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The face of violence: between racism and banal evil

In 1998, an Israeli film appeared called “Buzz.” It was based on a true story that had rocked the country four years earlier: two teenagers murdered a taxi driver, shooting him six times in the back. In the style of some great literature, there was no motive at all, just sheer thrill for boys who had already developed a pastime of petty crime.

Nobody is making films these days about stunningly random, lethal violence. We’ve grown ritually used to it. We have a few days to nurse our horror, then we return to the struggle to close out the month financially or implore the government not to bomb Iran, until the next incomprehensibly horrible thing has happened.

Violence in Israel, at least, is an equal-opportunity employer.

A couple of weeks ago, a group of Jewish youth attacked an Arab youngster in Jerusalem, nearly killing him. The perpetrators repeated time after time, and continue in their court statements to insist that they want him dead because he is Arab; they attacked him for this reason and with this intention. In my non-legalistic mind, that’s a hate crime if I ever saw one.

This March, four Arab youngsters – the shooter was 15 at the time, according to news coverage – killed a Jewish man in Ramla, a 51-year-old father of five who had gone out at night to walk his dog. The boys approached him, they said, and he just kept trying to walk away. This week the Yedioth Ahronoth daily revealed that in interrogations, the kids denied any specific motive at all. “Stam,” said the one who pulled the trigger: slang for “no reason.”

A few weeks ago, a Palestinian family driving through the West Bank settlements of Gush Etzion was firebombed with a Molotov cocktail, injuring all six people in the car. The primary suspects are 13 years old.

In 2009, a group of young men from the Arab town of Jaljulya got into a verbal scuffle with older man, Arik Karp, 59, who was walking with his family on the promenade just north of Tel Aviv. They beat him to death.

None of these incidents were retribution for the other, or for anything else for that matter – there was no chain of revenge. That means each assailant was murderously violent, perhaps enraged, in his own right.

It’s tempting to boil this down to nationalist, ethnic and racist tensions. Today I read about a group of young athletes jogging on Friday was attacked by a tractor driver (Hebrew) who tried to run them down after they asked him to drive more carefully. The main victim was a teenage Israeli girl, just 15 years old – and black. This prompted a friend of mine to suspect racism. The details have not emerged, but I bet it’s far more banal. There is no language for resolving the large or the tiniest of conflicts; a person in the wrong cannot say “sorry, you’re right.” He can only respond with violent rage.

Here are some other highlights: this week, Yedioth reported that a business man from Beit Shean in his 30s stabbed his wife to death before their daughters’ eyes – “He butchered her,” said the woman’s mother.

Hit-and-runs continue. A few years ago just down the block from my apartment, a 27-year old woman was mowed down by drunk drivers. It happened again two years later, killing the avid athlete son of a Supreme Court justice. And again nearly a year ago – this time killing a 25-year-old woman. These “accidents” are almost always men who get drunk and barrel down city streets at a speed that would tear up a highway. Again, I take the license of not being a lawyer when I say that a man of sound mind who drinks and drives has demonstrated intention to kill.

Is any of this unique to Israel? Probably not.

Following Arik Karp’s murder in 2009, I took a poll asking people why in the world they think this is happening. Just 7 percent blamed it on sick individuals. In other words, 93 percent know on some level that this is a social problem.

The top response, chosen by 57 percent of the 500 Jewish respondents and far out-polling any other answer, was the failure to educate youth about values; the second answer chosen by just over one-quarter of the respondents was socio-economic hardship.

Only 3 percent thought such violence is related to tension flowing from the conflict.

If we know it’s a social problem, who’s taking responsibility? An Arab friend has exhorted Arabs to stop blaming the murder of women on the occupation, which apparently happens. The mother of one kid in the Jerusalem lynch said her boy was sweet like “sugar.” Erez Efrati, who dragged a woman out of her car, beat her on the bank of a river and tried to rape her, was caught by witnesses in the act; his response was to deny any involvement.

This is an exhausted rant. I’m sure it’s not terribly profound. But to sum up, I am deeply troubled by two main things:

First, there is one thing most murderers, reckless drivers, and other violent criminals have in common. It’s not race, it’s not ethnicity – sorry, all you xenophobes and haters. The overwhelming preponderance of people who kill are men. Perhaps this is so obvious that it’s become transparent and that’s why nobody is addressing the gender factor as a root cause; or because it’s not unique to Israel maybe we think it’s acceptable. It is not acceptable, and I don’t care if it’s not unique. Israel must take a deep look at what makes our boys killers and work much harder to spare them that fate.

The second thing bothers me more. I refuse to live in fear of violence, but I am terrified of the human the ability to deny. Denying is lying. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1970, Alexander Solzhenitsyn said:

Violence does not and cannot flourish by itself; it is inevitably intertwined with lying… nothing screens violence except lies, and the only way lies can hold out is by violence. Whoever has once announced violence as his method must inexorably choose lying as his principle.

I would go further. All forms of violence are connected. Whoever is violent in his home, is violent in the street. Whoever is violent in his words, is violent by his hand. Whoever is violent to his enemies will eventually be violent with his friends. We will convince ourselves that the situation demands violence; in fact, the violence that defines us demands that we create the situations.

It’s no fun to say all this. But denying it keeps the whole system going.

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  • COMMENTS

    1. Aaron the Fascist Troll

      OK, I’ll deny it. I deny that “all violence is connected.” Maybe Solzhenitsen was talking specifically about political violence, in which case it’s arguable; I don’t know the context. But as for violence in general, the violent SS officer who’s a peaceful, loving family man is one cliche. Another cliche is the verbally abusive person who’s shocked when words escalate into physical violence. So, yeah, I’m a denier.

      The male factor is important to keep in mind, especially when profiling is discussed. As a male, I’ve been the target of police profiling more than once. I believe that’s justified, because though I myself am sweet and innocent, many of my fellow males are not.

      One thing does seem pretty clear: the evidence seems to discredit those silly attempts to blame this on the “occupation.”

      Reply to Comment
    2. Aaron, I think you may have misunderstood. I am the one proposing that all violence is connected, not Solzhenitsyn.

      Reply to Comment
      • Aaron the Fascist Troll

        Yes, I carelessly misread what you had stated quite clearly. Sorry.

        Reply to Comment
      • Piotr Berman

        The names start and end the same so the confusion is natural.

        Reply to Comment
    3. sh

      I think Solzhenitsyn was right.

      And although I don’t see that whoever is violent with his words is necessarily violent with his hands, the rest of what you say, Dahlia, right too. Denial certainly keeps the whole system going. It’ll be the death of us.

      Reply to Comment
    4. @Sh – I can agree that not everyone who ever says a cuss word is also physically violent. I’ve said some myself :) But my point is that it’s a very fine line between violent speech and violent action (I was writing somewhat figuratively). That action may not come from literally from the same person. Consider incitement: if you speak violently against a group, you must take responsibility for other people who might go out and harm that group.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Bluegrass Picker of Afula

      humans are hierarchy-forming cratures. Just like chickens, it’s in our DNA. No one can show me a flock of chickens that lacks a pecking order. Same with humans. And the order was not established by conferences or seminars or negotiations or blogging. It was established by violent pecking.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Shua Frazer

      The stories you’ve related are upsetting, but there doesn’t seem to be any solution offered.

      If the one thing connecting these incidents are that the killers are all male, what do you propose we do? Is there some sort of educational response? I would agree that this violence has very little to do with the Occupation as tempting as it is to link the two.

      I guess I had hoped Dahlia would give some suggestions of how to remedy the problem.

      Reply to Comment
    7. @Shua, I wish I had the answers. Of course education is a good start but it must be in a very holistic sense. it is not enough, imho, to teach it nicely at school, although that is vital. Parents, communities, religious leaders, politicians, even PSAs, civil society, everyone must join in this effort. And I suppose I was trying to hint, perhaps I should have been more explicit, that the extreme militarization of society – with its excessive focus on men – is indeed partly to blame. That must be remedied and it does mandate extracting ourselves from this protracted conflict which I view as of the utmost urgency. I think all these pieces together can contribute…probably for the next generation.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Mitchell Cohen

      IMHO, the attitude of the younger Israel used to be “we are all in this together”, while today’s Israel (I am sorry to say because I love this country) has more of a “magiah li [I am entitled]” kind of attitude. Combine this with schools in Israel today being mostly (if not exclusively) concerned with teaching kids how to “get ahead” and learn skills that will make them marketable for the job force in the future, while cutting back (if not out altogether) on teaching values to the students. Of course, this is not to say there aren’t other issues (racism, watching violence on television, etc.) bringing this on, but somethings got to give….

      Reply to Comment
    9. “The overwhelming preponderance of people who kill are men.”
      The overwhelming preponderance of drug abusers, prisoners, psychiatric patients, soldiers, artists of genius, Noble Prize winners, philosophers, are also men.
      That’s what men do. Less testosteron will have an affect on both sides of this spectrum.

      Reply to Comment
    10. walden9

      I don’t think you can separate this so-called “banal,” indiscriminate violence from state-supported violence, or in other words, the violence of the occupation. One cannot rely on the self-reports of the perpetrators, who may not be aware of what motivates or provides them with models of behavior. Without the end of state violence, such supposedly random or “banal” violence will continue unabated. In fact, as long as it is treated separately from state violence, it will increase as state violence increases.

      Reply to Comment
    11. Aaron the Fascist Troll

      Anybody with half a brain (and that’s often all they’ve got) can tell some plausible-sounding story that explains this violence in terms of their favorite ideology – progressive, conservative, whatever. As readers, all we can do is be critical, ESPECIALLY TOWARDS CLAIMS THAT FIT OUR OWN IDEOLOGY

      Reply to Comment
    12. In evolutionary biology, intra-group cooperation can sometimes be enhanced through inter-group competition. The latter can be overt, as in war or the Mexican drug cartels; ritualistic, as in sport or elections; or otherwise eliminative, as in corporate failure. Failure can be death or physical damage, loss of standing, or ostracism or lesser removal. Violence associated with failure can perhaps be lessened by lessening its consequences. Even then, failure if relative; consider the recent shooting in NYC, over losing a job.

      Violence is not everywhere connected; but human evolution undoubtedly has and is embedded in much violence. Evolution is a zero sum game when resources are fixed or declining; even when expansive, we often produce barriers which induce zero sum outcomes. I believe there are times when we can escape some of this. Yet, on the evidence, that Gandhi was is most remarkable. Jesus less so, for he was, it is said, God.

      Reply to Comment

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