is Tel Aviv. Every time I enter Tel Aviv, I feel that I am leaving Israel, like I should be getting my passport stamped as I get off the train. The place simply doesn't feel like the Israel I know. The Israel I know, mostly Be'er Sheva and Jerusalem, is a pressure cooker. Every serious problem of this country is staring you in the face every second of the day. When I walk out of my apartment building in Be’er Sheva, the desert dust and heat blowing through the streets reminds me of the water crisis, the streets crowded with Bedouin in traditional dress, Haredi Jews in East-European garb, secular Jews and Arabs in Jeans and T-shirts, blacks, whites, Sephardim, and Ashkenazim, is a constant reminder of the sectarian fissures running through this society. The slums and run-down neighborhoods are a reminder of the crushing poverty many here face. In Tel Aviv, none of these problems are apparent on the surface. The vast majority of people are secular, there are very few Arabs, and those Arabs who do live and work in Tel Aviv don’t dress like extras from the set of Lawrence of Arabia. The streets are clean, and the buildings new and well maintained. Very few of the restaurants are kosher, and on Saturday, you wouldn’t know that there was such thing as Shabbat. Except for the occasional bombing or attack, things like the Intifada, the Jewish Majority, the water shortage, and the Arab military threat are abstract concepts and not everyday realities. There are many places like Tel Aviv in Israel, places which don’t feel the stress of the real problems of Israeli society.

The only contact that most Americans and Tel Avivniks have with Arabs is through the television. The average American’s or Tel Avivnik’s first emotion upon seeing the Arab condition is pity. This is a natural reaction to seeing the condition of the Arabs living in the slums in Yesha, to which CNN and company refer as “Refugee Camps.” The other night on Israeli television there was a program that showed clips of Arab kids who had to climb through two layers of barbed wire in order to retrieve their soccer ball and other clips of the daily misery that the Arabs living in these cities and slums have to go through.

This environment spawns organizations such as “Rabbis for Human Rights,” which, on its website, declares itself to be, “The voice of Rabbinic conscience in Israel” (emphasis added.) The organization’s most public activities include protests against settlement activities and condemning Israel when Arabs are killed in the conflict. To my mind, person or organization that declares itself to be “the” voice of morality, conscience, righteousness, holiness, etc., as opposed to “a” voice is extremely dangerous. History’s darkest moments were written by those who were convinced of their own exclusive moral authority. I also think the title “Rabbis for Arab Rights” would be much more appropriate since this organization seems not to give a hoot about the human rights of Jews, such as the right not to be blown to pieces on one’s way home from work. After the murder of a Jewish shepherd around Hebron, I remember the organization came out with a statement to the effect that he was not a nice person and got what he deserved.

Most Americans fall into the “pity” category, as is evidenced by the fact that 75% of the scholarships given to Ben Gurion University by American Jews are specifically earmarked not to be given to Jews, only Arabs. Source: I know someone who works in the scholarship distribution department.

Those who fall into the “pity” category label themselves as “The Peace Camp.” Rather than defining themselves by a means to achieve a goal, such as territorial compromise or unilateral separation, they define and name themselves by the goal itself. This suggests that anybody who opposes their actions also opposes their goal, Peace. By implication, therefore, since the “Peace” camp demands the withdrawal from land, anybody opposed to such withdrawal wants a war. Anybody who opposes their means, such as a settler, becomes and “obstacle to peace.”

Today, the “pity” society is having deep emotional problems. They still feel the pity, but they don’t know what to do with it. The mental construct which they had for the world, in which they believed that the Arabs are attacking the Jews because the Jews occupy Yesha, fell apart when Barak offered to surrender all of Yesha and the Arabs responded by attacking. In every previous conflict between the Palestinians and Israelis, Peace Now and Rabbis for Human Rights have clearly sided with the Palestinians. Throughout the Arab and European “enlightened” world today, there have been cries of “Where is the ‘Peace Camp’ in Israel?” What’s left of it is in disarray. After ten years of constantly lecturing the Israeli public and eventually convincing them to make painful sacrifices for peace, Yassir Arafat finally demanded all of Israel, including Tel Aviv. The “Peace Camp” has disintegrated because it is unwilling to make the same sacrifices of house and home which it has been preaching to the rest of the country.

Aviram, an American friend of mine, came to Israel as a part of the “pity” society. “You know,” he told me one day, “When I came here, I said to myself, ‘We have to do something to work this out.’ I thought that we could sit down and figure out what these people want and come to some kind of arrangement. Now, when I look at an Arab, I think to myself, ‘What’s wrong with these people? Why do they insist on killing me? What did I ever do to them?’ They’re just a bunch of unreasonable and crazy people, and that’s all there is to it.”

Yossi may live in Tel Aviv, but he doesn’t fall into the “pity” category. As we drive through the narrow streets looking for a gas station, we come to a stop and an Arab crosses the street in front of the car. “You know,” says Yossi, “not only do I not like the Arabs, I also really hate them.” Yossi is one of the kindest people I have met since I came to Israel. He has always had the time to help me with anything I need, and often helps me translate exams and homework in his spare time. A deeply religious person raised in a secular family, he has always been ready to take me into his home on a moment’s notice, always with a huge smile. When I visit him, he sleeps on the couch and I sleep in his bed.

As we walk through the streets of North Tel Aviv, Yossi reaches into his pocket.
“What are you doing?” I ask.
“I’m switching money from one pocket to the other,” He answers humbly.
“Yes Yossi, but why?”
“I have two pockets. As I go through the day, I transfer a small amount of tzedukkah (charity) from one pocket to the other. The Torah teaches us that we should always be giving tzedukkah, so this is how I can constantly be giving. At the end of the day, I give the money away. And I never turn away a beggar.”
There is a brief pause in the conversation as Yossi mulls over his last comment. “Well, I never give to Arabs. The Talmud teaches us that, ‘He who is kind to the cruel will become cruel to the kind.’ Arabs are cruel people and I don’t want to help them.”

Conversations with Yossi usually focus around religion or school. He spends any pauses in the conversation lambasting the Arabs. He also likes to give long drashas, religious sermons, about faith.

“You know,” he begins, “I really believe that G-d watches us all of the time. I deeply feel that everything that happens on this Earth is directly connected to how we relate to G-d in heaven. G-d watches every action we do, even when we aren’t thinking about it, and records it and deals with us based on this.”
As an Arab woman, her head wrapped in a head scarf passes us, Yossi turns and spits in the path where she was just walking. “F----ing Arabs,” he mutters.
In spite of my inability to truly feel the anger Yossi feels, I can understand where it comes from. Jewish anger at Arabs does not exist in a vacuum. It is not a result of not being able to empathize with “the other,” the fact that they are from a different “tribe,” the fact that they are a minority, or xenophobia. It is a fact that in almost every interaction that Jews as a people have had with the Arabs, going back to Mohammed, the Arabs have attacked and killed the Jews. Yossi was correct when he said, “It’s very simple, the Arabs don’t have a left, right, or center, they all just want to kill us.” There may be some competition between the Palestinian Authority, Islamic Jihad, and Hamas, but the only real point of debate between them is on how to most quickly destroy Israel. There is no organization called “Mullahs for Human Rights,” no Arab version of “Peace Now,” no Arab “Peace Camp.” Shimon Peres, Yossi Beilin, and other members of the Israeli left can be seen on television waving Palestinian flags and talking about a future Palestinian state. The only time you see Arabs with an Israeli flag on television is when they are burning it. In all of the vast expanses of the Arab lands, in all twenty-two Arab dictatorships, there is not a single organization dedicated to reconciliation, not a single Arab waving an Israeli flag on television, no desire for peace. “These people are not even people,” my cousin tells me, matter of factly. “Why is it that, if a Jew walks into an Arab area, he dies, but when an Arab walks into a Jewish area, nothing happens to him?” There is truth to his words, if not his conclusion. If I walk into an Arab city, it will have the same net effect as putting a gun to my head and pulling the trigger.

When Yossi was thirteen years old, he was sitting in a bomb shelter with a gas mask on, listening to Sadaam Hussein’s Scud missiles falling on Tel Aviv and wondering if he was going to be gassed. He turned on the television to see news coverage of the Palestinian Arabs dancing on the rooftops in celebration. In the north of Israel, for the past fifty years, families have been enjoying their Sabbath meals in bomb shelters. Before 1967, the Syrians regularly showered the area with artillery. Between 1967 and operation “Peace for Galilee,” Yassir Arafat’s PLO launched a series of murderous raids on northern Israel, taking over classrooms full of schoolchildren and mowing them down. Now the Syrians, via their proxy force in Lebanon, Hizbullah, the party of god, continuously launch rocket and mortar attacks on the northern civilian population centers. When I was in elementary school, we learned duck and cover like in case of an earthquake. Yossi’s generation learned how to strap on a gas mask as fast as possible and duck and cover in case of a missile attack.

It’s not just the big things; it’s the little ones as well. As we walk into the stairwell of Yossi’s apartment building, he points to the floor. “Look,” he says, pointing at some spit, “the Arab who cleans the stairs always spits on the third stair when he’s done.” One day Yossi came over to my apartment asking to use my computer to make some fliers so he could paste them around campus to publicize what had happened to him. It seems that the Arab professor in his lecture in the University announced, during an engineering lecture, that he hated Israel and was looking forward to see it destroyed. A few days later an Arab in his class turned to him and told him, with a straight face, that he felt it is totally acceptable to murder Jewish settlers. As I walk through the Old City of Jerusalem with my friend Yonatan, a group of Arabs sitting on the street corner stares us down with the most hostile faces they can muster. If looks could kill, I would have been just another statistic.

Yossi’s anger begs the question; can this anger which is directed towards a particular group of people be considered racist? Well, not exactly, because neither the Jews nor Palestinians constitute a distinct race.

I have seen Arabs in full Bedouin dress who are as black as any African and white enough to pass for an Englishman. The Jews, as well, have picked up every race and complexion imaginable in their wanderings across the Earth, from black Ethiopian to white Swede, to Chinese to Cuban. If you put a freeze-frame picture of an Arab next to one of a Jew, there is usually no way to tell the difference. Set the picture in motion, however, and the difference becomes as clear as night and day. Israeli Jews tend to behave in body language and behavior like amplified Americans. They conduct everyday interactions, such as negotiating with the grocer or ordering a falafel, with the same mannerisms and gestures as Americans except perhaps more temperamentally and passionately. When two Jewish friends meet on the street they shake hands.

The Arabs and us seem worlds apart. When two Arabs men meet on the street, they hug and are much more intimate, patting and stroking each other, something assumed to have sexual implications in America. Egyptian television news often shows two government ministers who had a meeting that day walking around holding hands. Also, they are very excitable, unpredictable, and loud. Seeing a group of Arab men in their early twenties walking around on campus, often one or more of them will jump up on a bench or they will spontaneously begin wrestling with one another. If I am standing in line in the campus cafeteria, often the Arab in front of me will take a coin out of his pocket and start throwing it high into the air and then move around bumping other people out of his way to catch it.

While I consider the condition of most of the Arabs in Israel to be pitiable, and I definitely feel a piece of Yossi’s anger, my own personal first reaction to the Arabs is fear. When I am in the shuk (market), and an Arab comes over and grabs me by the arm and pulls me over to his booth, and starts smiling and trying to sell me his wares all the while staring at me with eyes that want to kill me, my first thought is, “Is this guy about to plant a knife in my back?” The wild bodily gesticulations and temperamental yelling of the Arabs is very unnerving. If a person can become so excited that he loses control of his body, then G-d forbid he become angry at me because there is no telling what he might do to me. I try not to let it affect my personal interactions. I have gone to the dialogue groups, tried to listen, and I always try to judge people on a personal level, not based on what they are. I can’t help being an American. That being said, seeing the massive rallies on television in which the Hizbullah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad flags fly next to the Nazi flag is very telling. I feel that I am living next door to four million people who are focused every waking moment of every day on finding new and exciting ways of taking away my life. I feel like I am living next to four million Nazis.

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