For the week ending 24 January 2009 / 28 Tevet 5769

Racism or Suspicion?

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Ayelet in Jerusalem

Dear Rabbi,

Living in Israel, and in Jerusalem, like everyone else here, I feel unfortunately too close to terrorism and the possibility, G-d forbid, of there being an attack. Since it seems that it could happen at any time and any place, I feel like I’ve developed a suspicion and fear of Arabs in general, and even more so now given the situation in Gaza. On the one hand I don’t want to generalize or be racist against Arabs; on the other hand I am afraid whenever I see one. What should I do?

Dear Ayelet,

Your feelings are understandable. And as you say, you are not alone in feeling terrorism is too close for comfort – because in reality terrorism cannot be too close or too far. And it’s not just in Israel; the threat of extremist violence is reaching everywhere and is a legitimate concern for everyone.

As far as how you should view a potential threat, it is important to distinguish between what you mistakenly consider racism and taking rational, levelheaded precautions.

Racism is the belief that there is something inherently inferior or wrong about a person or people solely as a result of their being a member of their particular race. Your suspicion of Arabs being potentially dangerous is not because they are Arabs per se, but because of the reality that, given the context of conflict between Arab and Jew in Israel, some Arabs resort to terrorism as a way to champion their cause. Now while this indiscriminate violence is intolerable and must be fought without compromise, not all Arabs are terrorists, terrorism did not start with Arabs and Arabs aren’t the only ones who have attacked Jews.

So where does this leave you on how to deal with your suspicions?

Since terrorism and terrorists exist worldwide, and in Israel it is directed by some Arabs against Jewish civilians, you are completely justified in harboring reasonable suspicion and taking normal precautions to protect yourself from harm. This does not mean that you should hate Arabs or view them all as terrorists or enemies just because they are Arab – that would be racist. But what it does mean is that you should be confident in your right to be wary of people you don’t know, be alert to suspicious behavior and avoid potentially dangerous places.

And you are right, this is particularly true during specific times of crisis where even normally non-violent Arabs who may have co-existed or worked with Jews for years might feel themselves victims, become outraged by their view of the situation or lose hope in co-existence. Some do lash out in unexpected anger and violence. There have already been a few such attacks in the current crisis. I know of one victim personally who was brutally attacked by a construction worker he employed for six years (the man is still in a coma), The attacker then managed to stab a young couple as he fled.

This means that even people you normally come in contact with (for example in university or at stores etc.) or don’t know but consider to be non-violent (for example ‘legal’ construction workers etc.) might be harboring a burning fuse inside. You should continue to be polite and civil with the former since you know them, but be sensitive and aware of how they may be feeling inside. And regarding the later, you should go out of your way to avoid them. They don’t have to know you’ve crossed the street or taken another route, and you will have made a reasonable effort to stay out of harm’s way.

This is not being racist; it’s being realistic about a potential threat that you are not only allowed, but commanded, to avoid, within reason.

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