How much progress is Israel making in combating discrimination? - analysis

Prof. Tamar Hermann of the Israel Democracy Institute and the Open University told The Jerusalem Post that "sensitivity to what might be viewed as racism is higher."

July 14, 2019 23:28
How much progress is Israel making in combating discrimination? - analysis

A protester confronts a policeman during a demonstration in Tel Aviv on July 2 over the shooting death of 19-year-old Ethiopian- Israeli Solomon Tekah. (photo credit: CORINNA KERN/REUTERS)

The last few weeks have brought back into the headlines debates about where Israeli society is in its treatment of Ethiopian-Israelis, Arab-Israelis and other minorities.

When 19-year-old Ethiopian-Israeli Solomon Tekah was gunned down by a policeman under questionable circumstances, and the Nazareth District Court has to intervene to get Afula to permit Arabs to enter its parks in 2019, where does that leave things? (The policeman may or may not have committed a crime, but there seems to be little doubt he overreacted, and while technically the Afula ban was on all non-residents, the court viewed the ban as being enforced in a discriminatory manner.)

Speaking to Prof. Tamar Hermann of the Israel Democracy Institute and the Open University, The Jerusalem Post got a survey of how to possibly contextualize these events both within larger trends in Israel and within global trends.

“Awareness of racism is much higher than 30 to 40 years ago, and also the sensitivity to what might be viewed as racism is higher,” Hermann said.

For example, she said that some issues, such as the treatment of LGBTQs, “wasn’t even viewed as racism until identity politics started in the US and then came to Israel.”

She said that as awareness rose, more groups started to demand equal rights and recognition.

Another example of change, she said, that came out of increased awareness was the #MeToo movement.

Much of what was acceptable for male-female physical contact in the workplace only a decade or a few decades ago is now viewed as beyond the pale.

Next, Hermann said that the greater social awareness has even transformed boundaries and rights set in law.

She said that there was probably at least as much sexual harassment in the workplace in the past, but that it was only in recent decades that this became defined as a crime, and it became more socially acceptable (if still not easy) to report incidents in the workplace.

So while sometimes people may think there is more racism in society than before, she said, the misunderstanding over what has changed is not the volume, but the fact that racist acts are now more often flagged and highlighted.

Also, some may confuse conflicts between groups over resources, land or power as being racially motivated when the groups start to insult each other, even though the root of the conflict may have nothing to do with racism.

She returned back to the treatment of Ethiopians, Arabs and some other minorities, who in studies are viewed as currently being discriminated against more often than Sephardim, a major ethnic group that was discriminated against far more in the past.
Hermann said it was interesting that all “societies gets sensitive to certain groups, but not others.”

In Israel, she said that society has become very accepting of LGBTQ as a group, but still have little sympathy for African migrants, viewing them more as law-breakers for crossing into Israel without permission.

She said that whether in Israel or elsewhere, there is “no clear standard for all groups” to get the same level of sympathy from the majority culture. “No society will not have any exclusion.”

Separate from these points, Hermann did say that it does feel socially like there is increased discrimination because of social media.

Hermann said that while ethnic insults that people might have mentioned quietly only to their spouse in the past, now more people have “lost their sense of shame and will say” these ethnic insults publicly online.

This does not mean society is more racist, she said, only that there is more formal data to draw from, whereas in the past, one just did not know how many people were thinking discriminatory thoughts to themselves.

Regarding Arabs, she said she thinks Israeli society is “not more extreme than before, and is maybe even more moderate.”

For example, she said that the current Afula controversy is, in some ways, a story of Arab empowerment.

In the past, she said, many Arabs would possibly not have dared to frequent Afula’s public parks, just as in the distant past, the segregationist US South had no need for laws against blacks living in white neighborhoods at a time when it just was not done.

When whites started creating such laws, it was a sign of the beginning of black empowerment by being ready to integrate into white neighborhoods, just as the Afula situation may backlash in light of Arabs already becoming more prominent in Afula and its parks.

She noted that Afula did not even try to explicitly ban Arabs, knowing that they needed to use a different kind of language in their ban to have a chance of surviving a legal challenge (though they still failed.)

Separately, Hermann said that there is a mini-trend of greater discrimination and anger at different ethnic groups following the 2008 global economic crisis.

She said she viewed this more as majority groups lashing out from losing power and money during that period, as well as their reaction to an unprecedented refugee crisis worldwide.

Regarding Ethiopians, she said it may unfortunately take a very long time to fully obtain a wide range of society’s discriminatory patterns because skin color is something that cannot be hidden.

While Jews in the US could change their names to get ahead – at a time even when antisemitism was rampant, because they were white – blacks in the US and Ethiopians in Israel must sometimes overcome greater obstacles because they cannot conceal that they are of different color.

Hermann said education is the best long-term way to break down such deeply embedded prejudices, which can be hard to root out in any democracy.

“You must know that most people [in Israel] don’t know how to combat racism,” said Aweke Zena, head of the government unit to coordinate the struggle against racism. His unit was created in 2015 and was empowered by a 2016 government report which gave more than 50 recommendations for governmental and societal change.

“We try to share our knowledge and recommendations,” he said. “We train [government institutions] and inform them of what changes need to be made.”

He said that he does not like to talk about “improvements,” even though he is sure that racism has decreased – or improved – since the 2015 Ethiopian-Israeli riots.

“There is just a lot to do,” Zena said. “It can take dozens of years to make the changes that need to be made in Israel. And we are really at the beginning of the process.”

He also said that the unit has seen a striking increase in the number of complaints about racist activity, but they see it as a positive.

Racism, he said, tends to be under-reported. As such, “we think that the increase in reports is because people believe we are there for them and can help them,” he said. “That is important.”

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