Earlier this year in the UK, Conservative MP Aidan Burley was compelled not to seek reelection for another term after revelations surfaced of his involvement in obtaining a Nazi uniform for a stag party. The groom who wore the uniform was prosecuted and fined in France, where the wearing of such is illegal. In 2009, the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem called for Romanian mayor Radu Mazare to resign after he and his teenage son wore Wehrmacht uniforms to a fashion show.
A decade earlier, the mere rumor that Tom Green, a popular MTV host, had attended a masquerade party in Gestapo costume led to his show being canceled and skyrocketing career derailed.
But in response to the wearing of KKK Purim outfits by Israeli high school students in 2014, those that would be expected to weigh in on this most grievous offense have been essentially mute. Imagine the outcry that would have arisen should the children have shown up in the costumes of the executors of the Holocaust! This appalling choice of costume was not an isolated incident, as a similar scene was witnessed at a high school in Dimona.
The historical experience of slavery and of the post-slavery reconstruction era in America – wherein lynching at the hands of vicious, marauding Klansmen was a constant terror – is unique to the African American experience. Masked invaders would come in the middle of the night; at midday African Americans were hung and burned alive for the carnival amusement of thousands, while some took home body parts as macabre souvenirs and other dispatched postcards of the gruesome scenes. This was part of our “holocaust.”
Racism is alive in Israel. And it is even more discouraging when it is exhibited by those expected to be the enlightened among us, like rabbis and mayors – with their disparaging of black basketball players with the epithet “kushim.”
Should our next ranks of children to enter the IDF be concerned with possibly being assigned to units alongside these anonymous hooded revelers? That would seem prudent of them. Do these partygoers understand the vile and offensive nature of their masquerade? Doubtful, at best.
In an earlier op-ed critical of Israel’s African migrant worker/refugee (“infiltrator”) policy, I was advised not to use the word “racist” too often. Israelis would likely recoil at my message, the editor warned.
Thinking it to be a prudent suggestion I obliged, and substituted “biased” in a subsequent reference.
But episodic flare-ups of clearly racist expressions – both conscious and unconscious – have firmly convinced me that Israel must soon come to terms with this evil.
So where do we go from here? Is this a “teachable moment”? Perhaps.
But can these students dare be reprimanded, when public opinion polls show a majority of Israelis harboring racist sentiments? The principal saw their behavior as merely “a platform for discussion.”
Then let the discussions begin, in earnest. They need firm teachings about the sanctity of human life and dignity. They need responsible guidance and instruction. They need to know the dangers of denial.
An Ethiopian proverb is appropriate here: “He who conceals his disease cannot expect to be healed.” In that spirit, the African American novelist Jesmyn Ward wrote: “There is a power in naming racism for what it is, in shining a bright light on it, brighter than any torch or flashlight.
A thing as simple as naming it allows us to root it out of the darkness and hushed conversation where it likes to breed like roaches.
It makes us acknowledge it. Confront it. And in confronting it, we rob it of some of its dark pull. Its senseless, cold drag. When we speak, we assert our human dignity.
That is the worth of a word.” (“The cold current of racism,” International Herald Tribune, Friday, August 9, 2013) Her words serve as a poignant confirmation of my thinking here.
The social construct of race – widely misunderstood to be a biological construct – and racism are an undeniable and omnipresent reality in our global society. To have ignored its symptoms here in Israel has only complemented its ability to covertly ravage our social health much as modern viruses have developed their stealth capability.
Like any doctor would warn of the danger of ignoring symptoms, observers of history know the harbingers of a society’s decline and eventual collapse. Not to characterize racist behavior for what it is – a sociopathic rot – is to watch it metastasize into the vital organs of our society.
The calling out of a pattern of insensitivity and outright ignorance where race relations are concerned – accompanied by a sincere acknowledgment of the transgression – are merely the first steps toward our prescribed healing. The decency with which these matters must be addressed can only be countered with education at a fundamental level. Intensive sensitivity training needs to be implemented immediately in the core curriculum across the educational spectrum.
For the simple fact of the matter is that we are all only doing what we’ve been taught. Clearly, we need new teachings or new teachers – or both.
Racism is far too common today, thus there is no monopoly on suffering.
Our students in Dimona have visited Auschwitz as well as the slave dungeons of Elmina in Ghana as witnesses of humanity’s darkest hours. We can ill afford to forget any of these horrific chapters in our history.
Today we face a new opportunity.
Ignorance and insensitivity must be unlearned and replaced with understanding; it cannot be imposed or legislated.
Neither can we return to “business as usual.” Our experience can provide keys for successfully overcoming this challenge and informs us that only men and women of goodwill and strong character can shape a positive outcome from our current moral morass. Let us rise and be doing, for there are far greater challenges confronting humanity that lie ahead... less we forfeit any presumed moral authority we retain as “the chosen people.”
The author is spokesperson for the Hebrew Israelite Community of Dimona.