An alleged hate crime against Palestinians in West Jerusalem this week, which left one young man unconscious and in the hospital, underscores a troubling reality: that Israeli teens are more militantly anti-Arab than their parents and increasingly more prone to rejecting democratic values.
In recent years, the trend has become apparent in survey after survey, including those conducted by think tanks and commercial pollsters. It’s also borne out anecdotally in both Israel and the West Bank, where attacks by Israeli youngsters against Palestinians appear to be on the rise.
In the latest incident, at least five teens are suspected of punching and kicking a Palestinian nearly to death over the weekend at a crowded public square in Jerusalem, as dozens of other youngsters looked on. The Palestinian, 17-year-old Jamal Julani, collapsed and stopped breathing at one point, but was resuscitated and is now in stable condition.
A police spokesman said the five suspects—three boys and two girls, ages 13 to 19—were in custody and being questioned. “For my part, he can die,” one of the suspects, a 15-year-old, told reporters outside of the courtroom, in reference to Julani. “He’s an Arab.”
The attack was unusual in its brazenness. According to the police spokesman, the teens allegedly roved Jerusalem’s downtown area chanting anti-Arab slogans and looking for victims before setting on Julani and several of his friends. Other violence against Palestinians in recent years has been more clandestine, including mosque burnings and roadside ambushes.
While Israelis across the political spectrum have criticized the attacks, analysts pointed to a rising intolerance of Arabs among youths that appears to have kindled anti-Arab violence.
“It’s definitely a trend,” says Roby Nathanson, an Israeli economist who studies political attitudes among young Israelis.
The institute Nathanson runs, the Macro Center for Political Economics, has conducted three comprehensive surveys since 1998 that show a steady hardening of views.
In the latest study, published last year, 28 percent of Jewish Israelis ages 15 to 18 said the word “hatred” best expressed their feelings toward Arabs. Seventy-two percent said they definitely would not want Arab citizens of Israel living in their neighborhood, and 77 percent said they would be unwilling to invite an Arab to their homes.
Seventy percent opposed the idea of a Palestinian state if it entailed significant Israeli concessions.
The institute’s questions in previous surveys were not identical, but Nathanson they said they were close enough to highlight the shift. In the 1998 study, for example, 92 percent of those polled said it was important for Israel to live at peace with its neighbors.
The more recent study also showed that 57 percent of Israeli teens identified their political leaning as right or moderately right compared with just 13 percent who said it was left or moderately left. When asked whether a few “strong leaders could fix the situation in the country better than all the laws and public discussions,” 60 percent said they either agreed or strongly agreed.
In almost all their responses, the positions articulated by Israeli teens were more hardline than those of their elders.
“What we see is a sharp decline in the youngsters’ acceptance of the Arab minority,” Nathanson told The Daily Beast. “They are intolerant and not willing to accept the fact that Arabs are equal citizens.”
Arab citizens of Israel number about 1.6 million, or some 20 percent of the country’s population. Israel’s Declaration of Independence guarantees them equal rights, though Israeli-Arabs often complain of institutional or social discrimination.
Another 4.2 million Palestinians live in the West Bank and Gaza, under severely restrictive Israeli military rule.
Julani, the victim of the alleged hate crime and a resident of East Jerusalem, represents a third category: Palestinians with residency rights in Israel but usually without citizenship.
Nathanson explained the radicalization of Israeli teens as largely the result of a second Palestinian uprising between 2000 and 2005—a time when bus bombings and suicide attacks at restaurants and cafés were a common occurrence.
The Palestinian attacks have largely subsided since Israel erected a barrier around most of the West Bank.
Other analysts attributed it to the education system, which they said had changed over the past decade under successive right-wing governments.
“I believe that the school system in recent years is lacking very much themes that are related to tolerance, human rights, liberal democracy,” said Daniel Bar-Tal, a professor of political psychology at Tel Aviv University.
“In Europe, there’s a very coordinated and systematic attempt to impart values that we would call humanistic, moral, democratic, in line with human rights. Israel is really behind,” he said.
Dahlia Scheindlin, a public-opinion analyst and columnist for the left-wing online magazine 972, said the political views among teens can also be explained in terms of Israeli demographic trends in which Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews—populations that traditionally lean right politically—have the highest birthrates in the country.
“It’s a straight curve from secular to religious—the more religious you get, the more hardline you tend to be,” she said.
Earlier this month, the U.S. State Department designated settler assaults on Palestinians as terrorist attacks for the first time, including them in its list of “terrorist incidents” around the world.