Inside Out: Realities about racism

To deny the impact on Israelis of the "them or us" mentality entrenched by the occupation is to be willfully blind to a sad truth.

Jerusalem brawl 370 (photo credit: Avraham Bergman, News 24)
Jerusalem brawl 370
(photo credit: Avraham Bergman, News 24)
One adult and eight minors were indicted on Tuesday for their alleged role in the brutal attack two weeks ago on a 17- year-old Palestinian boy in downtown Jerusalem. That attack, which came on the heels of the firebombing of a Palestinian taxi in the southern West Bank the week before, which had injured six people, produced a debate in the Israeli media, public and political arena.
To their credit, politicians from across the spectrum all but uniformly decried the attacks and called for the perpetrators to be prosecuted and punished.
However, in their analysis of the contributing factors and the implications of the attacks, people’s reactions tended to be shaped by their broader political affiliation.
Pundits and politicians on the Left were inclined to respond by wringing their hands in grief, casting the perpetrators as apt representatives of Israeli society as a whole, which they described as being awash with mounting hatred of Arabs and other forms of xenophobia.
They cited the ongoing occupation and the toxic political atmosphere allegedly created by the government as two of the primary causes of this disturbing state of affairs.
Alternately, pundits and politicians on the Right were more inclined to describe the perpetrators as “errant weeds,” hoodlums and delinquents whose actions were not representative of the norms of tolerance and equality championed and practiced by Israeli society.
Blinded by political dogma to the nuances and many shades of gray that make up reality, neither side was entirely correct in its assessment and both regrettably offered only superficial and stilted views of the complexities that coexist in maddening contradiction in Israel.
The Left’s indictment of Israeli society as a whole was excessive, an overstatement by any reasonable account. Anyone who happened to walk through the streets of downtown Jerusalem on the days after the attack would have seen Arab individuals, groups and families strolling, shopping, talking, eating and going about other mundane affairs without fear – and for good reason. They were not harassed, attacked, or otherwise mistreated by the tens of thousands of Israeli Jews who were on the streets, going about their daily business. The racist attack that nearly ended in the death of Jamal Julani was certainly the exception and not the norm.
The Right’s attempt to dismiss the attack in Jerusalem and other attacks that target Arabs solely because they are Arabs as the acts of lone hoodlums conveniently ignores manifestations of racism that most certainly do exist in Israeli society. Jewish Israelis who consciously choose to hire Jews rather than Arabs to paint their house, refuse to rent their apartments to Arab Israeli citizens or shop only in Jewish-owned stores are all guilty of racism. That is the brutal truth, even if the people in question would never take part in an attack on Arabs and, given the opportunity, would intervene to stop such an attack.
Of course, racism in Israel stems to a great extent from the national struggle in which Israel remains embroiled to this day. More saliently, it stems from the confusion and conflation between the individual and the national that the ongoing conflict has created in Israelis’ minds. This is sometimes directed outwardly toward the Arab, sometimes inwardly toward the Jewish Israeli subject, but often in both directions to varying degrees.
When the owner of an apartment in Jerusalem’s French Hill neighborhood, for example, refuses to rent his or her property to an Arab, the reason is usually not a crude, “redneck” brand of racist elitism, but the imputation of a broader national agenda to the Arab individual seeking to rent. It would seem self-evident that most prospective Arab tenants are primarily intent on finding housing that meets their needs and those of their family and are not agents in the service of a grand plot to undermine Israel’s hold on east Jerusalem in a final status arrangement. But the national consideration in the apartment-owner’s mind produces what is nevertheless a racist decision.
Despite disavowal on the Right, the occupation has exacerbated racist trends among many Israelis in that it has kept the “national” struggle permanently in the foreground.
By perpetuating a “them versus us” situation and frame of mind, the occupation has contributed significantly to Israeli tendencies to view Arabs less as individuals and more as members of an adversarial group pitted against the putative “us.”
Within the extreme reaches of the right wing it has produced particularly ugly phenomena, such as so-called “price tag” attacks, in which Arab individuals and their property are targeted not because of offenses that they are believed to have committed as individuals but, rather, because they are Arabs. Just as Jewish Israelis are horrified when individuals are targeted in terror attacks merely by virtue of being Jews and/or Israelis, so too must morally thinking Jews abhor attacks that indiscriminately attack a person, his property or a holy place merely because the victim is an Arab.
The hoodlums who committed the attack in Jerusalem are not representative of the norms upheld by an overwhelming majority of Israelis, settlers included, just as the perpetrators of “price tag” terrorism are not representative of the overwhelming majority of settlers.
However, to deny the impact the “them or us” mentality entrenched by the occupation has had on Israelis, and particularly among the perpetrators of hate crimes, is to be willfully blind to a sad truth.The author is a veteran Israeli writer and translator.