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Israel's schools mirror a culture of violence

By BILL MAXWELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 6, 1999


JERUSALEM -- Although Israel is only a half-century old, it has developed a culture of violence that has seeped into its schools.

In America, where violence seems to come with the territory, school names such as Heritage High in Conyers, Ga., and Columbine High in Littleton, Col., evoke images of death and horror. Now, some Israelis worry that soon they also may have blood-soaked paths leading from their classrooms.

Two recent studies -- one by the international World Health Organization, the other, commissioned by Israel's Education Ministry -- indicate that Israeli schools, both secular and religious, are among the world's most violent.

Of the 28 nations in the WHO survey, the school system of Israel is the eighth most violent in terms of victims of bullying. About a 25 percent of boys and 6 percent of girls carry a weapon to school for protection. Israel ranked 11th in the proportion of students who acknowledged they had bullied schoolmates. Both victims and perpetrators carry clubs, sticks, knives, brass knuckles, tear gas and guns. About 1.5 percent of boys in Jewish schools and 3.7 percent of boys on Arab campuses carry a gun or other firearm to school.

These findings are sobering for two main reasons: First, researchers used a large sample, 8,394 students, ages 11 to 16, in 6th to 10th grades in both the Jewish and Arab region; second, the violence, causing 10 to 15 percent of the victims to require medical care after being attacked, has remained constant during the last four years.

Although the WHO findings may embarrass many Israelis, those of the Education Ministry's study are causing officials and experts to re-evaluate the nation's attitude toward violence among schoolchildren. One of the most troubling statistics is that teachers -- and even principals -- also are committing violent acts against children.

Rami Benvenisti and Anat Zeira of Hebrew University and Ron Astor of the University of Michigan interviewed 16,000 students in 4th to 12th grades in 232 Jewish and Arab schools nationwide and found that 43 percent of students acknowledge bullying others, while 45 percent saw another student carrying a knife. Slightly more than 50 percent of the elementary pupils said that a schoolmate had threatened them with bodily harm. Of this number, 9 percent reported being threatened with a knife.

Surprisingly, 22 percent of the elementary pupils said that they had been cursed, 14 percent had been pushed and 9 percent had been beaten or kicked by -- of all people -- their teachers.

Matan Vilna'i, chairman of the Committee to Prevent Violence Among Children and Youth, released recommendations to address the growing problem. Unfortunately, most of these recommendations place too much responsibility on the schools and will fail if society itself does not change fundamentally.

A recent editorial in the Jersalem Post captures the seriousness of the problem: "Ultimately, violence must be dealt with as a cultural phenomenon -- that is, something that happens because it is acceptable, not despite its rejection by society. As early as in kindergarten, children are often taught to respond to violence with violence. Teachers and parents often regard violence as part of life that children had better learn to cope with, rather than as unacceptable behavior.

"The teaching of (non-violent communication), and attempting to change deeply ingrained cultural instincts, is obviously a long-term process. But addressing violence is not just a matter of learning how to prevent it directly. It is also necessary to develop a realization that violence is often a symptom of other real problems which need to be addressed."

As one who regularly visits Israel, I have witnessed and experienced some of these "real problems" -- in everyday life -- that translate into violence in the school system. Please understand that I am not condemning Israel. I am simply reporting my observations, as I would if I were writing about America.

Broadly, native Israelis like to call themselves "sabras," a term that means "prickly pear," a fruit of the cactus. The suggestion is that Israelis sport a gruff exterior but a warm interior. The problem? Many Israelis use this myth of the tough hide as an excuse to be rude, especially to selected ethnic groups.

Rudeness -- shouting, pushing, cutting in line -- is a prevalent trait and is manifested everywhere, in shops, restaurants, hotels and, of course, in political rhetoric. No matter how it is rationalized, rudeness breeds insensitivity, which breeds hostility and aggression. Raw violence is sure to follow, even among children in school.

Images of insensitivity and violence and real acts of violence permeate the Holy Land. A few days ago in the Old City's Jewish Quarter, for example, I saw men armed with automatic weapons escorting children from school. Near Porat Yosef Yeshiva, a boy, no more than 8, kicked a girl squarely on the behind. She rubbed the spot and went about her business. Near David's Tower, Israeli cops harassed a Palestinian teenager. They may have been correct to check the boy's papers, but Jewish and Arab kids were observing the harsh behavior.

In Metulla, an Israeli town on the Lebanese border, I was the victim of gross racism. A merchant in an open-air market, with two companions watching, turned his back and refused to reply when I asked the price of pecans. Two boys were watching. I walked away. When I approached another table, a merchant chanted, "Extra, extra! Here comes a nigger!" Smiling children watched -- and listened. I walked away.

Every week, the media report Arab reactions to Israelis grabbing disputed land and razing buildings. Pictures of Israeli warplanes shelling Lebanese sites and Hezbollah guerrillas lobbing Kaytyushas into northern Israel fill the airwaves. Hamas threatens to kill Jews as a matter of course. The "Who is a Jew?" battle rages non-stop between ultra-Orthodox and secular citizens. With their children observing, Hassidics set up roadblocks, often stone passing cars and scream insults at the drivers on the Sabbath.

Everywhere, soldiers carry guns slung over their shoulders. On the West Bank, in East Jerusalem and in Gaza, settlers routinely carry their children in one hand and their pistols in the other. Israeli children watch soldiers and police stop Palestinians from traveling freely. Driving, the simple act of going to the market, is a horn-blowing act of aggression.

And, of course, the threat of being blown to bits by a terrorist's bomb or being shot to death on a public road seldom leaves the thoughts of the average Israeli. Jewish kids learn while in diapers that Arabs are "the enemy." Arab kids despise Jews.

Israel's schools are a microcosm of life on the ground. Nothing short of a new view toward insensitivity and violence will save the schools from becoming replicas of their American counterparts.

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