Israel’s Answer to Littleton

There was a time when news of the high school massacre in Littleton, Colo., would have struck Israelis as incomprehensible, evidence of some strange, alien disease floating around America, to which Israel was certainly immune.

Not anymore. If anything, Israelis are waiting for a Littleton to happen here. School violence, even school murder, takes place in Israel, too, and the violence is much worse than anybody thought not too long ago — worse, in fact, than in most Western countries.

A recent survey of Israeli students, conducted for the World Health Organization, found that Israel had the eighth-worst incidence of school bullying out of the 28, mainly Western countries studied. (Bullying in U.S. schools is far less severe, the study found.) Some 15 percent of Israeli pupils had occasion to bring a gun, knife or club to school for fear of being attacked. About 10 percent had stayed home from school at least once in the previous month due to the same fear.

These figures warranted brief attention until two 15-year-old boys were murdered within less than a week. First it was Yevgeny Yacobovitch, killed in Upper Nazereth by a gang of boys after an argument; then it was Gilad Raviv in Jerusalem, killed by a chronically violent, mentally disturbed boy. The Raviv killing was especially outrageous because police had seen the murderer, 19-year-old Shlomi Gabbai, threatening Raviv and his friends with a knife. Even though they knew Gabbai as a violent boy with a penchant for stabbing, the police let him go, and they even let him keep his knife. A short while later, that same knife killed Raviv.

All sorts of reasons were offered up for the mayhem: Increasing violence, verbal and physical, in all of Israeli society; permissive, preoccupied Israeli parents; lack of authority on the part of school officials; an overtaxed, underfunded, deteriorating social structure of schools, police and social welfare agencies, leaving violence-prone students unattended.

To the millions of Israelis who demanded that the schools do something to stop the violence, the answer was that the schools were doing all sorts of things, implementing any number of programs, with that goal in mind. The problem was nobody could say for certain whether these programs were doing much good.

Aryeh Rokach, head of the Education Ministry’s unit for violence prevention, rattled off just some of the names of the anti-violence programs now going on in Israeli schools: Total Quality Schools, Peer Mediation, Growing Up With Respect , Life Skills, Non-Violent Communication, Safety and Accountability, Violence Prevention Through Animal Care.

Cynics might read this list and decide that this was a pathetically inadequate, “touchy-feely” way of dealing with students who stab their classmates to death. Rokach and other education officials were quick to point out that these programs alone were by no means intended to be the complete answer to student violence, and that with a hard-core violent student, much more punitive measures were necessary.

But Rokach insisted that these programs could not be deemed a failure, because even the shocking findings by the World Health Organization also found that the level of violence in Israel had not risen over the last four years.

Pointing to the recent fatal stabbings in Jerusalem and Upper Nazereth, Rokach said: “Without lessening the schools’ responsibility to bring down violence, it must be remembered that these two killings took place off campus. The schools cannot be responsible for what happens after the kids go home.”

Hana Shadmi, head of deterrence and development programs for the Education Ministry, said that no current research now existed on whether the anti-violence programs in the schools had been successful. However, she added, many of the programs used here originated in the United States, England and other Western countries, where they were found by researchers to have brought down violence.

Dr. Tom Gumpel, a Hebrew University expert on school violence, credited Israeli education authorities with having gotten “on the right track” toward curbing school violence, but said this was a recent change.

“For many years, school violence was pushed to the back burner,” he said, adding that Israeli schools were doing a credible job fighting school violence, considering their increasingly severe budget limitations.

The key to making students less violent was by making the school leadership — principals and teachers — better equipped to create an environment of nonviolence in the schools for the children to enter, said Gumpel.

This was an uphill battle, said Rokach, because Israeli students over the years had lost respect for their school elders. Teachers spent an inordinate amount of time just trying to get kids to stop making noise, and the students tend not to listen, he said.

Outside the schoolyard, Israeli society had become more violent, Rokach said. “You can’t expect anti-violence programs in the schools, by themselves, to counteract all the negative influences playing upon students at home and in society at large,” he said.

Said Shadmi: “If all these programs are carried out in a vacuum, without more attention paid to violence in the environment outside of schools, these programs are bound to fail.”