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Unite, Confuse, and Inspire: Creating a More Inclusive Atmosphere in Israel

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Reflecting on 2010, it's clear that racism in Israel has reared its ugly head. A recent poll published by the Israel Democracy Institute found that only 51 percent of Israelis support equal rights between Jews and Arabs, while 53 percent think the state should encourage Arabs to emigrate from the country. The poll also established that Jewish Israelis find the idea of living next to an Arab more troubling than any other minority, and that in the event of war, 33 percent of Israelis support the idea of putting Arabs into internment camps.

In the last few months, these findings were given concrete expression in a number of incidents. These include:

A religious ruling signed and endorsed by 50 state-appointed rabbis forbidding Jews from renting or selling apartments to non-Jews. "Racism originated in the Torah," said Rabbi Yosef Scheinen, head of the Yeshiva in Ashdod and one of the endorsers of the ruling. "The land of Israel is designated for the people of Israel. This is what the Holy One Blessed Be He intended and that is what the [sage] Rashi interpreted."

A letter signed by 27 rabbi's wives stating that Jewish women should not date Arab men, work where Arabs are employed, nor volunteer in National Service with Arabs. The letter stated, "They [Arabs] ask to be close to you, try to find favor with you, and give you all the attention in world, they are actually here knowing to act with courtesy, acting as if they really care for you, say a good word, but their behavior is only temporary. The moment you are in their hands, in their village, under their control, everything changes."

A protest against Arab presence in the city of Bat Yam. Demonstrators shouted and held signs that read: "Keeping Bat Yam Jewish. Arabs are taking over Bat Yam, buying and renting apartments from Jews, taking and ruining Bat Yam girls! Around 15,000 Jewish girls have been taken to villages! Jews, come on, let's win!"

Incidents of intimidation and violence including accounts of a burning tire thrown into an apartment of five Sudanese refugees living in Ashdod. And five Israeli Arabs fled their homes in Tel-Aviv after people from their neighborhood harassed and threatened to harm them.

Gangs of Jewish youths who targeted and assaulted Arabs in Jerusalem. Using a girl to attract their victims, the youths, who coordinated some of their attacks via Facebook, would pounce on their targets with sticks, stones, bottles and tear gas. Police believe the gang was responsible for more than ten attacks.

We cannot afford to ignore these signs as a marginal phenomenon or passing phase. History has shown that when racist attitudes, perceptions and behaviors are not addressed, they fester and spread -- eroding the body politic like an acid.

Prime Minister Netanyahu has spoken out against the rabbinic prohibition on renting or selling property to non-Jews, and in a short address on his YouTube channel he warned citizens against incitement and violence against foreigners while assuring them that the government is on the case. But his efforts fall far short of what needs to be done.

Israel's intellectual community has taken its own stand against the rise of racism. Refusing to become bystanders who passively watch as their society crumbles, these individuals, armed with the power of the keyboard, have opted to become witnesses-exposing and decrying with the hopes of jolting their society out of their moral slumber. Leading the charge have been a number of writers for the Israeli daily Haaretz, as well as the up-and-coming online publication +972.

But acknowledgment is only a first step. After recognizing the issue (which is not the same as recognizing the root(s) of the problem), we must think of creative and effective ways of addressing it. Many people believe the government needs to step in and simply "fix" the problem. However, a top-down intervention, valuable as it may be, does not take into account the nested nature of racism: the influential role of family, school, media, religion and community, in either exacerbating, constraining or ameliorating the problem.

Keeping this in mind, here are three steps that we think are essential to counteract the deleterious influence of racism, and help create a more inclusive Israeli consciousness.

Unite: Research has shown that "qualitative contact" between conflicting groups is a meaningful way to reduce hostility and prejudice, as well as cultivate more positive attitudes between group members. By "qualitative contact" we mean direct and consistent interpersonal relations between individuals of equal status who pursue common goals with the help of institutional support.

Usually groups that support this type of togetherness are centered on peace work (e.g. Seeds of Peace, Sulha project), but sometimes qualitative contact is most effective when it circumvents the issues that divide people all together. Israeli hospitals, for example, are places where Jewish and Arab doctors, nurses and patients cooperatively interact as equals on a daily basis. They are environments in which the shared goal of saving and healing lives transcend the narrow confines of religious and political identity.

Our colleague, Palestinian writer and activist, Aziz Abu Sarah has written the following about his experience with cancer and getting operated on by both Jewish and Arab surgeons in an Israeli hospital.

In the midst of the hatred, anger and bitterness of the conflict, you can still find glimpses of goodness. Unfortunately, this light often passes unnoticed. Yet it offers a practical example of the dream we all share, of a future where we can live safe and full lives without fear of injury... I have many criticisms of Israeli policies and politics, but the functioning universal health care system in Israel and its ability to separate politics from medicine earns my praise.

We need to support and create more opportunity for Israeli Jews and Arabs to interact and work together as equals with common goals and values. There are many organizations and projects that are dedicated to this type of work, and much will be gained by diverting our financial and political resources towards aiding their efforts.

Perhaps the most important of all in this regard is the Israeli educational system. Next to families, schools are the most important spaces in which our values are shaped. Here the state has a very important role to play- not only in constructing a curriculum that addresses racism, but also in reconstructing the makeup of the student body. Currently, only five primary schools in Israel are integrated. At the level of the university, Palestinian citizens of Israel make up only 7% of the student body. When it comes to education "separate but equal" has proven itself a sham, and if we are to provide more economic and social opportunity for Israel's minorities, if we are to reduce the level of overt racism in society, the educational system in Israel must have its "Brown vs. Board of Education" moment.

Confuse: Religion has become a handmaiden of racism in Israel. The poll published by Israel Democracy Institute found that the greatest objectors to equality between Jews and Arabs were religious Jews. A breakdown of the Jewish public showed that 33.5 percent of secular Jews were against equal rights, in distinction to 51 percent of traditional Jews, 65 percent of religious Jews, and 72 percent of ultra-Orthodox Jews.

Religious people are by definition far more insulated from non-Jewish neighbors, and they are easily manipulated by a couple of rules that some rabbis can pull out of a hat. We believe that one of the best responses to such worldviews is to create constructive confusion: Confuse people by justifying every progressive action of human rights and gestures of good will to immigrants, to Arabs, to people of color, with quotes from Torah. Experience demonstrates that confusion is often good for conflict resolution, as it opens up the mind and casts doubt on the certainties of prejudice or self-righteousness.

Faced with an alternative religious interpretation of human rights, for example, the religious Israeli cannot just dismiss such thinking as merely the rantings of leftists. They have to think about it and make a moral choice, as many Israeli rabbis who oppose racism do. For example, if the Right trots out a text, "You shall have no mercy (on idolaters)," as the justification for not allowing housing in Israel, then the response at demonstrations, in op-eds and advertisements, should be signs and texts that read, "Love your neighbor as yourself!" [Leviticus 19:18]; "What is hateful to you (eviction, exile, discrimination) do not do to your neighbor," [Rabbi Hillel]; "Love the stranger for you were strangers... and you know the heart of the stranger."; 'The Torah forbids persecution of strangers thirty seven times, but milk in meat only three times! Remember the priorities! Choose life!'

Another source of creative confusion is interfaith gestures with the use of Jewish rituals or mitzvot. We would like to see immigrants and Arab citizens of Israel, for example, at thousands of Passover Seders in Israel this spring-and it should be reported heavily. That will confuse everyone and stimulate a deeper understanding of the Seder as a three thousand year old Jewish protest against tyranny, and as a testimonial to freedom, justice, and the embrace of vulnerable strangers.

Inspire: The fire that raged and ravaged the north of Israel could not be put out by the Israeli government alone. Neither can the flames of racism that are beginning to engulf the country. Dousing this fire will be a team effort -- it will require harnessing the intelligence, creativity and wisdom of the Israeli people.

This may seem like a strange strategy given the disturbing findings published by the Israel Democracy Institute cited above. We believe, however, that despite a turn for the worse, Israeli society is composed of some of the most dynamic, imaginative and compassionate people around. Here are some ideas.

Elise M. Boulding, the great Quaker Sociologist, working with prison inmates, developed an empowering technique of conflict resolution called "remembering the future." This technique calls on participants to imagine what a world of peace 10 years into the future would look like, "remember" how they got there, and make a commitment to bring that potential reality to fruition.

We would like to see the ministry of education or an independent organization launch a competition of narrative and visual art entitled, "Remembering the Future: How Israel Became a Non-Racist Society." This could be an open competition or one that is tailored for a particular group(s) (though diversity of contestants is essential for the success of this project). The winner will get a significant grant in addition to something more original such as getting their work displayed on a stamp or studied in classrooms across the country.

Another possibility is to make the challenge, as serious as it is, a little more entertaining. Create a reality TV show (Israelis love reality TV) focusing on creative and nonviolent ideas and solutions to the problems that plague Israeli society. The panel of judges could be comprised of notable Israeli intellectuals, writers and artists (representing diverse worldviews), and the people at home get to vote for their favorite idea. As utopian as this sounds, it is not outside the realm of possibility. As the founder of Zionism once said, "If you will it, it's no dream."

Still another possibility is to harness the knowledge and insights of the people through the use of wiki-technology. As business columnist James Surowiecki has argued in his best-selling book, The Wisdom of Crowds, under the right circumstances groups are more intelligent than individuals-even the smartest individuals within the group. Today, organizations, businesses and even governments are using wiki-technology to improve their knowledge base, findings, profits and activities. Perhaps the Israeli government, should it choose to initiate a campaign to constructively transform the problem of racism, ought to do likewise. After all, this is the same government that believes that the future of peace between Israel and its neighbors should be subject to a nation-wide referendum.

A final point. As conflicts become protracted and complex there is a tendency to experience them in simplified terms: to bundle many interrelated and complex problems into one reaction-in this case, racism. There is also a tendency to see the problem originating from people's personalities or dispositions, as opposed to particular situations. Thus we speak of racist people as opposed to racist behavior. Since dealing with this conflict involves dialogue, we can go a long way by improving the way we communicate with one another. As Hip-Hop blogger Jay Smooth put it, in talking to people about racism we need to differentiate between a "what they did conversation" and a "what they are conversation." Doing so will not only improve our arguments, but also increase the possibility of a real and potentially transformative change in relationships to take place.