By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
You want to get into an elite institution of higher learning? A decade ago we were told those institutions are putting emphasis on “service”, volunteering, and charity work among applicants. They also stress the importance of applicants showing leadership and initiative. So there were a raft of stories of “young leaders” who started their own charity. Some kid from a Washington D.C suburb was pioneering an NGO that would solve Africa’s food crises. Another was saving the rain forest.
One guide argued that three out of ten things universities were look for included “leadership in an organization”, “community service” and “entrepreneurial experience.” What afforded applicants the ability, expertise and time to register charities, jet off to Africa and volunteer to save the world? Privilege. Wealth. In a sense the institutions awarding points for these endeavors were quietly assuring that the same class that had always disproportionately attended these institutions would continue to do so. Others might get points for diversity, but for the wealthy, and primarily white, points would be given to reinforce their privilege through providing incentives to things that only they had the time, opportunity and resources to do. But poor people from a trailer park can also create an NGO, right? In theory, yes. But the very knowledge that this would help them in a college track would not be told them. There are no guidance counselors at their school. Their parents work long hours and don’t have the education level to give advice. And anyway, these are the poor who are themselves the target of the “self-starter NGOs” that other youth are using to get into university. It’s hard to expect someone working to pay for basic thing to also find time to “volunteer” and be an “entrepreneur.”
What’s interesting is another side to this story. To the degree that “helping the poor” and “building schools in Africa” becomes the norm among a class of young people who see philanthropy as an entrée to a good job or university, it also means that the values that go along with it become part of a calling card of class. “I work with starving Africans” and “I am educating a refugee family” are signals for a cocktail party or event that say “I’m a progressive, and I’m a member of your class.” These signs are not always secret. You meet people sometimes who list off their philanthropic accomplishments like a resume, because it is a resume. And those people tend to come from the upper privileged classes, and their philanthropy, which has now become a resume builder, is both insisted on by their class, and becomes an attribute for success.
The Israel case
I am based in Israel and it is interesting to look at it as a case of how this works. In a divided society between religious and secular, Arab and Jewish, the most privileged group tends to be primarily Jews of European origin who made up the founders of the country in 1948 and created the socialist and nationalist institutions that underpin it. Being members of the correct political party, serving in the correct army unit, being from the right zip code, or belonging to the right health care service, trade union or supporting the correct football club, may not be the calling cards they once were, but they have been replaced by a new gate to acceptance into the club of privilege. The new ticket is not just about political belief, it is not just about a liberal, secular, open-minded, “European” orientation, but about being exposed to the correct values. These values are often called “democratic” or “Western” and are taught as part of a civics core curriculum in Israel. They posit that the other values of other groups are wrong, are “backward” in the words of author Ari Shavit (‘Israel would be a backward country without the left wing‘), or “primitive” in the words Amos Elon.
Thinking correctly, such as reading those like Shavit and Elon, and believing in these core values aids one in life, it creates the networks in high school that lead to the right army units, and then the right university and the right neighborhood, eventually it allows one to be accepted to the right community. What begins at a young age as values education, becomes a way to wall off the ‘others’. It reinforces itself in an endless cycle, as those imbued and educated with these “superior” values then scoff at the “primitive” others and say “we mustn’t apologize” for being “better.”
To illustrate this, let’s look at a few of the good values, the progressive values, that are held by the privileged elite and which they only provide to their group in order to insulate and maintain it. Google “kibbutz high school coexistence” and you will find dozens of programs on kibbutz that expose younger people to coexistence. “Coexistence and bridging-conflict studies…Arabic Jewish theatre” or “workshops dedicated to ecology, environment, coexistence” or “an educational institution leading the way to creating a shared society.” In one place there is contemporary dance, at another an ecological green house.
But who is exposed to these programs? Mostly people who are members of kibbutz, and that is a membership reserved for the wealthiest elite group in Israel, composed almost exclusively of what Israelis call “Ashkenazi”, those who are European-origin, and those who are secular. When army or police units such as the Border Police who draw their recruits primarily from poorer ends of the spectrum and from the development towns, the area where immigrants and mostly non-Europeans were sent by the government, are said to be “racist” and “thuggish”, that is a way of deriding them as not part of “our values.” Israeli writer Gideon Levy claimed :“the Border Police is the sickest corps of the occupation administration. The reasons are sociological and ethnic and are linked to the background of most of its policemen − Russians, Druze, Ethiopians and residents of Israel’s geographic periphery, who are cynically and, not coincidentally, sent by Israel to be the spearhead of its violent rule over the Palestinians and who, not coincidentally, become extremely brutal.” Notice how this description works, he links their being “brutal” with their ethnic and geographic origin. People with black skin who work security in Israel are subjected by the “correct” and “cultured” media to constant racism, with one oped describing a black security guard as having “black skin stained with evil.”
The idea is that people of color cannot be allowed to live among the privileged class, and then to attack those same people of color as “primitive”, “stained with evil”, “brutal” and to create a cycle of violence in which they are turned into an other, and their origin does not permit them any chance to join the privileged class whose signposts are “culture” which is only for those of European origin primarily.
The “correct” values that those conscripted to such “brutal” units could never in their life have had the chance to be exposed to. In order to receive the “good values”, that then become the “right values” for the army and university and for acceptance to many communities, you have to be born in the right place or raised in youth movements such as HaShomer HaTzair or HaBonim, movements based in areas primarily with European, secular Jews. That means birth and class determine political-values orientation which helps reinforce the class, and becomes an entrée to it. The poor are “racist” and the wealthy are “good.” The poor don’t care about “coexistence” and “support segregation”.
How did it come about that the most segregatory part of Israeli society, communities that are actually “Jewish, European, only”, then claim that it is other groups that are “segregating.” Because even within the “good” values, segregation is a key value, but it is seen as “good segregation” because it is “self segregation” of “people desiring to live among those with similar values.” How did they get those values? They were already born around those people. In one case an Israeli NGO that was supposed to be helping people from the “periphery,” the planned development towns where the poor were sent to live when they immigrated, said that it was no longer worthwhile to expose the poor to high-tech because they had voted right wing (soulless planning is often used to segregate unwanted masses, such as the banlieue in France). Why did they vote right wing? Because they hadn’t been exposed in the first place to the “correct” values. Such is the cycle. Create barriers to integration and acceptance (in many cases Israelis from the ‘wrong’ background can’t even move to communities due to acceptance committees), then say that they don’t deserve any exposure to others because they are “right wing” and “racist”, a value you yourself put on them by isolating them.
We see this at every stop along the road of life in Israel. When foreign groups come to support coexistence, they do it almost exclusively at the wealthiest institutions, the elite institutions, such as the Jerusalem YMCA, where the “good families” go. They do it at the “Gymnasiums”, the old tweed schools where the elite send their families. So it’s not enough that the privileged are given the tools and values necessary for success at a young age, but they are also exposed to “culture” that is not open to others. Of course, many of these events may be open to the public in a limited way, but the vast majority of the public doesn’t even know they are happening. So the cultured signposts of being a progressive and open minded person is only provided to a certain small group. Then that group is said to be enlightened and others are said to be primitive. But how can be people be “primitive” and others “enlightened” when the supposedly enlightened values are guarded so jealously, when those values are part of a discriminatory preserve. In South Africa and the Old South the same concepts of “we are civilized” were used as the excuse why there should not be mingling. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy. Wall others off and then self-define your values as enlightened and the others as “barbaric” and then point to the evidence that the others are barbaric as being the very wall you created to keep them away.
Why are you “cultured”? Answer: “Because I was exposed to culture.” Others are not cultured, because you denied them culture. If you only teach Shakespeare and Heine in 5% of schools in the country, and then you say that in order to be cultured you must have read Shakespeare and Heine, you have been the architect of your own cultural apartheid. You built an ivory tower, closed the gate, and then say that to be cultured you must live in the ivory tower.
One of the clear cases of this bifurcation can be found in “conscientious objection” in Israel. When high school seniors write letters to the prime minister it is almost exclusively from elite high schools. Then we see articles about the draft resistors, noting that they are “courageous” and that they have written about “refusing to be part of an organization the purpose of which is to suppress.”
The only students generally exposed to organizations devoted to draft avoidance are those in elite high schools. They are taught how to receive exemptions. “Declaring a low degree of motivation to serve at any time decreases the value of the candidate in the army’s eyes,” explains one article. The draft dodgers tend to come from the wealthiest communities. Meanwhile some 34,000 soldiers from poor backgrounds are on welfare while in the army (army pay is $150 a month) and some 11,000 soldiers are sent to prison a year in the IDF, a disproportionate number being Ethiopian male soldiers.
Evidence points to a well-oiled network of draft avoidance that caters to the wealthiest privileged groups. A Haaretz editorial supporting objector Tair Kaminer noted that “Kaminer could have taken the easy way out – to avoid the draft, to marry or to claim, like thousands of other girls that she is religiously observant. Her parents say that IDF officials even hinted to her that ‘there are ways to get out of the IDF,’ by seeking a mental-health exemption, for example.” The fact is that there are numerous examples of Israeli wealthy, born to privilege, cultural figures who avoided the draft through such things as suddenly getting married at age 18, or going abroad for a long “vacation”, or suddenly developing epilepsy and then the symptoms “disappearing” when the exemption came in the mail. “Mentally unfit” to serve one day, running a company the next. Mentally unfit to serve, but perfectly capable of enrolling in law school.
Those exemptions are reserve for the wealthiest people who have the networks, connections, knowledge and means to employ them. For the poor, there are not exemptions. When NGOs that oppose Israel’s actions in the West Bank or reveal soldier abuses, will often target elite high schools. They have events in wealthy areas. If thousands of high school students destined for the units considered “thuggish“, the “enforcers of the occupation“, were to suddenly object to the draft, and the wealthy 1 percent were forced to serve in those units rather than say the Air Force or unit 8200 which help them receive skills for later in life, society would have a heart attack. The concept is that draft avoidance will be a wink-wink-nod-nod for some connected people, and that good units will be reserved for those from good families, with good education, having gone to good high schools, and coming from the right community.
One has to ask then when such things are religious pluralism, progressive ideas, coexistence and “culture” are transmitted, that if they are transmitted behind a wall or fence, only to a small group, that it is strange to then penalize the other un-privileged group for not having those values which become the stepping stones and calling cards to success.
Illiberal segregation and inequality cannot be called “liberal values”
It begins early in life. When a high school offers volunteer programs, and college counseling and special educational trips, and multi-cultural experience and foreign language, leadership endeavors and explanations about the importance of high tech and entrepreneurial activity, and that high school draws 95% of its students from the wealthiest 10%, and often from communities that restrict residency only to those from certain, primarily white European, backgrounds, then one has created a self-fulfilling prophecy.
You cannot call those progressive and liberal values “good” when they are based on segregation and denial of equality to others. You cannot only teach multi-culturalism to one group and then accuse the other group of racism. You cannot have a completely homogenous “whites-only” community that pats itself on the back for “multi-cultural training”, and then penalizes the “racists” in the community that is actually diverse.
Stop pretending this is liberal and “left” and “open minded” and “progressive.” It isn’t progressive to be segregated. It is not progressive to keep people from your society, deny them any education towards your values and then hate them for not having your values.
Societies create these networks, these calling cards, youth groups, school trips, and after-school activities, that then perpetuate privilege, while denying others any access to the very thing they are then accused of not having any interest in. “They” don’t like “culture”, and don’t appreciate poetry, contemporary dance, painting, classical music. But you do, because its a calling card of acceptance into your group. “They” didn’t have any of these things, but you blame them for it.
Who are the “racists” and the non-racists?
What if the truth is that the societies that create barriers to being “progressive” and then view others as “primitive” are in fact the truly racist society? They jealously guard their privilege because they need to maintain it in their institutions and their dominance because what they fear most of all is integration. Ehud Barak called it a “villa in the jungle.” When you only build a villa for yourself, don’t blame the jungle for having trees.
Seth, thank you for deconstructing the façade of progressives, in this case, the Israeli version.