By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
Last week when Ethiopian Jewish protests broke out in Jerusalem on Thursday, every major newspaper covered the events on the front page of their Friday edition, except one: Haaretz. Instead of covering protests that had shut down the capital city and gone on for hours, the newspaper preferred to cover Thai boxing and a story about Jehovah’s witnesses on the front page of its English edition.
Reports of the protest were also absent from the online version of the newspaper in English. In short, a massive and unprecedented anti-racism protest occurred and one newspaper ignored it. It isn’t because the newspaper often ignores anti-racism stories. In February of 2015 it profiled the “lesbian rabbi about to lead a crusade against racism in Israel.” It is good at profiling anti-racism initiatives that are run by Jews from the US or light-skinned Jews from the same milieu as the authors of the articles come from: Ashkenazi and of European origin, or to put it more simply, white.
Haaretz has a strange history of stereotyping and stigmatizing people of color. On June 6, 2014 it ran an article castigating a “dark skinned” security guard at Ben-Gurion airport. “Ophir was a young, darkish security man, perhaps a descendant of converts from the Arabian Peninsula, perhaps from the Atlas Mountains. But one thing was clear, his black color looked very shabby, tattered and stained with evil,” wrote the author of the oped. What does it mean to have black skin that looks “shabby” and is “stained with evil.” What would Americans say if the New York Times had an article claiming that a black person has “shabby” skin?
Then when Arab television presenter Lucy Aharish was chosen to light a torch for Israel’s independence day, she was blasted in the newspaper and accused of not “dressing like an Arab.” What does it mean to “dress like an Arab”? Palestinian Arabs dress in a diverse manner, some women wear their hair out, some wear hijab, some wear jeans, others don’t. Pictures from the 1920s show Arab women in British Mandate Palestine in diverse types of dress. Maybe to “dress like an Arab” means the same thing as to “dress like a European.”
Long-time Haaretz writer Amos Elon was a frequent offender when it came to stereotyping Jews from Arab countries. Back in 1953 he had gone to Morocco and wondered what effect Moroccan Jews’ “uncontrolled fertility would have on the Jewish people’s genetic robustness.” In a 2004 interview with Ari Sharvit at Haaretz he was still talking about the “political primitiveness” of Jews who immigrated to Israel from Muslim countries.
The Ethiopian protests have brought out the word in stereotypes. Among them was the cartoon published on May 5, 2015:
The reference in the cartoon was to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meeting with Ethiopian Jews on May 4. But why were they all depicted as having stereotypically “African” features of large lips? Is it because Ethiopians have large lips or because the cartoonist thought that is how to draw black people? If we look through the history of Haaretz cartoons we will find exaggerated features on almost all minorities groups and people of color. Asians with large slanty eyes and particularly with Arabs you find stereotypes. Let’s look at a few, in this one there is a donkey in the cartoon, as if the average Arabs (in this case Druze) ride donkeys.
In this one the donkeys are replaced with camels,
And when not on camels, the cartoons make jokes about Arab terrorists in the kitchen,
Manufacturing ignorance Another way in which people of color are stereotype is through gross generalization and the propagation of ignorance. In one article where an Ethiopian woman in Israel had won a contest, she was called a “Nubian princess.”
Why was she a “Nubian”? Are white women who win contests called “Icelandic beauties” even if they are Jewish and from Israel? Only because she was black she became a “Nubian”, just like Ethiopians got big black lips, because they are black; anything goes. Then in November 2014 Haaretz published a feature article relating to “wannabe Jews” replete with photos of, no surprise, Jews of color. White Jewish people who want to convert to Judaism, whether in South America or the former Soviet Union, were not stigmitized, but rather Jews with darker skin from Africa and Asia.
Here is the photo from the print edition in English:
So the editor had a choice of photos and found Jews that looked like the “other.” Finally we get to the Ethiopian Jewish protests in May of 2015.
The article claims that it was a new phenomenon to see Ethiopian women wearing pants. “Plainly defying the religious laws of modesty that are widely accepted in the community, many of the young women sported snug-fitting jeans and very short skirts.” How do we know that “religious laws of modesty” are “widely accepted”? Did anyone survey Ethiopian Jews? Did
anyone survey what percent of women wear pants? These are “nonconformist Ethiopians.” What does that mean? The majority of the 130,000 community is young people. Why are they “non-conformists” anymore than white Jews who dress differently than their grandparents’ generation? For Haaretz an Ethiopian woman wearing “snug-fitting” jeans was similar to the concept of Arabs “dressing like an Arab.” Yet even in the 1996 protests that rocked the Ethiopian community, when it was revealed Israel was throwing out their blood donations, we see women…in jeans. Most Ethiopian women go to the Israeli army, where they wear pants.
A problem with people of color Haaretz has a problem reporting on people of color. It pigeonholes, stereotypes and stigmatizes them. They are not presented as equals or people with agency who can determine their own destiny. They are said to dress in a certain way or adhere to certain traditions. Whereas white people in are presented as individuals; when they wear pants they are just people, when they decide to be religious, they are individuals, people of color are lumped into a group. Cartoons exacerbate the situation by exaggerating facial features or putting people on camels and donkeys.
One of the problems is that this newspaper is allowed to get away with much of this behavior because of the assumption it is a “left wing” newspaper. But one must judge something by its content. Italian dictator Mussolini also claimed to come from the “left” but his left is not generally accepted as a left today. It has also been revealed in many Western countries that ostensibly “left” leaning media often has a racial problem. It may lack minority voices or engage in racist behavior without realizing it, or commit gaffes for which its reporters apologize. Liberal bastions also are revealed sometimes to have hidden biases. Debating and critiquing is essential in these instances.
We must critique Haaretz for its depiction of minorities and people of color. We must admit that it has a problem. Liberal-leaning Jews and others who value its important contribution to debate in Israel and its critical stance should be concerned about whether their media is feeding them stereotypes they would not accept in the West. Rather than offering excuses or offering it a crutch because of its ostensible “left wing” stance; it should be held to a higher standard. That standard demands confronting racism and committing to deconstructing racial stereotypes, aiding people of color who are already not given a wide audience in media, and not feeding stereotypes.