Israel tackles prejudices of young Israelis, Arabs

July 15, 1994|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau of The Sun

TEL AVIV -- By age 3, many Israeli children already have formed an image of "Arabs" -- and it is not good.

By age 9, they are drawing pictures in which Arabs appear in dark, sinister colors, often carrying a knife.

Palestinian children, asked to draw a Jew, invariably show a soldier in uniform firing a rifle or dropping bombs on Arabs.

As Israel and the Palestinians move cautiously toward peace, they must confront the prejudices of their children. What they find are attitudes already fixed with harsh stereotypes.

"There is an animosity, almost a xenophobia, by Israeli kids about Arabs," said Knesset member Avraham Burg, head of the Education Committee of the Israeli parliament.

Israel is beginning an effort to change the attitudes of its young. The Ministry of Education has announced a special yearlong program in which students of all ages will learn about the peace process and about Arabs.

"We will try to change the way they are looking at Arabs, thinking about Arabs, talking about Arabs," said Yigal Zalmanson of the Education Ministry, who is helping plan the program. "We want them to think of Arabs no longer like an enemy and more like a neighbor."

As laudable as that seems, the plan is already under attack from the Israeli right wing. The union of religious teachers has balked at teaching the program, and several Jewish settlers have petitioned the Israel Supreme Court to stop the plan.

"Introducing politics in education is an unequivocal sign of totalitarianism," said David Mintz, an American-born lawyer who lives in the West Bank settlement of Dolev and has three small children in school. "I think it would be a disaster."

Many experts believe that the school effort will do little to change opinions anyhow. Studies by Israeli researchers show extraordinarily strong stereotypes held by youths at an early age.

"Very young children form conceptions of Arabs and describe them in terms of behavior: They want to murder us, kill us, beat us," said Daniel Bar-Tal of Tel Aviv University.

He presented research at a seminar on prejudice last week showing that even 3-year-old Israeli children have formed negative stereotypes of Arabs. That negativity rises with age, and only at ages 9 to 12 do children start to acknowledge that there are "good Arabs," he said.

In another study of 100 Tel Aviv children under age 6, children were shown a picture of an Arab and asked what should be done with the man. Forty-four percent said he should be killed, 17 percent said he should be hit and 5 percent said he should be imprisoned, Mr. Bar-Tal reported. Only 17 percent said he should be loved.

They absorb this prejudice from television, from their parents, from warnings by their mothers not to play with Arabs, said Mr. Bar-Tal. And it sticks, he said, even as they grow and learn to reason.

"Very early stereotypes are crucial. They reflect cultural stereotypes that are learned early, uncritically, mechanically. They become almost automatic," he said.

"With time, we learn there are different types of Arabs, but always the negative stereotypes come to mind. We have to make an effort to overcome them."

Research on Palestinian children is not so available. But those who work with Palestinian children say they, too, form negative, one-dimensional views of Jews at an early age.

"Even at the age of 3, they see Israelis with only one face: the military occupation," said Assia Habash, head of a Palestinian preschool program in Arab East Jerusalem.

"This is their reality. The only part of Israeli society they see are soldiers in uniform, active, aggressive, oppressing."

Children's perceptions are often disturbingly violent, said Yoram Bilu, head of the psychology department at Hebrew University, who studied the dreams of thousands of Jewish and Arab children between ages 11 to 15 in the 1980s.

Of 212 dreams that included "encounters" between Arabs and Jews, "210 involved characters from the other side that were devoid of any personal characteristics, had no names, no personal attributes. More than 90 percent were dreams of conflict, physical attack and often death," he said.

"Our conclusion was it doesn't bode well for the future if these are the dreams of our future generations," said Dr. Bilu.

Early prejudices are not moderated by youthful idealism as children become teen-agers. Israeli teen-agers are often described as more politically conservative than adults. They must join the army at age 18, and male youths compete vigorously in school to be accepted in an elite combat unit.

"Israeli youths are very conservative, very conforming," said Kalman Benyamini, a psychology professor who studied teen-agers. "It's not youth that will reform society . . . ."

After the massacre Feb. 25 of 30 Muslims in Hebron by a Jewish settler, Baruch Goldstein, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin seemed genuinely shocked by comments of support for Goldstein from Israeli high schoolers.

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