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Stephen Robert Headshot

Naama Is Everyone

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Israeli and world Jewish leaders are tripping over themselves to describe their horror at the brutalization of Naama. Naama is an eight-year-old Israeli girl from an observant Jewish family. She was spit on and called a prostitute by a group of Orthodox Jewish men as she walked to school. These men, it seems, believed her modest dress was not modest enough. Days of this traumatic humiliation made little Naama petrified for her life.

Outrage is the proper response. Prime Minister Netanyahu rightfully declared: "In a Western, liberal democracy the public realm is safe for men and women both, and neither harassment or discrimination has any place there." Similar outcries have been heard from President Shimon Peres, and other senior leaders. Commentators, such as David Harris of the American Jewish Committee, are repulsed by members of the religious right taking the law into their own hands.

But what about the Naamas in the West Bank? Hardly a day passes when Palestinian kids are not attacked with rocks or worse by extremist Jewish settlers on the occupied West Bank. When upset by Israel's (decidedly tepid) efforts to restrain settlement growth, militant settlers burn down Palestinian fields, and worse. In Hebron, a twelve-year-old Arab boy was blinded by a vial of acid thrown from the Jewish settlement sitting atop the Arab market. Even worse than base violence is the treatment of Palestinian teenagers who are arrested -- they can often be jailed for up to a year with no charges filed. Further, human rights organizations in Israel tell us that prisoners who disappear into the vast Israeli detention system are neither informed of the charges against them nor told how long they will be detained. Their families scramble to discover the fate of their loved ones.

My heart breaks for Naama, but also for the hundreds of thousands of Arab children imprisoned in the West Bank and Gaza. These children are born into lives of hopelessness and desperation. Denied freedom of movement, proper education and medical care, they suffer not from a frightening incident, but from lives stunted by an imbroglio not of their creation; citizens of nowhere.

The Israeli government does little to stop the harassment of Palestinians by the Jewish settlers. Israeli leaders turn away as Arab kids are stoned, yet erupt in pious platitudes when Jewish children are humiliated. When will Israeli and American Jewish leaders see that all these events are connected? Societies that imprison their neighbors inevitably become more chauvinistic and less democratic. Occupying the land of 4 million Palestinians for over forty years predictably empowers Israel's least democratic elements. There is a clear link between the stifling of Arab voices in Israel's democratic institutions and the oppressions of other elements of its society -- in this case, women. Because the Israeli government traditionally has not included Arab parties in its governing coalitions, it must rely on ultra-orthodox parties that use their place in government to oppress women in the public square. Not only are government policies then subject to the whims of parties like Shas, but the government then also subsidizes ultra-orthodox housing within the green line, thus building an ultra-orthodox stake in the occupation.

The subjugation of Palestinians and the intolerance of ultra-orthodox Jews are not disparate phenomena. Demanding that women sit in the back of buses is tied to diminishing human rights in the West Bank. If Israel does not extend its promise of equal citizenship to the non-Jews under its domain (as is the current trend), it will betray that promise of equality to its Jewish citizens as well. It is good that we feel Naama's pain, but we must feel the pain of all those oppressed in this troubled land. If we do not, Israel will never be a place where its citizens can claim to be truly moral -- or claim to be secure. Israel expresses concern about efforts to de-legitimatize it in world opinion; it must be careful not to validate this effort.

In the words of Ernest Hemmingway: "Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee."