Dismantling Sectarian Cities of Refuge

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In late 2009, a series of crimes were committed by individuals who hailed from different sectors of Israeli society—Russian, ultra-Orthodox, the settlers, and the Israeli upper class. These crimes were attributed to the actualization of traits stereotypically associated with the "tribe" of each perpetrator. In an op-ed in Yedioth Aharonoth, Prof. Yedidia Z. tern warns against public displays of tolerance that create a cultural "city of refuge" that condones such behavior, and calls on the leaders of each "tribe" to assume responsibility and take action to eradicate the negative behavior associated with their camp.

According to the biblical story, the sinful city of Sodom was obliterated. Or was it? The chronicles of Israeli life, as reflected in the daily news, portray a series of hair-raising criminal activities. The motives change— money, honor, ideology, nationalism, family feuds, or just plain boredom—but the results are the same. Israel is up to its neck in sensational, blood-dripping headlines: Sodom, here and now.

Responsibility for combating crime is placed, first and foremost, on the various law enforcement authorities: the police, the prosecution, and the courts, which do much, but can still do more. However, in parallel, the onus to act against crime is on each and every citizen and community. How?

A sample of four headlines that have besmirched our image recently include the massacre of the Oshrenko family by the "Russian," Damian Karelik, who was motivated by a desire to defend his honor; abuse by the "ultra-Orthodox" Elior Chen, who is characterized as a religious-mystic extremist; the terrorist campaign by the "settler," Yaacov Teitel, that immeasurably fed on nationalist extremism; and the private bankrolling of  the "uptown" basketball team, Maccabi Tel Aviv, whose investors are suspected of corruption.

The authorities have yet to ascertain the facts in any of these cases. Nevertheless, while bearing in mind that they are still just accusations, it is important to point out a common factor in all four episodes: the accused allegedly actualized the unsavory traits that stereotypical discourse in Israel attributes to the "tribe" from which they each come: the "uptowner" from Maccabi Tel Aviv is greedy; the settler from Shvut Rachel is an extreme nationalist; the ultra-orthodox from Mea Shearim is a religious extremist; and the Russian will kill for honor.

The generalizations expressed by tribal labels are an affront to the truth: the vast majority of the members of each sector do not share the traits attributed to the sector. At the same time, we must acknowledge the fact that committing a crime is a personal decision made within a given cultural context. If extreme greed were viewed with sufficient disgust by Israeli society, the very possibility of an illegal bank flourishing in the back yard of the country's most popular sports franchise would never arise. If the hatred of Arabs, which may be interpreted as a license to shed their blood, was considered utterly unacceptable within the settlements, then the "wild weeds" would wither and die. If the ultra-orthodox sector were to condemn psychological abuse of any kind, the chances that twisted sects would take root in that sector would be reduced. If the Russian sector were to view the use of force to settle disputes with abhorrence, this imported code of conduct would be abandoned with time.

The sweeping dismissal of stereotypes, although necessary, is also insufficient. We must admit that a public display of tolerance towards specific criminal behaviors creates a cultural "sanctuary city," which allows and might even encourage marginal individuals—often ones suffering from personality disorders—to get away with this behavior. The responsibility for eradicating sectarian stereotypes falls, first and foremost, on "the elders of the city"—the tribe's cultural leaders, local heroes, and role models. They must take firm and continuous action to eradicate the negative behavior associated with "their" camp.

Law enforcement begins at home, be that home a settlement on a mountain-top in Samaria, a glamorous basketball arena, a bustling sectarian restaurant, or a modest yeshiva study hall. Everyone must take responsibility for what is happening in one's own cultural backyard by acting to change the atmosphere, courageously confronting negative tendencies, and baring one's teeth in the face of deviant behavior. Only by taking responsibility can we honestly say, "Our hands have not spilled this blood nor have our eyes seen it." 

This article was originally published in Hebrew in Yedioth Ahronoth on November 11, 2009.