Israeli anger at Arab Knesset members skipping Peres funeral reveals racism and arrogance

By SETH J. FRANTZMAN

“How dare they not show respect,” shouted numerous voices on social media and throughout the elite journalistic world of Israel. The anger was reserved for Arab members of the Knesset who didn’t attend the funeral of former Israel President Shimon Peres on Friday, September 30.

One well known Israeli analyst for Channel 2 named Roni Daniel was quoted by Mairav Zonszein as saying on air that Ayman Odeh, the leader of the Joint List, and his fellow lawmakers, “missed an opportunity to be human beings.”  Other Israelis, many of them connected to the center and the left, called the refusal to attend a “disgrace” and threw invective at Arabs in Israel and their political representatives for not saying “thank you” enough to Peres by attending the funeral.

Ben Caspit wrote at Maariv that the it was a type of “pettiness” and “entrenched stupidity” and a slight against Peres who had spent 25 years working for peace with Palestinians. It was a “slap in the face” and “spitting in the face” to those in Israel who still believe in peace. As with Daniel, he noted that all that was asked of them was to “be human.”  Like others he noted that Arabs in Israel enjoy a higher standard of living than other Arabs, that they have low infant mortality, and apparently because of that they should have attended the funeral.

This “how dare they” rhetoric has all the hallmarks of a scorned lover. But there were some voices who tried to explain the non-attendance. Dahlia Scheindlin at +972 wrote that “Odeh was, in fact, protesting the political myth of Peres, who midwifed Oslo and enjoyed the global brand of a peacemaker ever after, but washed his hands of the matter when it didn’t work out.”  Odeh spoke about Kafr Qassem and the 2000 riots.

Odeh explained on channel 2 that, “On the personal level, Peres has family and friends. I feel their loss, and that is the most profound and important thing…But on the political level, this is national mourning. I have no part in it. Not in the narrative, not in the symbols that exclude us…”  In contrast to Odeh and the other members of the Joint List who did not attend, around 20 Arab heads of local authorities and mayors did attend a shiva mourning event at the Peres Center for Peace. Mazen Ganaim, mayor of Sakhnin, noted “We don’t intend to go against Arab members of Knesset and the Joint List and we respect them and they can explain their stance pretty well.”

How some Israelis reacted to the non-attendance is a good symbol of precisely why Odeh and others didn’t attend

The use of the funeral of Peres to bash and point fingers at Arab members of the Knesset, and the Arab minority in general, was symbolic of the kind of arrogant and neo-colonialist view with which many of the elites in Israel, especially on the left, see the Arab minority. It was not only a reaction of “how dare they” but also the comments about how they should “be thankful of all that was done for them.”  The comments about how Peres “did so much for them” and how “they should be lucky they have running water, why don’t they say thanks.”

In a democracy that guarantees equal rights to its citizens, minorities, or any citizen, doesn’t have to say “thank you” to the government or government leaders for providing basic rights.  People receive health care, running water, education, and other basic rights as a right, not as a privilege.  There is a mentality among some in Israel that sees Arabs not as citizens, not as equals, but as beggars for the scraps of the state who should be forever thankful for the scraps.

Behind this mentality is a kind of neo-colonialism, a sort of “white man’s burden” that sees “helping the Arabs” as a kind of “civilizing mission” and that therefore politicians who “help” them, deserve “thanks”.  But the “help” provided the Arab minority is simply an attempt to redress 70 years of discrimination.  If an Israeli leader allocates basic resources to provide classrooms, or sidewalks, or paved roads, in Arab communities, the idea that they should say “thanks,” is a kind of feudal relationship, where the serfs are told to constantly thank the overlords for something.

Is it a wonder, a surprise, that the resulting “thank you” is not forthcoming.  When Arab MKs ask about Kafr Qassem or the 2000 riots in which 12 Arabs were killed during protests, they show how far their view of these events is from the Israeli Jewish public at large.  In 2014 Israeli President Reuven Rivlin said the massacre of 49 Arabs by Israeli soldiers at the Israeli town of Kafr Qassem was a “terrible crime.”

How were 19 men, 6 women and 23 children aged 8–17 and 1 unborn child, shot down by soldiers in 1956 in israel.  How were 49 Israeli citizens killed by their own soldiers?  One has to ask themselves what kind of country produced soldiers and a policy that so easily gunned down women and children walking home from work.  They were under curfew and because of the outbreak of the Sinai war, the ordered were to shoot to kill anyone out after curfew.  What kind of law and what kind of country, what kind of “democracy”, has an order where people out after curfew are shot on sight? Israel had that kind of law.

Shimon Peres was Director-General of the Ministry of Defense in 1956. The same year that soldiers, under orders, murdered 49 Arab citizens in Israeli. Is it any wonder that even decades later, some will not attend his funeral?  Did he attend their funeral? Ask yourself, what would have happened if 49 black women and men had been shot down in America in 1956?  What would have happened if 49 Jewish men and women and children had been shot by the Polish army in 1956. There was a massacre in South Africa in 1960 in which 69 people were killed by security forces at Sharpeville. And we know precisely how history recalls that massacre. But in Israel its easier to shout “how dare they,” than wonder what whether the one who is shouting “how dare you not say thank you” has said “I am sorry for Kafr Qassem.”  Of course, those shouting “say thank you,” don’t say “I’m sorry.” Because there is an endless number of excuses for Kafr Qassem.  Even today most people say “well, there was a curfew.”

And why was there a curfew?  Because in the 1950s and 1960s in Israel, the Arab minority lived without rights, under military rule, under curfew.  The mentality today that says “shut up, and say thank you” and “you should be thankful to have running water” is derived from the 1950s mentality that sees Arabs as “lucky to be voting,” after all, they are seen as foreign citizens, as an enemy, in the very state that supposedly gives them equal rights.  For the first twenty years of Israel’s existence they lived under military curfew, in a manner that has no parallel in most other democracies, but has clear parallels in the US South of the same period, or in South Africa, or in the Soviet Union. The police state of the 1950s provided few rights to Arab citizens, but ordered them to stand at attention on independence day and wave the flag.  In those days they said “thank you” under orders.  And some would like to see that again. Because the mentality of 1950s Israel, the same 1950s many still worship as a “utopia” and “egalitarian” country, where bedouin were driven off their land, moved from place to place, villages bulldozed, people kept under curfew, still exists in 2016.

The crowd that demands of Arabs in Israel that they are not fully human unless they pay the proper respect, should ask themselves where they were in 1975 and 1976 when Apartheid South Africa’s leaders visited Jerusalem and hob-knobbed with then Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and then Defense Minister Shimon Peres.  Remember in 1976 when the JTA wrote, “Visiting Prime Minister John Vorster of South Africa was quoted by Israel Radio as saying that his country’s ‘relations with Israel have never been so good’ and he did not think his trip here would harm South Africa’s relations with its Arab oil suppliers.”

In 1976 The Jerusalem Post editorial noted that although Israel ostensibly opposes Apartheid, the visit “puts an end to the long dilemma posed by the need to respond to South Africa’s outstretched hand of friendship and support..[no reason]…to make common cause with the hypocrites of the world who have sought to turn South Africa into a pariah state.”  Relations “should be developed despite the ideological differences which continue to exist.” Asked about the relations with the Apartheid regime in 2005, Shimon Peres told The Guardian; “I never think back. Since I cannot change the past, why should I deal with it?”

The thing is, some people do look back.  Some of the leaders of the Arab community in Israel look back.  Odeh says he wants the Jewish community to care more about the Arab narrative, more about his feelings and his community. He’s been saying this again and again, and no one listens. The same people who never listen, then shout at him, “how dare you not attend.” But those people don’t care about Kafr Qassem, they certainly never attend the ceremonies there.  They don’t care about the unrecognized bedouin communities and land claims that Odeh marched for.  They don’t care about the church at Baram. They don’t care.  They want caring in one direct.  One kind of “human,” which means “you must come and say thank you and care about things I care about,” but when it is the other way, when it is something you deeply care about, “I won’t be there.”

It’s convenient to have one narrative about the past in Israel.  A perfect utopia in the 1950s and then an Israel that has only sought to bring “running water” and to help Arab citizens, as if it is some sort of mission civilisatrice, which appeals to the inner arrogance of some who portray the state as a state that exists to do “tikkun olam” and be a “light unto the nations.” But the fact is that the examples of Israel’s help “to the nations,” such as drip irrigation, or “save a child’s heart” or helping Syrian refugees, or other aid, is perfectly good, but it doesn’t mean that citizens, who deserve equality as inshrined in the laws that exist in the country, must constantly be saying “thank you.”

There is a kind of feudal, hagiography, that takes place in Israel relating to leaders.  The recent funeral was no exception and the demands of obsequious fealty from Arab legislators is only part of the overall arrogance shown towards minorities in Israel

Demands that minorities in Israel constantly “thank” the state for basic rights

It is not only Arab citizens of Israel that suffer from the attitude that demands they say “thank you” at every juncture.  Other communities, such as Haredim, Mizrahim, immigrants from the former Soviet Union (usually called “Russians” in Hebrew) and Ethiopian Jews, are constantly told to say “thank you” to the state for “all that we have done for you.”

The racism and ignorance common in depictions of the “thanks” these communities should show is on constant display.  One woman wrote an oped claiming Ethiopian Jews had no concept of “time or money” before Israel “saved” them.  Of course, they did have time and money, and actually it was in 1943 that Ethiopian Jewish leaders sought to save European Jews from the Holocaust, a fact conveniently forgotten today when people want to portray Ethiopian Jews as primitive and helpless.

Ari Shavit writes in My Promised Land how Israel gave “electricity” to the “backward” Middle East (actually the British built the first power stations, not Israel). “Modern Israel brought progress and prosperity to the Palestinian regions…our backward neighbors,” Shavit notes. He claims “Oriental Israelis [Mizrahi Jews] are not aware of what Israel saved them from: a life of misery and backwardness in an Arab Middle East.”  He neglects to mention that “oriental”, which is to say Mizrahi Jews or Jews from the Middle East, which he seeks to “other” as “foreign”, were from the land that became Israel and played a role in saving themselves.  But he and many like him see Israel as “saving” others, not that those others had agency or a role to play.  This is a traditional colonialist narrative.  Europeans “save” the “backward” and “primitive” people. Anita Shapira writing about Ethiopian Jews, claimed they had to transition to an “achievement-oriented” Israel. The idea is that these others didn’t have “achievement” in Ethiopia.  Only Israelis, European-origin Israelis, know what achievement is, apparently.

So when Arabs, Mizrahim, Russians, Ethiopians, and Haredim and others, don’t say “thank you” for “saving  us”, then the scorn of the elites screams from on high.  They demand a “thank you” and if you don’t bow low enough and say thanks, then you are “not human.”

One day these voices in Israel will have to stop this charade of demanding “thank you” from minorities. The thank you should go the other way.  Minorities don’t owe the state any thank you.  The poor do not owe the government a thank you for a handout.  People in substandard apartments, living in grinding poverty, with unaffordable housing, where the state has denied them basic dignity, people in large towns that resemble sprawling villages, without proper roads, and crowded schools, do not owe anyone a “thank you.” If they want to attend a funeral, then others should thank them. The endless demands of “loyalty” and “show respect” and “know your place” and “shut up” and “be seen but not heard,” is predicated on racism and arrogance.

It may be true that among the Arab MKs are voices that are offensive to Israel’s mainstream, that have a visceral contempt for Israel and outright hatred for the state in its current form.  But there are many voices who also have legitimate concerns and critiques. To meet every complaint with a claim that “we saved you” is not helpful.

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