Opinion: Jerusalem bullies need a dose of respect

Jerusalem’s Zion Square, located in the city center, where rallies mobilize, concerts convene, street fairs assemble and pedestrians abound, caught the attention of local media and became the topic of weekend table talk when it was learned that on Aug. 16, 17-year-old Jamal Julani, an Israeli Arab from east Jerusalem who went to meet a friend who was working at a local restaurant nearby, nearly died from a savage beating unleashed by a gang of Jewish “tough teens,” who were out cruising the streets, apparently looking for a victim. The first responders from the United Hatzalah emergency response organization who answered the call, told us that Jamal wasn’t breathing when they arrived. It would be 24 hours before he would regain consciousness, but even then he couldn’t remember what had happened the night before. 

I visited Jamal in Hadassah University Medical Center in Ein Kerem 36 hours after the brutal attack. Upon entering his room in the familiar facility, I was met with thoughts of so many Israeli victims of bus bombings we visited there during the height of the intifada. But this time it was different.

Jamal couldn’t remember the 50 or so youth who either partook in the beating or stood idly by doing absolutely nothing to intervene. His father, Subha, stood over him saying that his memory of the day was gone. His wife, Nariman, was grateful that Jamal was alive at all and soon to be released thanks to the Israeli medics who reached the scene on time.

The underlying question, though, was what motivated these gang-like hoodlums —colloquially, arsim — to attack an innocent youth?

Reaction on the street went from, “How awful!”; “What do you expect from kids on drugs and booze?”; “Why can’t Arabs walk the streets of Jerusalem without fear?”; and “Why didn’t anyone do anything to help?” to “Where are the parents?”; “Where were the police?”; and “Where is the mayor?”

It’s not difficult to reason that when youth set out to stir up violence and chant “Death to Arabs,” no good can come of it.       

If the five Israeli teens — Jewish kids from 13 to 19 years old — who were indicted Aug. 28 in Jerusalem District Court, turn out to be the ones responsible for the incident, it is only the quick response and skill of the medics that stand between them and manslaughter or even murder charges.

Israeli police spokesman Mickey Rosenfeld told the Media Line that this wasn’t the first incident of its kind and said he couldn’t point to other incidents in reverse, cases of Arabs beating up on Jews.

In 2009, I wrote an Op-Ed that was printed on the same day in both The Jerusalem Post and Al-Quds about the Acre riots signaling a tipping point exacerbating the need to redefine the Jewish versus Arab rift. The trigger point then was rioting that followed an errant trip through a Jewish neighborhood by an Arab driver on Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, when even many secular Jewish Israelis avoid riding in cars.

Seeking solutions, I turned to legendary folksinger and humanitarian Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary fame, and Charlotte Frank of McGraw-Hill publishers, who together fashioned an educational foundation that teaches students not to bully those not like themselves out of the song “Don’t Laugh at Me.” Yarrow’s Operation Respect curriculum is now taught in more than 22,000 schools in America alone, and in many other educational systems throughout the world.

After the piece ran, the American embassy in Tel Aviv contacted me to learn more about the program and to connect with Yarrow. As a result, the “Don’t Laugh at Me” curriculum is being taught in 30 Israeli schools — Jewish and Muslim — and will be introduced in schools in Jerusalem and Bethlehem this year as the total number of schools in Israel and the Palestinian Authority reaches 50.

Resolving differences between Jewish and Arab Israelis begins with youth education in schools and at home. At the heart of the Aug. 16 near-fatal tragedy is not so much nationalistic fervor as it is simple bullying — the pack mentality of brutality in numbers not to preach politics, but to experience the perverse rush of hurting someone. It’s not a stretch to project Operation Respect as an antidote for the disease underlying the attack on Jamal Julani.

Nor is it a stretch to believe that a schoolchild exposed to programs such as Operation Respect from early grades will not be cruising Zion Square — or Acre or Jenin — with a bloodlust 10 years hence.

I asked Subha whether this horrific incident changed his feelings toward Israelis. He said he works with an Israeli, many of his friends are Israeli, and he has Israeli citizenship because his wife is from Jerusalem.

It might not be a bad thing that Jamal doesn’t recall the attack. But he said he won’t be walking Yaffa Road alone any time soon.

Felice Friedson is president and CEO of The Media Line news agency; founder of The Mideast Press Club; and Women in Mideast Media. She can be reached at Felice_friedson@yahoo.com.