August 08, 2009

The Russians are coming!

This is at least partly a mea culpa. I quoted below from Ynet a poll that reveals the horrible attitudes that dominate Israeli public opinion. I did not however offer commentary on what was itself a reactionary Ynet presentation of a racist research project. Our friends at Mondoweiss quoted the same article, but added to it commentary that not only fails to deconstruct but indeed reinforces the reactionary thrust of Ynet.

Ynet picked on the categorization of the poll respondents by a very ideosyncretic categorization: recent immigrants from Russia, Veteran Israeli Jews, and Arabs. It then notes some noteworthy differences of attitude between the groups. Most importantly, it notes, and mondoweiss quotes, that "77 percent of immigrants from the Former Soviet Union (FSU) support the transfer of Arabs out of the Jewish State."

This is a hard statistical fact. Facts, however, only carry social meaning when they are embedded in narratives and value laden social categories and measured against other facts that are left unsaid. The Ynet article, following the research, acts here as an agent of racialization, implicitly (but under cover of scientific objectivity) producing the social category of Russian immigrants as the carriers of a social pathology, nationalist extremism. The ploy of scientific objectivity is revealed by the fact that the Russian immigrants are labeled with an antiseptic, faux non-ethnic label, "immigrants from the Former Soviet Union." The same scientific detachment is left out in relation to Arabs, who are labeled simply "Arabs," a value laden ethnic category in Israel ( distinct form Palestinian, non-Jewish, indigenous, etc.). Thus, the racialization of "Arabs" is taken for granted. In contrast, the racialization of Russians, which is, as we shall soon see, the very object of the study, has to be camouflaged and ushered with pseudo-scientific decorum.

The NGO behind the poll, the Democracy Institute, a creature of the so called post-Zionist moment in Israel (1991), is a white Zionist think-tank, committed to a liberal capitalist "Jewish state." Its cadres consider extreme nationalistic attitudes pathological and incompatible with liberal capitalism. They are not opposed to racism as such, since they support maintaining, through the liberal and "moderate" nationalist mechanisms of the Jewish state, the material and institutional privileges acquired by veteran Israelis through ethnic cleansing and segregation. Rather, they promote a liberal strategy of whiteness that naturalizes, "normal", correct nationalistic attitudes, those associated with the preservation of the existing Israeli political and economic hierarchy, while pathologizing and when useful racializing attitudes that threaten their hegemonic power.

Extreme nationalist attitudes in Israel are directed against "Arabs", but Palestinians function within it as a convenient scapegoat and punchbag. As elsewhere, extreme nationalism in Israel is also a disavowed class challenge. The target in this case is the hegemonic control of a white, European, veteran elite, whose class rule no longer needs strong national solidarity and is therefore easy to tar with the aspiration for peace and "co-existence" with Arabs. This general dynamic is inflected and made more vicious by the typical tendencies of colonial ethnocratic states, in which immigrant groups find it particularly useful to use violence against indigenous people because it allows them to valorize their status by appealing to the racist ideology of the founders against the founders themselves. The dominant group, veteran Ashkenazi Israelis, has of course itself used a variety of racialization strategies in order to defend its dominance, including manufacturing racialized social/geographic "buffer-zones" between itself and the indigenous Palestinians, first by settling Jews from Arab countries to border colonies in the Negev and Galilee, and more recently by directing Russian immigrants to settlements in the OPT such as Ariel.

This is an important part of the necessary context for evaluating the fact that "77 percent of immigrants from the Former Soviet Union (FSU) support the transfer of Arabs out of the Jewish State." But before we go on, let us ask a few questions about the presentation. In what way can this fact be perceived as particularly deviant in Israel when the baseline of normalcy is "47% percent for the general public"? Why are Russians compared here to the "general public" in this particular case but not in others? If we were to take the "Arab" component out of the general public, the Jewish baseline for support for ethnic cleansing would surely be closer to 60%. How can three quarters of Russian immigrants adopting an attitude common to a strong majority of Israelis Jews be labeled as a racial pathology specific to Russians? Another question, why disaggregation along these categories and not others? What about other ethnic categories? Ashkenazi, Druze, Mizrahi, Ethiopian? What about geography? Class? Education? Income? Religious identification? What about degree of being a veteran? Pre-48, post-48? What about country of Origin? Are recent immigrants from the U.S. less prone to extreme nationalism than Russians?

Fear not that I am reading too much into this it, for the introduction to the study is quite explicit about the racist purpose of the presentation:
Now, after 20 years of immigration from the Former Soviet Union, the 2009 Democracy Index focuses on an assessment of the way in which the immigrants have integrated politically, socially and economically into Israeli society. The data, researched and compiled by IDI’s Prof. Asher Arian, Michael Philipov and Anna Kanfelman, shows that despite the prevailing view that, at least politically, the “Russians” have integrated into Israeli society, they feel that they have little influence over their environment, even 20 years after the start of the Russian aliya. Many immigrants continue to express opinions that are reminiscent of political attitudes and behavior under the Soviet regime, which testifies to minimal absorption of the substance of Israeli democracy and poor political integration. It also appears that immigrants from the FSU are generally in lower spirits, the problems they face are more acute, and their reactions are sharper. By comparison with the veteran Jewish sector, the immigrant sector expresses greater concern with security problems, is less sure of its desire to live in Israel, and is not certain that it wants to raise children in Israel (The Democracy Institute, my red).
(in parenthesis: "integrating" into Israeli societies means integrating in Jewish society. Russian attitudes, depending of convenience, are measured relative to the general public or relative to veteran Jews. Within the logic of "integration," asking why Russians are not more like Palestinians in their attitudes cannot even be posed. To integrate is to vanish into the white center. That Russians are already doing better economically than the indigenous groups doesn't count as "integration".)

Let's get to the money line. The extreme nationalist attitudes of Russians, despite being in fact shared by majorities or large minorities of veteran Israeli Jews, is described as a pathology associated with their country of origin, and then doubly pathologized by associating it with the (derogatory) "Soviet regime".

Why this racialization? Consider first the weakness of seeing the higher level of nationalist racism among Russian immigrants as proof of their "poor political integration." Russians have integrated politically only too well, to the extent that the party that represents them is the third largest party in the Knesset and a FSU immigrant is Israel's Foreign Minister. Furthermore they have integrated by repeating the very political patterns of challenging Ashkenazi veteran power previously tried by religious and Mizrahi Jews: support for ultra-nationalist parties. It is not the lack of integration that threatens, but the non-docile form that challenges veteran domination.

But now comes also the opportunity. We are in a new international context. That Russian Foreign Minister is an embarrassment. He openly expresses fascist opinions (that a majority of Israelis share). The new chill between Obama and Netanyahu brings increasing U.S. media attention to some unpleasant facts about Israel. For example, the fact that Israel's past actions and current ambitions make even the "two state solution" favored by the U.S. inoperable. The dominant sections in Israel, i.e., mostly secular, veteran Ashkenazi Jews, who are by and large the greatest beneficiaries from the U.S. Israeli imperial alliance and the occupation that was made possible by this alliance, can use a scapegoat. Just as Russians were induced by the authorities of the state to settle in places like Ariel, to be put in direct, visible competition over resources with the indigenous Palestinians and to serve as a buffer zone that absorbs the violence of Palestinian resistance, they are needed now as another type of buffer zone, to be symbolically paraded internationally (and internally) as an excuse that exculpates the veterans in Tel-Aviv and Herzelyia from responsibility to the occupation. Nor is the issue purely or even primarily one of symbols and foreign image. Racializing Russians as carriers of "Soviet Regime" pathologies helps re-asserting white "Western-European" power. With international pressure for a political re-alignment in Israel growing, the racialization of Russians as "anti-Western" who need to be educated and "absorbed" into the dominant ideology could help justify re-building the hegemonic power of veteran elites.

This is particularly ironic when one considers the history of the Russian "Aliyah." Although at least 30% of them were not Jews in their county of origin, they were enthusiastically welcomed by the Israeli establishment. Loopholes and shortcuts were found to fast-track them into Jewishness, in stark contrast to the unwelcoming bureaucracy and accusations of not being properly Jewish that were deployed against (the far more clearly Jewish) immigrants from Ethiopia. The reason for this enthusiasm was race--the white skin and European culture of the immigrants. They started coming at the beginning of the nineties, a time when the challenge to the white Ashkenazi secular Israeli establishment posed by Mizrahi/religious parties, associated with the rise of Likud and later by Shas, reached a boiling point. Far from being only about the demographic balance between Jews and Palestinians, the Russian immigration kindled hopes of reasserting the demographic predominance (and voting patterns) of European, secular Jews, making Palestine not only more Jewish, but crucially, whiter/more European. To a certain extent this worked as intended, as the class challengers within Jewish society are no longer united by religion and culture. But the Russian immigrants, perhaps unsurprisingly, adopted the very racist political attitudes that gave them social currency and legitimacy, thus replicating the same dynamic oppositional model as did before them Mizrahi and religious groups.

We should always remember and repeat that Palestinians are the first and foremost victims of Israeli racism. But the racism of the state manifests itself well beyond that, in the dominance, legitimacy and recurrence of strategies of racialization at all levels and against any group when the dominant classes considers it useful. It is particularly difficult to grasp that even "excessive" racism against Palestinians (as opposed to what is supposedly the correct dose of racism!) can become the basis for racialization. Recognizing this does not mean forgiving or excusing racists. Whoever told the pollsters that the state should encourage Arabs to emigrate should be held accountable for his or her execrable politics. Yet these racializations, even when they masquerade as political moderation and opposition to racism, are still racist, and moreover, they serve the specific purpose of defending and maintaining the racist apartheid regime in Israel, with white, secular Ashkenazi Jews at the top and Palestinians interred in camps at the bottom. Therefore echoing and supporting these subsidiary forms of racism, however gratifying it may momentarily feel, is in fact counterproductive.


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