WATCH: The boy who put equality back on the agenda

Reuven (Rubi) Rivlin did what no other Israeli leader is doing. He heeded the call of a tender Arab boy – and followed him in support of tolerance and equality. This is how George Amireh and Rivlin pose an alternative to an entire society,

We were presented with a pleasant surprise this week from the Presidential residence in Jerusalem: A video of Rubi Rivlin and a boy from Jaffa named George Amireh sitting together and silently presenting, through placards, a message of tolerance and denouncement of bullying. Amireh recently became famous for producing a similar video, in which he used the same Bob Dylan-like method to expose a series of harassments he is subject to at his school. The video with Rivlin is a re-enactment and continuation of the original video’s success. (To turn subtitles in video on, click on icon on the bottom right bar, to the right of the clock.)

A few positive things stand out: Amireh wasn’t necessarily suffering from racism. He was attacked for being a boy with gentle mannerisms and a soft voice, for which he was labeled, among other things, a “koksinel” (derogatory Hebrew word for transvestite). This issue isn’t highlighted in the video, resulting in a confluence of struggles against various forms of discrimination. Amireh confronts the camera not as an Arab but as a human being, though in the context of our society he is obviously facing it also as a Christian Palestinian Arab from Jaffa (if I am mistaken and he’s a descendant of Slovakia’s Jewry, correct me).

Harassing an Arab and harassing a “koksinel” derive from the same place that breeds misogyny, hatred of Mizrahim (Jews of Arab descent), hatred of refugees and migrant workers and hatred of Orthodox Jews – if only to name a few – which all feed into the dehumanizing of the occupation and the siege on Gaza. It is this infected place that needs treatment. Tolerance is exactly what this country requires, and up until the notably loquacious Rubi Rivlin took the presidential seat, no one bothered to spread the word; not the previous president, the part lover, and certainly not our prime minister, who promotes fine values such as “revenge.” I almost could not believe it when Rivlin held up a poster reading “equality.” Equality!!! Forget tolerance, equality! Try to imagine someone in the government speak of equality, a value which the State of Israel expunges from our memories on a daily basis.

The video received a variety of criticism. Why do the sentences start on the left and end on the right? My guess: Because the staff at the presidential residence has a background in communications and they know that it’s more eye-catching. In fact, apart from the sentimental soundtrack, the video is worthy of praise. The way in which Rivlin and Amireh carry out the same exact gesture makes them comparable and highlights what they share in common, not in word or declaration, but in action. We already managed to forget that such a mode of communication exists. The use of Amireh’s model emphasizes the fact that he is proactive, who is demanding respect in his own way. By impersonating George Amireh, the president gives the boy’s initiative the respect it deserves.

“Koksinel” versus ISIS

Rivlin was impressive in a previous speech to the nation, in which he tied the murder of Mohammad Abu Khdeir and the murder of the three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank by referring to them as “our children.” Uniting Israelis and Palestinians rhetorically is necessary and admirable, but a certain degree of caution is required. Concepts of unity in this country have always been dictated according to the conditions that the hegemony finds suitable. The rule is: You can be one of us – as long as you conduct yourself like us and yield to our dominance.

As demonstrated in this video, Hebrew is the only language used, and the mention of “our country” therefore seems a set stipulation: tolerance yes, but within the confines of the status quo. George Amireh’s original video was also restricted to Hebrew. However, it conveyed only one dimension of aggression. Should the presidential video not have incorporated Arabic as well? Why not?

It might well be that the idea came up and was abandoned, perhaps out of fear of criticism. It’s a shame. On the other hand, the video resonates with the experiences of so many other communities in this country, that even the engorged security budget wouldn’t suffice to hire enough translators. It involves the worlds of Amharic, Russian, Tagalog and Yiddish speakers as well. Of toddlers who cannot yet read and comprehend the words, and of the blind who cannot see them. Blessed are those who will take on themselves the production of subtitles in various languages, and let us all hope that in the future the Presidential Residence will realize how indispensable the issue is.

One more statement on Arabs and koksinels, and then on Israelis and koksinels: In an era where the bearded men of ISIS are presented to the world as the prototypes of the people of the Middle East, Amireh’s delicate demeanor provides a stark contrast to this dangerous propaganda. Netanyahu just claimed at the UN General Assembly that ISIS and Hamas are equivalent; the Israeli public doesn’t differ between Hamas and others Palestinians and since “all the Arabs are one and the same”, it only makes sense that they are all testosterone-ridden thugs who demolish cities and decapitate heads. Amireh, a young and gentle boy, presents a necessary antithesis to this depiction in his Arabness, and yet the antithesis that he projects on to our self-image as Israelis is no less important.

I’m writing this on a bus, to the boisterous sound of a group of teenagers, just barely teenagers, sitting in the back seat. They compete against each other in raised voices and coarse language, boasting in the revulsion they experience towards their studies, conversing in military jargon (“Fuck man, I’ll tear you to pieces”). If the world is ISIS, we have no choice but to become even more brutish than ISIS; koksinels, meaning sensitive boys, not to mention young girls, have no room in this back seat. Our society cannot accommodate them.

But it can. Their place is at the Presidential Residence in front of the cameras. Their place is in the videos that reach thousands of viewers. The sensitivity within us must surface, it has to be recognized as heroic, it must triumph. Well done to Amireh, to Rivlin and to all who contributed.

This article was first published on +972′s Hebrew-language sister site, Local Call. Read it in Hebrew here.