An upswing in Israeli racism

This month’s events produced at least four news items that appear to relate to racism and intolerance.

Anastasia Michaeli 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/ The Jerusalem Post)
Anastasia Michaeli 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/ The Jerusalem Post)
This month’s events produced at least four news items that appear to relate to racism and intolerance – two of them concerning manifestations of alleged racism against Arabs, and the other two related to alleged racism within Jewish Israeli society itself.
First up was MK Anastasia Michaeli (Israel Beiteinu), who threw a glass of water at MK Ghaleb Majadle (Labor) during a Knesset Education Committee meeting about an Arab school principal who took his pupils to a human rights demonstration.
On the face of it, Michaeli’s action (which earned her a suspension from Knesset meetings for a month and censure by the Knesset and her party) had nothing to do with the fact that Majadle is Arab. But her previous record casts a troubling light on the act.
Even before being elected to the Knesset, Michaeli criticized the selection of a certain Jewish Israeli singer to represent Israel at Eurovision because “she looks Arab,” and as an MK she has spoken out and acted in an aggressive manner against Arabs, in strong contrast to her gentle demeanor when it comes to her Jewish political rivals. In that context, her attack on MK Majadle may legitimately be considered as “racist.”
Second, the High Court of Justice ratified an amendment to the Citizenship Law that prevents the spouses of Israeli Arab citizens who come from the West Bank and Gaza from settling in Israel. The court overturned a previous interim ruling that struck down the amendment as unconstitutional.
The new ruling gave greater weight to the tension that exists between Israel’s legitimate security concerns (that potential terrorists could gain access to Israeli population centers via fictitious marriages to Israelis) as well as its understandable demographic concerns, and the basic right of every human being to freely choose a marriage partner, and live with him or her in one’s own country (in this case Israel). Though none of the six justices who voted in favor of the new ruling can be suspected of racism, the end result may be construed as racist.
Third, many Ethiopian immigrants were appalled by Immigrant Absorption Minister Sofa Landver’s (Yisrael Beitenu) criticism that Ethiopian immigrants are not sufficiently grateful to Israel. Speaking at a Knesset Immigration Committee session that dealt with the refusal to rent or sell apartments to Ethiopians in Kiryat Malachi, Landver did not deny that discrimination against Ethiopians in Kiryat Malachi and elsewhere is an unbearable manifestation of racism. But she resented a suggestion by Ethiopian community activists that her ministry was somehow to blame for the phenomenon. Activists, for their part, condemned the remarks as being racist.
Landver, who is trying to deal with the many problems connected with the Ethiopian immigrants, and with members of the Falash Mura still awaiting aliya, to the best of her ability, was justifiably insulted by such accusations. However, as the saying goes, she should have chosen to be wise, not technically correct, and given the heated atmosphere at the meeting, she should have avoided the condescending remarks.
Then there is the case of Shlomo Maoz, the former chief economist of the Excellence Nessuah investment firm, who spoke out against Ashkenazi dominance in many walks of life. Maoz’s feelings are not atypical of many educated and successful Sephardi Israelis who, despite their achievements and success, still feel there is a glass ceiling for them. They resent the continued dominance of the Ashkenazi elite of institutions such as the Supreme Court, the universities, and some economic institutions such as Bank Leumi, and accuse this elite of continuing discrimination.
While it is undeniable that anti-Sephardi racism continues to linger within certain Ashkenazi circles, Maoz’s aggressive anti-Ashkenazi rhetoric (and that of members of Hakeshet Hademocratit Hamizrahit, an NGO made up of intellectuals of Arab-country origin) itself smacks of racism. Too frequently this rhetoric turns into unbridled personal insults, which merely strengthen negative stereotyping on the other side.
The collection of these incidents may suggest that Israel is undergoing a tsunami of racism, but that is probably overstated. A closer look at each of these events shows that they are not a manifestation of a single phenomenon, but are rather due to a highly complex reality of unresolved issues, all of which appear on the surface to have certain racist connotations.
In short, on the basis of last week’s events, one cannot label the State of Israel as an outright racist state, but it would certainly benefit from a little less prejudice and a little more tolerance.

The writer teaches at the Max Stern Yezreel Valley College and was a Knesset employee for many years.