By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
“The young women do everything intentionally more slowly. The most politically incorrect thing to say is that when the young woman checking the cars is of Ethiopian origin, the line gets even longer,” reads an article at the Israeli newspaper Haaretz on November 20th. Titled ‘Politically Incorrect in Palestine,” the article consists of a series of observations about the West Bank. One of these has to do with checkpoints.
The author asks “How is it that a young woman – a member of the Military Police or a security company – is stationed at a checkpoint and her line of cars is always longer than the nearby line, where a young man is stationed?”
Then the author goes on:
“The young women do everything intentionally more slowly. The most politically incorrect thing to say is that when the young woman checking the cars is of Ethiopian origin, the line gets even longer. We’re talking about the checkpoints where only cars with Israeli license plates are allowed to pass…The soldiers and security people stationed at the checkpoints must develop skills in the realm of racial doctrine and a canine sense of smell to distinguish between a Jew and an Arab…But leave it to the young women at the checkpoints. They’ll check the accent, slowly open the trunk or send the car for a check for explosives, stare with hostility at the occupants, all the while chewing gum with their mouths open, talking on their cellphone and giggling.”
The passage appears to focus on women and stereotype them as checking cars more slowly then men. But it zeroes in on one racial group: Black women. Why is this? Women of Ethiopian origin make up only a tiny percent of society. According a 2012 study there were around 120,000 in Israel, a number that has increased to around 140,000 today. According to a Knesset document from 2011 there were “currently, around 5,600 soldiers of Ethiopian origin are serving in the IDF (4,000 males and 1,600 females).” Ethiopian soldiers face many barriers in their army service, including making up a disproportionate number of those imprisoned and discharged early. They make up only a tiny percent of the army, between 2-5%. That means the number of Ethiopian women who a journalist might come across at checkpoints would be very few.
So how and why did a reporter decide to single them out? Is it because Ethiopian women disproportionately are assigned to checkpoints? Mati Milstein and Tom Mahager explored this issue in a 2015 piece.
It’s not the first time Haaretz has stereotypes and written in racist terms about black people in Israel, focusing on their role in security. A 2014 oped described a scene at the 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.”
These reason black people are singled out for opprobrium appears to be that the authors are not black and tend to notice black people more than they would the majority who work security or checkpoints. Consider this. If there are 10 women working security at a checkpoint and one is black and two of three of the lines appear to be moving slowly, will the black person stand out? White authors tend to consider white people as the mainstream and notice minorities and then ascribe to minorities stereotypes. This is how they other people who are different and make distinctions.
The case of Haaretz not asking the author about what evidence there was for this allegation or removing this sentence that stereotypes a minority is a classic failure in journalism. It is the job, among others, of a newspaper to not only factcheck but be careful about fueling racism. Claiming women, and particularly women of color, are “slower” than others, without any proof except an anecdote, is highly problematic. It is important for writers to ask themselves about their own biases. If the writer is white and a member of a majority they must be sensitive to their whiteness and their decision to color minorities in negative stereotypes.
Israeli newspapers frequently call out anti-semitism abroad. For instance the same Haaretz covered the story of Kevin Myers in July when he was fired by the The Sunday Times for comments about Jewish people. Myers had written “Jews are not generally noted for their insistence on selling their talent for the lowest possible price, which is the most useful measure there is of inveterate, lost-with-all-hands stupidity.” So why is this less offensive than what has appeared in Israeli newspapers against black people and other minorities? Do Israeli newspapers have a double-standard, one standard for their own racism and another standard for discussing anti-semitism abroad?
Another Haaretz writer in 2013 also used offensive terms to describe the ethnic differences in the police. “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.”
Maybe it’s time to ask why it is that people of color are singled out? Why are they singled out for working at checkpoints after being drafted into the army, while their white colleagues are not? Maybe it is time for the Israeli press to do what the media is supposed to do and speak truth to power rather than punching down at minorities. Speaking truth to power would be asking whether minorities are disproportionately sent to certain army units or expected to work at checkpoints while others from the upper classes go to other units. Maybe it is time to ask why the people of color, the 2% of the army, receive the criticism, while the entire edifice that makes up the majority of Israeli rule in the West Bank, which is made up of the majority, is shielded from the same criticism. When a white soldier at a checkpoint treats Palestinians badly, he or she is just an individual, a bad apple. But when a member of a minority does it they are portrayed as a representative of the group.