Why you should care

Knowing your enemy is, of course, a precept of overcoming him.  

Anat Berko knows what it’s like to meet — and even to hug — a suicide bomber.

The diminutive Israeli woman is a social scientist with an unusual specialty: understanding the motivations of terrorists. She has spent years gaining the trust of foiled suicide bombers who’ve landed in an Israeli prison, probing their life stories and providing the comfort of an ear, sometimes an embrace. Berko set out her findings about women suicide attackers in a 2012 book, The Smarter Bomb. They are, Berko says, the most desperate women in society, driven to volunteer for their missions less by ideology than by years of abuse and exploitation.

Part of her realized that had they met a few days earlier, “she would have killed me in a blast.”

One of the examples: A Palestinian woman fell in love at the too-ripe age of 25 with a disabled man. When her father tried to negotiate a higher bride price, the marriage deal fell through. Distraught, the woman volunteered to be a suicide attacker and was caught and imprisoned by the Israeli military. When Berko met the woman, she would not stop crying; she cursed her father for destroying her life. “It was the most natural thing in the world to embrace her,” Berko says, though a part of her realized that had they met a few days earlier, “she would have killed me in a blast.”

Her conclusions are controversial, as is much surrounding terrorism, radicalized Islam and Israel. When she took the podium at the University of Florida last year, a small group of Students for Justice for Palestine started chanting against the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). Berko was not rattled. “I’m used to sitting in jail cells with serial killers. Did they think I would be intimidated by some American college students?” Berko told the the Jewish Press.

Berko, 54, is fine boned and wears her hair in a thick braid that falls down her back for almost a yard. She is not surprised by the recent violence between Jews and Arabs, whose most recent flare began with the murder of three Israeli teenagers in the summer and culminated, for now, with a war that cost more than 2,000 Palestinian and 74 Israeli lives. “There has never been as much hatred as there is today,” says Efi Yaar, publisher of the University of Tel Aviv’s monthly “peace index” for 20 years. Eighty-three percent of Arabs say they hate their Jewish fellow citizens.

But she understands the causes of the violence differently than most. Israel is partly at fault, says Berko, a former lieutenant colonel with the IDF. “Israel should have invested more in the Arab population in order to provide equal opportunities — more schools and more infrastructure, especially in Jerusalem.” But the causes of the conflict have even deeper roots, she argues, in a fraying social fabric and the ongoing oppression of women. Social structures in Palestine marginalize pragmatics, Berko says. “We are talking about archly conservative, patriarchal structures, which demand conformity.”

Berko means her own childhood, too. Her parents were well-to-do Jews from Baghdad who sought refuge from anti-Semitism in Israel. “The surroundings I grew up in were strongly influenced by Arab traditions,” the mother of three says. After her father welcomed a son, five daughters followed in failed attempts for another boy. Only in Israel did her father grow open to other ideas about women.

There is no worse insult, even amongst secular children, than ‘You Arab!’

— Yoram Harpaz

Yet in Palestine the social fabric is eroding, Berko says. “The classic Arab extended family is falling apart; the parents are barely able to control their children,” she explains. The youths in Palestine grow up admiring and rejecting modernity at the same time. Assassins are given the hero treatment because, amongst other reasons, “they conform to the macho image of an Arab man.” Israel, too, is getting more religious and nationalistic. “When I was a child … the war was happening at the border,” she says. Nowadays, division has hardened even among children. For three years, pedagogue Yoram Harpaz sat in on classrooms in Tel Aviv. The shattering result: “There is no worse insult, even amongst secular children, than ‘You Arab!’”

Leaders on both sides are frightened. Until recently, both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas fanned the flames. The former announced a “battle for Jerusalem,” while the latter promised to “do whatever it takes” to prevent Jews from “contaminating” Al-Aqsa Mosque. But now they both are trying to extinguish the flames they helped fuel. Israel’s prime minister cautioned against discriminating against Arab Israelis, saying that most are “law-abiding citizens of our country.” And Abbas announced wanting to build “bridges of love” to Israel. The Israeli secretary of education decreed a week-long tolerance program for schools. David Pollock, the Kaufman Fellow for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, doubts the measures will solve anything, but they “may manage to keep things at a manageable level of trouble,” he says.

In Palestine, Berko sees a search for “consensus in extremism.” The differences between Islamist Hamas and the reputedly more pragmatic Fatah are arbitrary, she says. “Many of my interviewees, high-ranking activists, tell me, ‘I wake up as a Hamas supporter and go to sleep as a Fatah supporter.’ The identities are in flux.” Real change needs social upheaval, she argues, and, in particular, women’s liberation. “When Arab women start burning their veils, just like European women once burnt their bras, is when the change is going to come.”

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