By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
I used to joke that it’s not tuesday in the Israeli press unless there is something racist. There was a point where I started clipping out the stereotypes, the attacks on “Mizrahim”, the mocking of black Jews as “wannabe Jews” or Jews from India as “fake Jews.” I compiled lists of the most outrageous comments, such as Gideon Levy claiming that Russians have “crime in their blood” and Salman Masalha’s article where he wrote of a black person “his black color looked very shabby, tattered and stained with evil.”
A recent article at Haaretz by Saviona Mane did what too many Israelis do, turn the tables on racism and make those who complain about racism the problem. “In the life of a nation, as in the life of an individual, there comes a time when a choice must be made between clinging to the injustices of the past or putting them behind us and moving on,” the author writes. Whenever nationalism and racism are put before the individual there is a problem. One wonders if the same logic should be put to Jews around the world: get over anti-semitism for the good of the nation. Perhaps when the nation says “be quiet about injustice,” then the nation is wrong. What’s interesting in Israel is that it is on the left and the right that we are told “be quiet about racism, for the good of the nation.” I believe a healthy nation is one that is not racist, especially against its own people. A state and elite society and racist society should make up for racism and injustice, not disregard, excuse it and say “just get over it.”
Racism is not a “sectarian demon” as Mane writes, it’s a very real thing. When my professors at Hebrew University called Ethiopian Jews “cushim” as opposed to address them as people, that was racist. When I was told Moroccan Jews are “primitive savages who shouldn’t have been allowed to come here,” that was racist. When my friend told me why his community in the Negev needs an acceptance committee to keep people from moving there “because we don’t want Mizrahim and those types among us,” that was racist.
And that’s the true tragic face of Israeli society. Segregated education systems, of Jews and Arabs in different schools. Most communities are segregated, and they are segregated in such a way that those who are non-European cannot move to the European-dominated communities. European Jewish immigrants to Israel founded Kibbutzim and created acceptance committees for them, such that those who are non-European cannot join and are deemed “unsuitable for community.” The Haaretz author Mane tells us “the same people [Kibbutzniks] without whose courage and devotion to the Zionist idea we probably wouldn’t have a state.” That reads to me like white southerners or Afrikaners saying “without us whites you wouldn’t have an America or a South Africa.” Its true Thomas Jefferson helped create a country, but that doesn’t make racism and slavery excusable. It’s fine that Zionists who founded the kibbutz helped build Israel, that doesn’t change the racist, segregationist nature of these communities. Founding a country is not carte blanche to segregate. Denial of racism and hagiography for past racist generations is a form of perpetuating racism today. And in Israel instead of apologizing for past misdeeds the idea is to excuse them and then heap praise on those who did them, without any recompense, or remorse.
Racism is not a “sectarian demon”, the sectarian demon was invented by European Jewish immigrants who portrayed non-Europeans as inferior. Even today a kibbutz next to Sderot rejected people wanting to move there saying “We are trying to introduce new blood into the community, but new blood needs to match what is already there, otherwise we would die.” When a person claims a community must be homogenous, whites only, that’s racist. It’s sick actually.
So what’s wrong with this country? Why does racism perpetuate and why is it even glorified by many intellectuals, writers, academics and newspapers. How can major newspapers publish articles that claim black people are “stained with evil”, that claim crime is in the “blood” of people just because of their country of origin. Those are sentiments from the 1930s, from the 1950s. And in Israel they are common. They are shockingly common among wealthier people and those who self-identify as “left”. If these views were not 100% acceptable then the newspapers that print them, such as Haaretz would have taken them down, apologized and made up for them. But they don’t. Google “Gideon levy crime in their blood” and see the first article.
Racism in Israel works on several levels. There is one form of racism that is directed against the Arab minority, against Palestinians. They are called “primitive”, “tribal” and accused of all manner of evils, from terrorism to theft. On the extreme right there is visceral hatred of them. But even among the elite the views of Arabs as “primitive” remain. “She doesn’t look like an Arab or talk like an Arab,” can mean she doesn’t wear a headscarf. She’s not a “real Arab”. Few Israelis seem to know history well enough to recall that when the first European Zionists got off the boats in Jaffa in the 19th century, that the land had Arab doctors, Arab lawyers, Arab hotel owners, Arab intellectuals. Later hegemonic history was re-written to hide these elite Arab figures from history, such that today we hear about how Arabs have to be “integrated” into “modern Israeli society.” Nothing could be more ridiculous. But it’s predicated on the stereotype of Arabs as inferior, uncultured and the “other”, to the extent that they are seen as foreign “villagers” in their own cities such as Jerusalem where they lived for 1,400 years.
The second type of racism is against groups perceived as non-Jewish. This includes hatred of Russians and blame heaped upon Russians for problems in Israeli society. Even though some of the leading Zionists of the 20th century were born in the Russian Empire, many Israelis developed a narrative whereby Russians are seen as unique. A friend studying at Tel Aviv University who is half Jewish, told me that “a million non-Jewish Russians came to Israel.” Why does this bother you I wondered? She didn’t know, she just disliked them, even though she herself was also half Jewish. Racism exists also against Asian migrants and African migrants. The latter were called a “cancer” by an Israeli politician.
The last, and truly original form of racism, is the hatred of non-European Jews. Anti-semites in Europe never specifically hated Jews from Muslim countries, they tended to hate all Jews. Racists in Europe who believed in social Darwinism, race theory and eugenics, never specially hated Jews from the Arab world, they tended to just hate all Arabs or all dark skinned people, who they saw as inferior.
Tragically, with the development of Zionism in the late 19th century a stream of Zionism emerged that blended European concepts of white nationalism with European concepts of statism and race theory. Read Redcliffe Nathan Salaman, a biologist who believed his theories about plants could apply to people, and he lectured on this subject at Hebrew University (where he was on the board of trustees) and to Jewish audiences. He claimed in 1920 that “the real Jew is the European Ashkenazi, and I back him against all comers.” He claimed Ashkenazim could “show a far clearer bill than Sephardim” when it came to “mixture outside the blood.” Mizrahim he said had “absorbed in no small quantity Moorish and Iberian blood.”
In the Journal of Genetics he wrote about the “heredity of the Jews”, and claimed that Yemenite Jews “are not real Jews. They are black, with an elongated skull, Arab half-castes…the true Jew is the European Ashkenazi.” In his description of the “half-caste” he was alluding directly to the Nazi concept of mischlinge, or “mixed blood.” It was the same period as the rise of “scientific racism” and Nazism in Europe, and here was a Jewish intellectual borrowing from it and using the actual Nazi view to discern who are the “pure Jews” and who not.
When Saviona Mane says “sectarian demon” and claims that Israeli politicians today “nurture” it and that they should “form a healthy society not at odds with itself”, I wonder how a society can be healthy when it has not totally condemned and deracinated itself from the concepts that underpinned its leading intellectuals and founders.
Redcliffe’s views were never expunged. They were shared by Arthur Ruppin, a German educated leading Zionist in the 1920s and 30s, who had argued in a 1919 lecture ‘selection of human material’ “whether there is a possibility of effecting an influence in the direction of purifying the Jewish race . . . it will obviously be desirable that only the racially pure come to the land (Bloom 2011, p 174).” Haaretz writer Aryeh Gelblum symbolizes the 1950s discourse claiming North African Jews are “people whose primitivism is unsurpassed…have little talent for comprehending anything intellectual…lack any roots in Judaism.” Notice the three recurring themes: Primitive, ignorant and not Jewish, which occur again and again from the 1920s Labor Zionism to today.
Gelblum believed Jews were divided into “three main blocs: the Ashkenazi-European, Spanish-Balkan, and the Arab-African . . . should dare to say that the first bloc is the elite; the second bloc is the inferior one; and the third bloc, the Arab-African one, is even dangerous!” He said of Jews from North Africa, “usually they are just one step above the level of the Arab, black and Berber inhabitants of their lands; in any event, this is a level that is below what we have encountered among the Arabs in the land of Israel in the past.” When he wrote this in 1949 it was actual apartheid-style fascist racism, of the kind familiar in the Old South, in South Africa and of course in fascist Europe. And yet here it was in Israel, not in some hidden place, but at the center of the press, in the intellectual and academic halls where it was accepted.
When Israeli writers today like Anita Shapira claim Mizrahim developed “feelings of resentment toward Europeans that were manifested, among other things, in a sense of being insulted and discriminated against (Shapira, p. 243),” she makes a mistake like Mane. It is not a “sense” of being discriminated against, they actually were hated and discriminated against, similar to black people in South Africa and the US. This was real, deep, disgusting, vile, racism in Israel in the 1950s, which was often state policy, and which has continued legacy today in the makeup of many communities.
In the 1950s Yemenite child laborers in Israel were called “little domestic beasts.”Ari Shavit claims in his book that “when I was a teenager…modern Israel brought progress and prosperity to the Palestinian regions. Now our backward neighbors had the electricity…they never had before.” Progress against “backwards” people, civilization against savagery, Europe against the lesser types. Richard Cohen writes “who will defend Israel when he national character is no longer that of the European…what will happen when Jews from Islamic lands, already nearly 50 percent of the population…” Yes, indeed, Redcliffe worried also. Why does one newspaper worry that “new diaspora ministry initiative could open Israel’s gates to millions of non-Jews with Jewish links” as if the hordes of the ‘others’ would hurt the genetics?
The views have not been expunged. When Israeli academic Amir Hetsroni went on TV in 2015 and claimed to a Moroccan Jewish woman “Nothing bad would have happened if your parents had stayed in Morocco and rotted there…If we didn’t open our legs without selection to all kinds of Jews, questionable Jews and half-Jews from third-rate countries, whose uniting characteristics are to kiss amulets, eat hummus, drink borscht, take government handouts and get an orgasm from arguing with the world…The Israeli left is paying the Zionist price.” Listen to what he is saying, just as in the 1930s when leading Zionists said they didn’t want Jews from Yemen and other places. And this is from a “left” wing view.
The views are not expunged. Israelis speak openly of a “white tribe” and the “Zionist mayflower” and “I won’t apologize to Mizrahim.” Israeli comedy shows have black face. Mane wants us to believe that it was Menachem Begin who used the “ethnic” card to get votes in 1981. But it was the inflammatory rhetoric of the singer Dudu Topaz, attacking Likud voters as “chachakim…those guys barely serve in the guard booths in the army, and that’s if they serve at all. . . . Here are the fighters and the commanders. Here is the beautiful Israel.” Beautiful Israel, or the “villa in the jungle” was European Israel and Labor voters. They were the good members of the nation, serving in the army, and the others were not. Note here how racism and nationalism are intwined, as they were in Europe of the old days.
It didn’t stop there, Mane complains that the party Ratz (now part of Meretz), is viewed unfairly as “the Ashkenazi enemy of all Israeli Jews of Middle Eastern North African origin.” But remember when Shulamit Aloni claimed that Mizrahi voters were “barbarous tribal forces…driven like a flock…like a roll of tom-toms in a savage tribe.” When people call you “savage” and “tribal forces”, they are using racist terms. It’s not imagined racism, it’s real visceral racism.
In the 1990s the racism continued. Shmuel Schnitzer a journalist claimed Ethiopian Jews were “thousands of apostates bearing diseases” and other intellectuals calls religious and Moroccan Jews “mobs of monkeys and primitives”. Israel Prize winner and poet Natan Zach told an interviewer, “The idea of taking people who have nothing in common arose. The one lot comes from the highest culture there is—Western European culture—and the other lot comes from the caves.” One musician named Meir Ariel claimed Russians should be denied the vote in Israel. Journalist Amnon Dankner had claimed in 1983 that speaking to Mizrahi Jews was like speaking to “baboons run amok.” Notice the repetition of racist themes. This is because Amos Elon, Dankner and all these journalists, academics and intellectuals were from a similar background and milieu and in that cultural narrative they all spoke about the “others” the same way.
“primitive tribes”, “savages”, “backward”, “monkeys”, “baboons”, “non-Jews”, “apostates.” It was a form of othering on a mass, intellectual scale among people who had the ultimate wealth and white privilege and elite, hegemonic status. And they almost all regarded themselves as members of the Zionist “white tribe”, the “mayflower generation” and good Labor Zionists of the “left”. Yet the way they talked might have made the leaders of South Africa in the 1980s blanche, even they didn’t say “monkeys” so regularly. And these were their fellow Jews, who they turned into non-Jews in order to hate them. These were the partners of the founders of the state of Israel, it’s intellectual bedrock, those who built its institutions and media, those who framed its culture. And this is how they spoke? Worse than the worst racists of the Old South. And they called themselves “cultured”. This was Israeli “culture” among the more privileged group, the one today that says “get over it,” but which has never apologized and admitted how grotesque this was.
Many of these hateful statements I laid out in a paper I wrote in 2014 called “They will take the country from us.” Since then nothing has changed. Instead of apologizing and soul searching over all this material, the mainstream and especially the left in Israel simply disregard it.
The racism in Israel is sadly deep. It has its own very uniquely Zionist and Israeli narratives and talking points. One is that everyone who is not seen as the “right sort” is said to be “primitive.” Many who are not seen as the right kind of Israelis are said to be “non-Jews”. This is a deep, extreme form of ethno-nationalism. What’s fascinating in Israel is how it has a very self-defined left-wing manifestation. It’s absolutely traditional right wing racism and nationalism, re-packaged under a socialist and “left” banner.
This ridiculous reply again and again that “we shouldn’t apologize” and “what’s an Ashkenazi leftist to do” and this ridiculous preening that Ashkenazi Jews are victims of Mizrahi “resentment” is part of a “they doth protest too much” mentality, where the abuser has re-cast themselves as the victim, where the dominant group pretends to be a minority.
When the dominant group abolishes the acceptance committees, and when it de-segregates the schools, and when it stops calling everyone “primitive” and “non-Jewish” who it doesn’t like, and apologizes for 100 years of racism against both Arabs and Jews from the Middle East, and against Ethiopians, Russians and others, then we can start to talk about “getting over it.”
As long as there is denial and continued racism, and continued black face and continued talk of “primitive” and “we saved you from a backward way of life” and continued mocking and contempt for victims of racism, and continued segregation and acceptance committees and racist comments, there can never be a discussion about “for the good of the nation.” The “nation” was abusive to its citizens. You can’t bash the citizens and say they are a cancer who should never be brought, that it would be better off if they had “died in Morocco”, and then say “be loyal to the nation.” This is not a nation. One cannot ask black Americans to be loyal to the Old South, one cannot ask Jews to be loyal to European anti-semitism, and neither can Jews be loyal to people who see them as “primitive” and “savage”.