Are Israelis racist?

Lack of integration contributes to the disease of racism in Israeli society.

Ethiopian-Israelis at a demonstration against racism 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Ethiopian-Israelis at a demonstration against racism 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
On Thursday night, Channel 2's documentary program "Ha-Sipur" aired an episode on racism in Israeli society, based on Jane Elliot's famous "Brown Eyes vs. Blue Eyes" experiment. The point of the program was to raise the issue of racism in Israeli society, though the focus was put squarely on intra-Jewish racism (i.e. between Jews of European descent, or "Ashkenazim," and those of Middle Eastern descent, referred to as "Mizrahim").
Coming on the heels of Israel's Holocaust Remembrance Day, it was intended to rattle cages.  In this regard, the producers of the program should be congratulated for starting the much needed discussion. However, to be frank, the program should have pushed the envelope much, much further.
You see, racism is a funny thing. On the one hand, racism is universal and enduring. As such, it is not just a facet of the privileged (e.g. white or Ashkenazi) elements of society who discriminate against the rest. The biggest flaw of the program is that it only sought to push Ashkenazim to realize that there still is discrimination against Mizrahim. In stoking their sense of victimhood, however, it failed to press Mizrahim just as hard to begin to realize their own racism, for instance, towards Ethiopian immigrants.
Oh, and don't think Ethiopians are off the hook either. For centuries, Ethiopians have had racism amongst themselves. By this, I am not referring to Falasha Mura, but to different classes, whereby darker skinned Ethiopians from the Western and Southern parts of the country served as slaves and did the most menial labor. As Tedla Asfaw, an Ethiopian writer, put it, "Prejudice against skin color is a worldwide phenomenon and it is not unique to Ethiopia."
Yes, you read that right: he had to remind his readers that racism and prejudice exist outside of Ethiopia.
All this is just scratching the surface. For instance, I have not even begun to touch on the growing prejudices between secular and ultra-orthodox sectors of the country.
Of course, there will be those critics of Israel who will read the above and say, "Aha! You see, the country is racist through and through" or "but the worst racism is against the Palestinians!"
Don't fool yourselves: racism is alive and well amongst Palestinians as well, and Arabs more generally. Various Christian groups from throughout the Arab world, not to mention Berbers and Kurds, can all tell you countless stories of discrimination. Likewise, it is impossible to understand Hizbollah or the Asad regime without first considering the generations of discrimination faced by Lebanese Shi'ite and Syrian Alawi. 
Like Mr. Asfaw said, racism is a worldwide phenomenon.
Yet even though racism has been a constant throughout human history, varying geographical and historical contexts have molded and redefined it. As an easy example, racism against blacks in the United States in the 1960s was, by every single measure, far more severe than it is today. Indeed, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his "I have a dream" speech in 1963, even he did not dream that a black senator could be elected president 45 years later.
The point here is that even if an inevitable part of the human condition, the battle against racism is like the fight against rape, theft, corruption, or the many other inevitable and unfortunate aspects of the human condition which are much worse in some corners of the world than others.
The obvious question then is what are we to do about it?
Serendipitously, part of the answer may involve the recent debate about the future of the Tal Law, which gave certain sectors (namely, Arab and ultra-orthodox) a formal waiver from mandatory military or civilian service.
One of the biggest problems in Israel is that each of our society's sub-groups has their own school system, neighborhoods, and even their own political parties - all of which leaves precious little room for in-depth intergroup contact. Even when they should be integrated (for instance, secular Mizrahim and Ashkenazim attending the same schools), the split between university-oriented and technically-oriented schools often leads to ethnic splits as well.
This approach, while politically expedient, runs counter to the main findings from academic research over the past 60 years about how countries can eliminate prejudice. Perhaps the single most important finding of that literature has been that when groups have extended contact under the proper conditions—for example, interactions between social equals, participants being given a common goal, etc.— people invariably come to hold more positive views of those who belong to other groups.
On the other hand, a people's army (one where all of its citizens are drafted) produces the exact opposite experience: recruits from around the country are formed into units, and beginning with the same rank they spend several formative years of their lives together. Units share important common missions and short-term objectives, and soldiers must cooperate in order to complete those missions.
In short, when we think about what should come next now that the Tal Law has been overturned by the Supreme Court, it would behoove us all—especially our Arab and ultra-orthodox citizens—to press for a universal draft and to end the talk of creating a purely professional army. Even if it is far from efficient from a military standpoint, such a move could be enormously helpful in healing the country's great rifts.
The writer is Neubauer Research Fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), Tel Aviv University.