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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Familiarity Breeds Respect: Awareness of Social Mores as a Factor in the Fight against Terror

Jennifer Roskies

Among the numerous distinctions between Israel and Western countries when it comes to fighting terror, one characteristic stands out as paradoxical. It stems from the historical proximity between Jews and Arabs in Israel. The lesson of this proximity-familiarity model forms a potentially helpful approach for societies far beyond Israel’s borders grappling with the threat of terror.

With the violent expressions of Palestinians’ rejection of Jewish sovereignty, Israelis look at European reluctance to label the nature of the threat they face by its true name – radical Islam – with the belief that they do so at their own peril.

In Israeli eyes, the trend to bend over backwards in order to avoid being labeled Islamophobic is a politically-correct nicety the West can ill afford. Israeli security and intelligence services, in contrast, employ ethnic profiling liberally and unapologetically in the relentless effort to identify and apprehend prospective terrorists and their accomplices. Nor does Israel have the options of banlieue “no-go zones,” or of treating radicalized Muslim populations in their midst with kid gloves. Elite IDF units conduct targeted operations to arrest suspects, with raids extending throughout the Palestinian Authority when called for.

Yet at the same time, this situation exists within a familiarity that may seem puzzling, given the context. Jewish-Arab situational interaction takes place in the workplace, in daily commutes on buses and highways, in commerce, supermarkets, gas stations and shopping malls, on university campuses, and of course, in hospitals and medical clinics.

The Counterintuitive Reality

Such interface is remarkable in two respects. First, the ubiquitous mixing of Jews and Arabs in Israeli society is counterintuitive when taking into account the constant security threats that emanate from Palestinian towns and neighborhoods. Second, it stands in sharp contrast to the impression rampant in many circles abroad that Arabs in Israel and the territories are treated poorly, when in fact the active concern for their sector is well documented.1 Would Israeli health care be the destination of choice for many residents of Gaza, Judea and Samaria, including family members of the Hamas and Palestinian Authority leadership, were it not for the quality and humanity of care they receive in Israeli hospitals?

To be sure, Jewish-Arab interaction – including Israeli legislation aimed at implementing equality of care and access to public and civic services – advances a strategic interest that is distinctly Israeli, namely the wish for normalization and acceptance among its neighbors, whereas Israeli Arabs’ motives for integration in Israel may stem from different interests entirely, such as the aim to amass influence in the country’s decision-making process in order to advance sectarian agendas.

Regardless of motive, however, interaction is a fact of daily life. The longstanding contact has yielded basic knowledge of Arab and Muslim customs among virtually all Israeli Jews, with awareness of cultural differences. The result is a clear-eyed coexistence that is functional on a civic level; often cordial on a personal level. It manages to withstand complexities caused by episodes of terror and weather tensions during periods of open conflict with terror organizations. Alongside a culture that houses elements that blatantly reject Israel, whose incitement to terror is too often cloaked in the language and images of radical Islam – Jews and Arabs mix and live.

Contrast this with the uneasy inconsistency that has marked the West’s counter-terror campaign, particularly within European societies in the wake of mass migration from Mideast war zones. This inconsistency is seen in the shaky balancing act between fighting Islamic-incited terror and dodging accusations of Islamophobia.

Abdullah Siam is examined by Dr. Lior Sasson, in an Israeli hospital
Abdullah Siam, who came from the Gaza Strip, is examined by Dr. Lior Sasson, in an Israeli hospital on January 28, 2009. Siam was brought to the medical center to repair a hole in his heart through Save a Child’s Heart, an Israel-based project that treats children suffering from cardiac problems. (AP Photo/Tara Todras-Whitehill)

One controversy provides an illustration: Israelis, well familiar with traditional, modest dress codes among both Muslims and Jews, followed this summer’s “burkini” headlines2 with bemusement. Why make an issue of dress traditions? Does European security rise or fall with the issue of personal attire? Can a bathing suit “convey an allegiance to terrorist movements,” as claimed by a city official in Cannes?3 German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s call for a ban on burkas “wherever legally possible” months later, in a speech announcing her decision to run for a fourth term as Chancellor, received thunderous applause.4

These examples indicate that European leaders apparently find burkas a convenient rallying point for their constituencies, plausibly compensating for reluctance to note the explicit jihadist features of the terror they have experienced.

Indeed, a defense of curbing any mention of Islam in connection to terror came from a non-European: Former White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest admonished,

If we respond to this situation [terror committed by radicalized Islamist migrants] by casting aspersions on millions of people that adhere to a particular religion, or if we increase our suspicion of people who practice a particular religion, we are more likely going to contribute to acts of violence than we are to prevent them.5

In other words, the mere mention of a link between perpetrators of terror and their ideological leanings will itself cause more terror.

In another example of politically-correct criticism of the German Chancellor’s speech, a harsh New York Times editorial made this connection explicit,6 accusing Merkel of crossing the line to bigotry: “The real danger is not the veil – it poses no threat – but the bigotry of those who’ve made it a symbol of their own fear and hate,” adding, “The rapturous applause that greeted Ms. Merkel’s remarks about the ban was about Islamophobia, not a serious security concern over a rarely encountered form of dress.”

Merkel’s audience, on the other hand, like many concerned individuals in Europe and elsewhere, recognize a need to look at the issue head-on. Their motives may not be bigotry so much as recent spikes in migrant-related incidents that point to tangible personal and security threats. ISIS can, and has, planted terrorists within the waves of innocent refugees. France has already sustained mass casualty attacks by ISIS operatives, some of whom reportedly reached Paris via refugee transit routes.7 Germany experienced its first suicide bomb attack last summer when a Syrian national detonated himself in Ansbach, Bavaria.8 Arguably, the failure to brand terror perpetrators as radical jihadists does injustice to law-abiding Muslims who wish to distance themselves from Islamist radicals.

Another Face of Jihad

New Year’s Eve, 2015-2016, witnessed a wave of “mass sexual assaults” in major German and Austrian cities (nearly 400 that night in Cologne alone).9 The attacks were perpetrated by roaming groups of men identified as migrants; subsequent increases in sex-related gang violence and physical assaults were recorded in neighboring countries as well. Officials linked the assaults to the rapid influx of refugees in 2015.10 Yet local and national media under-reported these rapes (some media routinely refuse to name perpetrators as being Muslim or of Arab origin) until hundreds of women had opened complaint files with the police.11

Certainly, sexual harassment and assaults are committed by Europeans and non-Muslims as well. But in documenting the “vastly different pattern of sexual harassment and rape in the Muslim world,” author Phyllis Chesler has noted common characteristics of attacks on women targeted as “immoral.” These “mass public gang rapes represent …another face of jihad” and of Islamist terror.12

Israelis, cognizant of “honor” culture and its darker manifestations in Arab Israeli and Palestinian society, responded to reports of this wave of sexual assaults with revulsion but little surprise. European reticence to address threats directly tied to their Islamic context thus strikes most Israelis as absurdly irresponsible.

Israel’s awareness of Arab and Muslim social and cultural mores entails a rejection of the illusions inherent in cultural relativism practiced by many in the West. It involves the clear-eyed recognition of outlooks that can breed terror. The recognition of these differences as a given provides a foundation for interaction between peoples, part of the long-term process toward coexistence. More importantly, this mindfulness forms a vital element in Israeli society’s overall resilience – an invaluable component in the long fight against terror. It is among Israel’s hard-won lessons, and offers the West a vital lead in the challenges it now faces.

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1 Evelyn Gordon, “65 Percent of Israeli Arabs Say They’re Proud to be Israeli,” January 10, 2015, . See also: “The Half-Full Cup of Jewish-Arab Relations, March 14, 2015 , and “Time to Say We Have It Good Here,” November 15, 2016

2 The New York Times, “Fighting for the Soul of France,” August 18, 2016,

3 The New York Times, Editorial, “France’s Burkini Bigotry,”

4 BBC News, “Angela Merkel endorses burka ban ‘wherever legally possible,’” December 6, 2016,

5 Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, November 29, 2016,

6 “Veiled Bigotry in Germany,” The New York Times editorial, December 8, 2016,

7 Valentina Pop and Mark Maremont, “Secret Report Shows Just How Badly Belgium Mishandled Hunt for ISIS Operatives,” Wall Street Journal, January 6, 2016,

8 “Syrian Refugee Explodes Himself at Entrance to Concert,” Kapitalis, July 25, 2016,; See also “Man Injures 12 After Detonating Bomb in Ansbach, Cuatro, July 25, 2016

9 Rick Noack, “2,000 men ‘sexually assaulted 1,200 women’ at Cologne New Year’s Eve Party,” The Independent, July 11, 2016,

10 “Rapes By Migrants in German Swimming Pools are Surging, Police Quietly Admit,” Kieran Corcoran, Heatstreet, July 6, 2016, ; “Sex-Mob-Alarm im Schwimmbad,” Die Bild, July 3, 2016,,var=a,view=conversionToLogin.bild.html;

11 Rick Noack, “2,000 men ‘sexually assaulted 1,200 women’ at Cologne New Year’s Eve Party, The Independent, July 11, 2016,

12 Phyllis Chesler, “The Other Face of Jihad,” Middle East Forum January 9, 2016,