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Reason vs Hysteria

This is a cross-post from falsedichotomies.com

A couple of months ago, in London, I witnessed what one might call a Luis Suarez moment. I was on the Northern Line, where a group of drunken British men were standing around doing what drunken British men do. Nothing threatening at first, just songs and inaudible bawdiness, but then one of them began saying something about blacks. His friends immediately realized that he had crossed a red line and tried to quieten him down, without much success. A young woman walked over to the group and told them that their behaviour was unacceptable; then, at the next station, as if from nowhere, a couple of transport policemen appeared and ordered the men to leave the train.

The appearance of the transport policemen must have been a coincidence, but I was impressed with the quiet and dignified way the problem was dealt with, particularly the young woman, who firmly but without hysteria told the gang that their behaviour was unacceptable.

I tried to imagine a similar response to racism on a public bus in Israel, without much success. Israel clearly has a much bigger problem with casual – and indeed explicit – racism than the United Kingdom. I don’t know anyone here who hasn’t heard someone make a remark about how the only good Arab is a dead Arab or something similar. And sometimes, this racism gets even more sinister. Following the tragic bus accident in February, when ten Palestinian children were killed, a number of people drew attention to the celebratory remarks posted by a number of young Israelis on Facebook. Some responded by claiming that these were isolated cases. As a sober piece on Channel Ten television demonstrates, this wasn’t the case. Although the programme didn’t cite any opinion polls on the subject, it’s clear that many young Israelis, from all sorts of different backgrounds, responded in a similar vein to this tragedy. The Channel Ten feature was a thoughtful, carefully documented examination of the problem, complete with practical suggestions as to what to do about it.

Contrast this with the response of some of the writers at +972. Ami Kaufman draws readers’ attention to the video with glee: “I think the teenagers shown in the Channel 10 magazine below [he makes no mention of the fact that the video includes interviews with citizenship teachers and settlers who visit the bereaved families to express their condolences]…are actually quite representative of your average Israeli teenager. Nothing scientific on my part. Not backing it up with data, so you can go ahead and take a jab at me for that. Just backing it up with the daily doses of racism I see every day when I enter my social media, my supermarkets, my clinics, my kids’ ballet classes, my work place. So many places. These are my sources. Sources of disgust.”

Pre-empting a criticism in this manner does not make it invalid. Hysteria is no replacement for reason. Kaufman is rightly angered by the racism he witnesses daily; this does not justify his irrational response to this particular example of it. But his gauntlet was taken up by +972 colleague Dimi Reider. His piece begins reasonably: “The first thing that comes to mind watching the video…is that they [the teenagers] are no different from teens in any other area of sustained, protracted ethno-nationalist conflict.” This is no excuse – just as it wouldn’t be an excuse for Palestinian racism – but it’s a useful insight that might help us work towards a solution. Next, though, Reider quotes an email he sent to a friend in January 2008, having just finished his first night shift on the Jerusalem Post news desk, and having just finished reading a book about the Rwandan genocide, Shake Hands with The Devil. Even though he acknowledges “Israel’s relatively strong institutions” and “the renaissance of political and journalistic activism that so far culminated with the social justice protests” and “a strong backlash from other Israeli teenagers shocked by their own peers’ bloodthirstiness,” he comes to the conclusion that “if push comes to shove, if a population-swap goes awry, if the evacuees try to resist violently or turn on each other and someone somewhere panics and decides to take less “sentimental” measures, the silent build up toward active support or complacency for fully-fledged atrocities is already at work. The dry wood has been piling up for years now, and there’s no telling if we’ll be spared the spark.”

This prediction is based on an awful lot of ifs and not enough buts, particularly given that his source is radio talk shows and Jerusalem Post talkbacks. I don’t think the suggestion that racism in Israel has reached such levels that we could be on the verge of another Rwanda is worth responding to, but I do want to say this: in its clamour to denounce Israel, the Left has a tendency to make absurd predictions that should make reasonable people wary of taking them seriously. It is time that people are held to account for the wild events they predict. Readers should decide whether Channel Ten’s response is more effective than yelling genocide is nigh. Such dire predictions may make Messrs Kaufman and Reider feel better about themselves, but they do nothing to solve the very real problem of racism in Israeli society. In fact, they only exacerbate it.