If there is one thing the Middle East does not need is more crazies; more violent, hate-filled fanatics who mindlessly hurt others for no legitimate reason, or no reason at all. That’s why recent events in Israel proved so disheartening to those of us who have not lost hope that one day reconciliation and peace can reign in the region.
And yet, in the aftermath of a repulsive attack by a group of young Israelis who nearly killed a young Arab, there were signs that Israel is not about to fall into a self-excavated moral abyss, as the pessimists are too quick to presage.
As tragic, demoralizing and infuriating as it was to hear of young Israelis beating up Arabs without provocation, the immediate and forceful reaction from much of Israeli society offers evidence that Israel is not irretrievably headed in the direction of some of its enemies, who consider attacks on Jews a cause to rejoice and lavish praise on those who kill Israelis. Quite the contrary.
On the evening of Aug. 16, a group of Israeli youngsters viciously beat up several young Palestinians, leaving one of them, 17-year-old Jamal Julani, near death.
To most Israelis, the news was sickening. That is the good news.
The incident is cause for grave concern, and it’s important to note that it did not happen in isolation. Acts of violence by Israeli extremists have become more common, and they represent a threat to Israel that is even more insidious, if that is possible, than the dangers posed by the many enemies that surround it.
Unprovoked attacks against Arabs must stop.
But those who claim there is no difference between Israel and its enemies are completely mistaken.
There is an enormous difference between a state, a society, in which some people behave outrageously and one that glorifies their outrages.
Nobody will throw a parade or name a street or a square for the young Jews who attacked the Arab teenagers. The Jewish hoodlums were immediately put in prison. The prime minister’s office wasted no time in responding to news of the attack, saying, “We unequivocally condemn racist violence,” and urging the police to quickly bring the perpetrators to justice.
Within a few days, the Jerusalem District Attorney filed indictments against nine Israelis in the incident.
Just as importantly, the Israeli Ministry of Education ordered all schools to engage their students in discussions about the terrible events. And, in case any of the teachers happened to sympathize with the attackers, the ministry told schools to let students express their views but in the end, “the unequivocal message must be a condemnation of racism, of violence.”
In other words, there are violent racists in Israel. But the country as a whole opposes them and vehemently condemns their actions.
That sentiment, that opposition to racist violence, came from many quarters, including the rightist Likud party. The Speaker of Parliament, the Likud’s Reuven Rivlin, visited Julani in the hospital. He used the right word, “evil,” to describe what happened.
The Jerusalem Post, a right-of-center daily, fulminated against the perpetrators, calling the incident an “immoral act of violence,” which should not be confused with “legitimate acts of self-defense” aimed at protecting the country.
There are those who excuse the attack, arguing it pales in comparison to the actions of Palestinians. But that argument completely misses the point. While it is true that countless Israelis have been viciously attacked when they accidentally strayed into Palestinian areas, and thousands of innocent Israelis have been deliberately murdered by Palestinian suicide bombers, that is not the issue. Focusing on the morality, the behavior of the other side amounts to averting one’s eyes.
Israelis have always prided themselves in using force only for the sake of ensuring their survival, only for defense. And they have claimed for themselves and their country the mantle of democracy and morality. Israelis have embraced and defended the value of human life above all, citing the Talmudic maxim that when you save one life it is as if you saved the entire world. That is why Israeli hospitals and doctors have even treated surviving suicide bombers alongside their victims.
While Israel’s critics have long demonized the country, those who know Israel know it as a society that genuinely wrestles with moral questions. The difficult decisions often leave part of the population angry and frustrated, but the country tries to do what is moral and what is right.
Israel cannot afford to let the fanatics in its midst destroy the country’s moral fiber. Fortunately, most Israelis know that, and know this is a battle they must win.