By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
Some Israelis, especially Americans who immigrated to Israel, enjoy posting on social media about their shock and anger over events in Charlottesville. They are disgusted by US President Donald Trump’s equivocation. Many of them mocked Trump’s “fine people” remark. Faith leaders should take action against hate, blogs say. Rabbis are outraged. America is “glorifying hate.”
When you get over all the virtue-signaling and patting on the back that people are doing to show they are standing up to neo-Nazis thousands of miles away, it’s important to put it in a bit of context. “You can’t say you don’t see similar things here,” said former Prime Minister Ehud Barak on Facebook according to reports. Channel 2 in Israel even aired an interview with far-right activist Richard Spencer in which he compared his white nationalist to Zionism. “You should respect someone like me, who has analogous feelings about whites. I’m a white Zionist. I care about my people and want a secure homeland just as you have,” he told the interviewer.
Across the Hebrew media there was widespread condemnation on Thursday of Trump. Yediot Ahronot called him “shameful.” There’s no doubt the US President’s behavior is shameful, but it’s unclear if Israel has behaved any better on a bevy of issues that are similar. Putting aside the racist rallies in Israel, the chants like “death to the Arabs” heard at events, extremist organizations, the “price tag” attacks, there is wider systematic racism in Israel that goes unnoticed every day.
In Israel the Charlottesville phenomenon doesn’t take the form of just racists marching in the streets, it takes other forms. For instance there is the official state-run segregated education in Israel through which 99% of students are funneled. That means students growing up in Israel either go to a Jewish or an Arab schools. If they are Jewish they have a choice of whether to attend a religious or secular school system. This is official segregation, not one that is up for debate and almost the entire country supports it, from the so-called “left” which created this system in the 1950s to the right.
To make the segregated education system relatively easy to enforce, almost every community in Israel is segregated. In cities this takes the form of neighborhoods and self-segregation, but in more than 1,000 smaller communities outside cities this takes the form of official segregation via “acceptance committees.” If you are the wrong kind of Jew or an Arab, you cannot move to most Jewish communities outside cities in Israel. This means for instance that if you are secular you cannot move to a religious community or vice-versa. In the one or two cases where this was challenged courts allowed Arabs to move to Jewish communities after a decade or so of waiting and filing court petitions. The apologists point to this as showing that communities have been de-segregated, but the reality is that every person rejected by the “acceptance committee” has to go to court and prove discrimination. Often the terms the committee uses are vague such as labeling a person not “socially suitable.” They might excuse keeping people out based on something as arbitrary as hand-writing samples. That can be an easy way to disguise actual discrimination against people of color, or single parents, or anyone who doesn’t “fit in” in the rabid quest for most communities in Israel to be totally homogenous.
Beyond the walls of segregation, Israel has a problem in civil liberties. People are denied lawyers during interrogation and can be subject to detention without trial and “enhanced interrogation” is still used. Beyond that there are hundreds of thousands of Arab residents of Jerusalem who cannot obtain citizenship. In the past it used to be relatively easy for Arabs in East Jerusalem, which was annexed by Israel, to get citizenship. Around 50% of the applications were approved annually. But as numbers of applicants increased, the number of approvals dropped to almost zero. In 2015 for instance only 24 of 829 applications were accepted. That’s a kind of Charlottesville in Israel, purposely denying citizenship to thousands of people who have been annexed by your country. On top of them are the millions of Palestinians denied a right to a state but also denied rights to have Israeli citizenship. One could argue that’s just part of the “peace process.”
So when we have to hear people shouting about “Charlottesville” in Israel, it’s a bit ironic. Why didn’t Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemn Charlottesville? Maybe, because it doesn’t seem so shocking in Israel. White nationalists? What’s so special about that in a country where the political parties have names like “Jewish home”?
Over the years living in Israel I’ve met many Americans who are shocked by racism in the US but tend to excuse it in Israel. For instance they find black face and minstrel shows disgusting in an American context, but they think it’s funny when it is on Israeli comedy. They excuse daily use of racist words in Israel by pretending Israelis just “tell it like it is.” Racist in America also say they are just stating the “facts.” But if you find their facts disgusting and offensive, then why allow the same excuses in Israel to float by? There are blinders when it comes to the Charlottesvilles in Israel. It is worth considering that if one finds American racist particularly disgusting, that they should try to root out racism in their own back yard. They could start by asking questions about segregated communities. If the answer they get is that “people like to live among their own kind,” then they should ask themselves why they find people like Spencer so distasteful.