Words matter

The Israeli Left attempts to win debates by irresponsibly raising charges of racism.

Suspects in court over Jerusalem attack on Arab man 370 (photo credit: Melanie Lidman)
Suspects in court over Jerusalem attack on Arab man 370
(photo credit: Melanie Lidman)
The government-appointed commission headed by retired Supreme Court Justice Edmond Levy did something quite positive in breaking the spell of argument by epithet. But, by defending the inherent legality of Jewish settlement in Judea and Samaria, the commission did not summarily end the debate over settlement and award advocates like myself victory by TKO.
Israelis and others will continue to argue the merits of settlement.
The detractors, however, have been put on notice that they cannot take the easy way out, first popularized by former US President Jimmy Carter, of appending the loaded adjective “illegal” to the word settlement and contending, therefore, that they had no case to answer.
Worse: The word “illegal” cannot hold a candle to the term “racism” as an excuse for intellectual indolence and ducking an argument.
Imprecise usage in both the United States and Israel does not advance the fight against racism but merely results in obfuscation.
In the current US election campaign, the Democrats and their supporters were quick to play the quasi-racist card when Republican candidate Mitt Romney proposed deregulation, criticized Obama for gutting workfare, or claimed that Obama is angry. Undeniably, the US still retains pockets of racism. But then a case could equally be made that Obama has been the beneficiary of political affirmative action and a reticence to criticize the country’s first Afro-American president.
Anybody who witnessed the warmth with which the Republican convention in Tampa received Condoleezza Rice’s address sensed unfeigned admiration for the former Secretary of State. Had he not joined the series of Republican candidates who self-destructed in the primary marathon, Afro-American Herman Cain, who once led the Republican field, could have been delivering the acceptance speech rather than Mitt Romney. Black Americans are welcome in both major parties and this is a cause for American self-congratulation rather than partisan insinuations. Moreover, it is possible to conduct a debate about welfare vs. workfare without contaminating it with charges of racism. After all it was Bill Clinton, once dubbed the first black president, who made the term popular.
The Israeli left has similarly attempted to win debates by irresponsibly raising charges of racism. To believe the left, racism is behind the opposition to continued illegal immigration from Sudan and Eritrea. But the opposition to work migrants has nothing to do with skin color and everything to do with identity. Israel, with mixed success, has consistently sought to repatriate and integrate the Beta Israel Jewish community from Ethiopia. It did so because of mutual Jewish responsibility and the knowledge that the new immigrants would not pose a threat to Israel’s Jewish character.
The same does not apply to non-Jewish Sudanese and Eritreans.
After all the Israeli left’s main, albeit specious, argument against retaining Judea and Samaria is that annexation entails forfeiting a Jewish majority.
When an Arab was violently assaulted in Jerusalem’s Zion Square by aimless school drop-outs, this was a racist hate crime – because the victim was assaulted solely because he was an Arab. While this and worse has been the fate of Jews who mistakenly venture into Arab neighborhoods, it was justifiably condemned all round.
But leaders of Reform Jewry in Israel were not satisfied. Anat Hoffman and Gilad Kariv blamed nationalist rabbis, like Safed’s Shmuel Eliyahu, who discouraged the rental or sale of apartments to Arabs, for fomenting a racist climate that made the crime possible.
Here again the term is misused. In the Galilee and elsewhere the sub rosa national struggle is continuing. Arab nationalists succeed in keeping Arab villages and towns homogeneously Arab; they try, as in Acre, to drive Jews out of mixed Jewish-Arab cities and attempt to make Jewish cities, like Safed, mixed as a prelude to demanding Arab autonomy in the Galilee. If Hoffman and Kariv have a better method than Eliyahu to combat this, let them argue it cogently rather than hide behind misnomered accusations of racism. • Contributing editor Amiel Ungar is also a columnist for the Hebrew weekly Besheva.