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Editorial Article

Bad Manners at the Hebrew University

Joel Fishman
8 August 2008
Translation of original Hebrew version that appeared in Makor Rishon 8/8/2008

On Thursday afternoon, July 31, I attended the graduation ceremony which took place in Mexico Hall of the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem. At this medium-sized gathering, the Faculty of Humanities of the University awarded diplomas to students who had successfully completed the Master of Arts degrees. When I came to this event I was looking forward to a pleasantly but slightly dull afternoon.

At the beginning of the ceremony, the public was asked to stand for Hatikvah, the national anthem. While the audience was singing, I turned around and saw something incongruous. Several rows behind me, sat a group of students who by their body language and defiant looks communicated that they chose to distance themselves from the public. These were Arab students. For the sake of honesty and truth, I must add that I learned afterward that this group was not entirely representative, because there were some Arab students who did stand for Hatikvah.

Although I had heard reports of this type of offensive behavior on the part off minority students at Yom Ha'Shoah commemoration ceremonies at the University, this experience was new to me. Had I not seen it myself, I would not have raised subject. Therefore, I apologize in advance if I refuse to pass over this incident in silence. Although many Israelis hope for understanding between Jews and Arabs, nothing good can come from an environment of incivility and hatred. Please do not dismiss my first person account by calling me a right-wing extremist, a reactionary, a racist, a fascist, a Nazi, an "Enemy of the Peace," or "a friend of Hamas." I am none of the above and refuse to be intimidated by those who resort to totalitarian epithets. What happened at the University is a legitimate subject for discussion.

The first logical question to ask is: what message did these individuals wish to convey? Basically, there are two levels of meaning. First of all, they publicly expressed their contempt for a national symbol, in this case, the national anthem Hatikvah. Secondly, they openly demonstrated their contempt for the general public whose feelings they were bound to offend. It was a calculated affront. It is not that these people did not know how to behave; through their actions they chose to transmit a provocative and hostile message to their hosts and to the audience.

Although in all likelihood I shall not meet the offending individuals again, I still wish to send a response. This gesture is an example of bad manners. People who behave offensively have no place in good company. They belong on the street. If I entered a Church, I would take off my hat. If I went to a mosque, I would remove my shoes. When, for example, President Bush recently visited Jerusalem, the audience stood respectfully through both the American and Israeli national anthems. It is a simple question of common sense and mutual respect. Jews have a term for this tasteful and considerate behavior, derech eretz.

Participating in rituals of social graciousness is not necessarily an expression of friendship or closeness. Such rituals of civility and politeness ease social contacts and make relations easier for all concerned. There may be Israelis who would not care to have Arabs in their midst, but the Hebrew University received all of its guests hospitably. Furthermore, the University has gone to great lengths to accommodate the Arab minority. No one asks these students to show gratitude for the fine educational opportunities they have been given. They do not have to become Zionists, and, if they don't care for us, that's fine too. But there is simply no justification for crude and illmannered behavior.

There is another way of looking at the matter. Several decades ago, Uri Loubrani, David Ben Gurion's advisor on Arab affairs, made a statement which was considered to be particularly unenlightened. He declared that "It might have been better if there were no Arab university students. If they remained hewers of wood it might have been easier to control them." Although his message was disagreeable, Loubrani made an important point. The well-educated malcontents are the most dangerous because they can do far more harm. They will lead the war against the State and seek regime change. In contrast, terrorists and bulldozer drivers cause less damage.

Therefore, we must ask: what possible interest does Israel have in producing more of these academic malcontents like those who were so badly out of place in Mexico Hall -- and arming them with the intellectual weapons they need to wage war against the State of Israel and Israeli society?

Dr. Joel Fishman is a Fellow of a research center in Jerusalem.

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