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October 10, 2015 | 27th Tishrei 5776

Pluralism and Relativism

Galilee Diary #556, November 23, 2011
Marc Rosenstein

Mar, the son of Ravina, made a wedding for his son. He saw that the rabbis were getting too merry so he took a glass that was valued at four hundred zuz and broke it in front of them and they sobered up.
-Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 30b

Ramadan ended at the end of August this year, leaving two months of nice weather for weddings before the rainy season starts (which it is doing this week).  Since it is still a widespread practice in the Arab villages of the Galilee to hold weddings outdoors, in the courtyards and streets of the community, they tend to be concentrated in the summer months (but not during Ramadan, which in recent years has been in the summer).  And so for the past two months, in addition to the dance music wafting (some would say blasting) across the valley, our evenings are punctuated by the sounds of endless bursts of firecrackers, and now and then the staccato of automatic weapons fire.  The firing of guns and the igniting of fireworks as signs of rejoicing seem to be popular customs in different cultures around the world.  And who knows, perhaps they are related to our custom of breaking a glass at weddings (and even more, to the custom of replacing the glass with a light bulb in order to make a louder noise with less danger of foot injury).  The anthropological explanation for the Talmudic story above relates it to the European custom of smashing the glass against the wall after drinking a toast - apparently a means for driving away evil spirits who attack us when we are too happy ("the evil eye").  If any moment in the life cycle is vulnerable to such spirits, the wedding night must be it - so the more noise the better.

This summer, a young man from a nearby village, the nephew of a friend, was killed by a stray bullet, as he and some friends were preparing to fire off rounds at a wedding.  He was a mainstream kid, responsible, serious, not a "troublemaker."  It's just that when teenagers play with guns, someone is liable to get hurt.  The extended family was devastated.  The tragedy motivated the police to step up, although apparently only half-heartedly, enforcement of the prohibition of firing weapons at weddings;  already just a few days later we heard gunfire echoing across the valley.  Recently, at a parents' meeting of our Jewish-Arab youth circus, the Arab parents got into a discussion of how much they hate wedding season - for various reasons - the ostentation, the waste, the noise - but not least of these, the danger.

The dilemma of policing Arab communities is a difficult one.  On the one hand, the police don't want to be seen as oppressing the minority, suppressing their time-honored cultural traditions.   They also fear arousing resistance and anger in the Arab community, which they view with suspicion as a sort of foreign element, not integrated into our culture and legal system.  And of course, there is the feeling on the part of many Arabs that they are indeed a foreign element, and that the police are indeed resented.  Hence, not only don't the police enforce the prohibition of weapons, but traffic enforcement in villages is minimal and accidents and injuries are common; and I have heard in recent years, from random contacts with Arabs around the Galilee, a deep concern about the rising rate of local crime - from marginal youth to branches of underworld gangs.  One friend is looking into leaving his birth village for Haifa - or abroad - because he can't stand living in fear.  Anecdotes of police non-response (real or perceived) are common.

Here again, as in the case of the status of women in various pre-modern communities in Israel, we struggle with the challenge of cultural relativism: at what point is it OK to say: It may be your culture, but it's against the law; time-honored but dangerous, or even immoral?  And in the fraught inter-ethnic atmosphere in which we live here, how do we decide which battles are worth fighting?  And is there not also a kind of racism in saying: Well, it's their culture, if they want to shoot each other and run each other over, that's their problem?

It's a tricky business, this multiculturalism.

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