Color me tolerant

In five years, I’ve never personally experienced overt racial treatment at the hands of another.

Ethiopian protests at Knesset 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Ethiopian protests at Knesset 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)

‘So tell me, is Israel a racist country?” I hate being put on the spot like this. Especially when I’m supposed to be on good behavior, as I was at this dinner party.

Mind you, you have to admit that there is something a bit perverse about the situation. I mean, someone’s asking me if I feel that I am discriminated against in his own country, and I’m the one worrying about hurting his feelings...

I’m asked about this quite a lot, actually. I sometimes wonder why. Does the questioner really want to know what I think about racism in these parts? Or do they want to be reassured that, despite the doom and gloom that one reads about the state of racial relations in Israel today, things aren’t quite what they seem?

Of course, trying to second-guess the intent behind a question means that one starts to play a game. One, I’ve come to discover, answers the question that they would prefer to answer, rather than the question they’ve been asked. And here, I’m afraid, I’m as guilty as the next man.

When I’m asked about racism in Israel, I answer truthfully, from a personal perspective. In five years, I’ve never personally experienced overt racial treatment at the hands of another. I have been racially abused twice – but once, it was a woman who was clearly unwell. The other time, in the Old City of Jerusalem, it was a small child who assumed that I was a Sudanese refugee. (That being a refugee is in itself considered pejorative is an interesting issue. Perhaps I’ll come back to that another time.)

My answer is truthful, of course. But is it the whole story? Mmm... no. I think it’s fair to say that I am insulated from prejudicial treatment at the hands of others for all sorts of reasons. I have the financial wherewithal (more or less) not to have to depend upon the goodwill of others. I don’t pose a threat – real or imaginary – to the world order as it stands. Essentially there isn’t any reason to be unpleasant to me because I’m black, or Christian(ish), or anything else that marks me as not being part of the mainstream.

But my experiences represent me, and me alone. And there are many people who have other experiences. And that’s where the dilemma kicks in. To represent the experiences of others as my own is dishonest; but to ignore the experiences of others in describing my own is equally dishonest. What does one do?

I suspect that part of the problem lies in the language of racism. Because I’m an optimist, I like to believe that there are not very many people who are overtly racist, who think that they are inherently superior over others simply because they are who they happen to be. On the other hand, society is neither equal nor fair; and when the disadvantaged lay the blame for their plight on the ominous specter of racism, it raises hackles. Nobody likes to be called unpleasant things, after all.

Shlomo Maoz found this out to his cost a couple of weeks ago. By any reasonable benchmark, he has a successful career. The chief economist with a major brokerage firm, he looks the part and sounds the part. He has no cause for complaint about how race operates in Israel today, you might think. You’d be wrong. At a conference, he had blistering words for what he describes as “the Ashkenazi establishment.”

The Supreme Court, higher education, the national lottery, even Bank Leumi, all are tainted by the specter of racial prejudice against minority groups, Maoz argued. To suggest that Israeli society is egalitarian, in his opinion, is poppycock.

Unfortunately – if not entirely unsurprisingly – his arguments weren’t welcomed with open arms. His firm wasn’t terribly impressed by what it termed “crude and unfortunate” statements. In fact, so unimpressed were they that he was fired. Like I said, no one likes to be called a racist.

The thing is, no one comes out of this looking good. Maoz, one imagines, thinks himself well-placed to speak out about the effect of discriminatory treatment against minorities. And no one, not even Pollyanna, would deny that the country’s Mizrahi population (in case it isn’t clear, Maoz is Mizrahi) has suffered at the hands of the “elite” in the past.

And not just them. But accusations of racism are highly subjective, deeply personal and more than a little offensive. Calling out someone as a racist without incontrovertible proof does little more than shut down the debate altogether.

Think about it: Even if Maoz’s assertions were correct in every respect, one is hardly likely to get the racist bogeyman to change his approach by accusing him so vehemently. If anything, it’ll merely confirm the racial approach – these pesky minorities are a threat to my world order, and the best thing to do is stop them from being a threat. By keeping them down.

None of this justifies my answer when I’m asked about Israel and racism. Not in itself. The truth is, I’m more than a little ambivalent. About things I’m not entirely sure how to articulate. I try to qualify my answer in such a way that it becomes meaningful – meaningful to me, meaningful to the questioner, meaningful to everyone who cares to know the answer.

Sometimes, I wonder if I’m hiding my head in the sand, saying what people want to hear rather than what they need to hear. Other times, I think slightly differently. There are all sorts of things about Israel that need to change. But, to paraphrase Lyndon B. Johnson, one can be much more useful inside the tent than outside.

So if you ask, I’ll say that life for me in Israel is peachy... but. There will be a But. Please try to listen to what comes next. Note: In 1,000-odd words, I’ve managed to avoid saying anything about the most contentious issue of all – the relationship between Jews and Palestinians, on either side of the Green Line. A copout?

Maybe. But until I have the language that I think will be of use to everyone, I won’t say anything. It doesn’t mean that it isn’t there; it just means that I have nothing useful to add to the debate, at this time.