Hate Thy Neighbor

How Israel teaches its citizens all the wrong lessons.

Photo illustration by Ellie Skrzat. Photos by Ronen Zvulun/Reuters.
An Israeli police officer gestures as he holds a weapon near the scene of an attack at a Jerusalem synagogue on Nov. 18, 2014.

Photo illustration by Ellie Skrzat. Photos by Ronen Zvulun/Reuters.

Across Israel, anger at Arabs is building. In the wake of a horrific Palestinian terrorist attack on a Jerusalem synagogue—and concurrent with violent protests by Palestinians—several assaults by Jews against Arabs have been reported. Arab workers are reporting a rise in job discrimination. In a poll published Thursday, 58 percent of Jews endorsed a decision by the mayor of Ashkelon, a major city, to bar Arab citizens of Israel from working near young schoolchildren.

Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, says these discriminatory outbursts and policies are wrong. “We must not generalize about an entire public due to a small and violent minority,” he asserts. But Netanyahu teaches this kind of prejudice every day, by demolishing the homes of the families of suspected terrorists.

Israel has employed this policy, off and on, for decades. It’s rooted in old military laws and based on the idea that it deters prospective terrorists. The government doesn’t have to show that the family members who live in the house—grandparents, children, cousins—are guilty or even suspected of any crime. And the policy applies only to Arabs, not to Jews.

The first lesson this policy teaches Israelis is that it’s legitimate to inflict suffering on innocent people in order to discourage terrorism. “You need a means of deterrence against the next suicide attacker,” Netanyahu explained this week as he announced demolitions in response to the synagogue attack. “When he knows that his house, the house in which his family lives, will be demolished, this will have an impact.” Shaul Shay, a former member of the Israeli national security council, agrees: “A terrorist may be willing to sacrifice his own life, but maybe he will think twice if he knows the homes of his relatives will be destroyed. If the family pays the price, it’s different.”

In other words, the logic of the policy is that it punishes people who don’t commit acts of terror. Terrorists want to die, so they aren’t deterred. Israel targets their loved ones, who would suffer more acutely, in the hope that this “price” will intimidate the would-be perpetrator. That is the logic of hostage taking, and of terrorism.

The second lesson the policy teaches is that it’s OK to treat Arab families this way, because Arabs in general are prone to violence. Three months ago, when lawyers challenged the policy because it wasn’t applied to Jews who murdered Arabs, Israel’s highest court rejected the complaint. Writing for the court, a judge explained:

It’s impossible to deny that acts of incitement and violence against Arabs have multiplied in Jewish society; this is regrettable, and it’s necessary to act forcefully against such occurrences. But the comparison is out of place, because house demolitions in the territories aren’t used in cases of incitement and violence, but in especially severe cases of murder. I’m not overlooking the shocking case of the murder of the teenage boy Mohammed Abu Khdeir, a case that shocked the country and sparked wall-to-wall condemnations, but this was the rarest of rare occurrences. Therefore, it seems to me there’s no place for the artificial symmetry claimed by the petitioners to support their claim of discriminatory enforcement.

In other words, Jewish families shouldn’t be treated this way, because Jews rarely commit murder. But Arabs commit lots of murders, so it’s OK to destroy the home of the children of one Arab killer, in order to discourage another Arab from killing.

Netanyahu’s spokesman, Mark Regev, explains how the policy’s two principles—collective punishment and discriminatory application—are connected:

There is a culture of support within Palestinian society—these people are put up on a pedestal, they become martyrs, they become heroes, they are praised by the Palestinian leadership, their families are embraced. There are also very practical benefits for the family vis-à-vis financial support. In many ways, an action against the house is evening of the playing field. One is saying that by committing a heinous crime, in this case by murdering a baby, there will be a price to be paid.

Notice the absence of any moral analysis of individual behavior. The culprit isn’t a particular lawbreaker. It’s “Palestinian society.” Terrorists are rewarded through their families, so Israel levels the playing field by targeting those families. When dealing with the enemy, innocence is irrelevant.

It shouldn’t surprise Israel when its Jewish citizens absorb this logic and lash out at Israeli Arabs, or when Arabs treat innocent Jews the same way. As the rage and counter-rage boil over, I’m reminded of Hadas Mizrahi, the Jewish woman whose husband was murdered by a terrorist while driving to a Passover Seder in the West Bank earlier this year. Hadas, outraged that the killer had fired at her children too, begged a court—successfully—to destroy the perpetrator’s home. “We did nothing wrong, we were innocent,” she pleaded. “Maybe demolishing this house will be a deterrent.” Or maybe the newly homeless Palestinian family will learn the same lesson as the Jewish one: Forget about innocence, and bring the pain.