July 03, 2008

Rationalizating Israeli racism

Richard Silverstein from Tikun Olam also blogged about the same issue of racism in Kiryat Gat. His post covers the story well, and of course it is a story worth covering. But Silverstein also follows it with some questionable commentary.

First, he quotes one Zvi Solow explaining that Kyriat Gat is a conservative and prudish place because it is home to Mizrahim (Jews from Arab countries) and lots of unemployment and social neglect. This supposedly explains racism in Israel as a product of poverty and ignorance. It is allegedly the domain of unemployed mizrahim living in problem towns, Russian immigrants, etc. Blaming racism on the poor is a liberal gambit that never fails. And the poor in this case are themselves from Arab origins. Hence, Silverstein essentially implies, probably without even being aware of it, that Arab culture is the source of Jewish racism against Arabs in Israel. This is "blaming the victims" raised to the power of two.

It is also flat wrong. The poor always need to be educated by their masters in the ways of racism. In the U.S. it took decades of work for the large slave-owners to inculcate racism in order to break the common struggles of African and English servants. A similar process of teaching the poor and working class to hate Arabs happened in Israel. It began in the 20s with the laborite "conquest of labor" campaign, which instituted the first Apartheid regime in Palestine. Then in the 50s, Mizrahis were sent to development towns built near the borders, thus guaranteeing that they, and not the more affluent ashkenazis, would suffer most from border conflicts (as they still do, witness Sderot). And finally, the conquest of the West Bank allowed a new system of Apartheid and segregated labor to take hold so that poor Jews's social mobility was made dependent on the occupation. To these practical measures was added a constant journalistic, political, literary etc. hegemonic discourse about Arabs and the danger they pose. What is going on in Kiryat Gat is an egregious example of that continued process. This is crystal clear: Kiryat Gat's "problem" is that Jewish school girls, namely Mizrahi, conservative, poor, etc. ARE NOT RACIST ENOUGH. Hence, police officers, educators and state agents combine with a religious NGO to indoctrinate the young girls about the racist attitudes they SHOULD have, but obviously don't, at least not to the required degree.

It is certainly true that in Israel racism is more visible in poor communities. There are a number of reasons for that. The simplest is that affluent Jews are well isolated from Palestinians. Arabs make about 20% of the population in Israel, but only 4% of the population of Tel-Aviv, the most affluent town in Israel. Add to that the barriers of social status and it is easy to see why affluent Israeli Jews don't need to teach their daughters not to date Palestinians. It just doesn't happen. But learning not to date Arabs, and especially teaching the poor not to date Arabs, is very much an elite concern. Consider for example A.B. Yehoshua, one of Israel's most important "left wing" novelists (and a staunch supporter of wars and war crimes). Yehoshua's best known novel is 'The Lover.' The novel tells the story of a Jewish garage owner who befriends a young Palestinian worker, but the relationship ends after the young Arab protege sleeps with his daughter. It is of course a very "educational" novel, teaching the proper boundaries for Arab-Jewish interactions and imparting a lesson about the price of crossing them. Not surprisingly, The Lover is a staple of high school literature classes in Israel. And the ADL recommends it for American Jews as well. (In the original version of this paragraph I wrote erroneously that Adam, the novel's central character, kills the Palestinian worker. This was probably my memory mixing together the plot of Yehoshua's novel and the plot of a 1982 Israeli film called Hamsin. Of course, the central issue remains--mainstream Israeli culture is very much engaged in policing the border between the communities.)

It would be interesting to investigate in this context who exactly the good folks at Yad L'akhim are. Yad L'akhim is both the NGO in charge of providing the racist indoctrination and apparently a group that lobbies for this kind of projects. Their website is a bit coy about their identity. But they certainly don't look like poor Mizrahi unemployed folks from Kiryat Gat. The Chairman is one Rabbi Lipshitz, a family name hailing from Westephalia. And they have offices in Bnei Brak and Brooklyn. I may be wrong but I very much doubt many unemployed residents of Kiryat Gat are among their undisclosed donors.

Blaming racism on poverty and on marginalized cultures is a way of rendering racists a service while deceiving oneself that one is acting against it.

Second, Silverstein finishes with

Let’s keep in mind that not only are these Bedouin citizens of the State, they also serve important roles in the IDF as trackers. They are as loyal and willing to sacrifice themselves for the sake of their country as Jews.

That sounds to me like criticizing racists for not being good fascists.

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