Sometimes one of my friends in America will ask if I consider Israel to be racist. This is a complex question, and the answer I give usually takes into account the background of the person I’m speaking with. Legally speaking, Israel is committed to having a society where everyone is able to participate on an equal footing, regardless of religion or ethnicity. There are several examples of Arabs reaching positions of authority in politics, the military, and commerce. We’ve had Ethiopian MKs, and a Filipino guest-worker won one of the country’s most popular talent competitions. However, on a personal level, many Israelis still have issues with perpetrating ongoing discrimination.
I recently went through this while looking for a new place. When my neighbor told me about a new apartment in her building, the potential landlord was an elderly woman who spoke just enough English to repeat the amount of the rent, and the name of the woman who held the key if I wanted to take a look inside. Given my questionable Hebrew, when I decided to go forward, I asked a friend to set up a meeting in the suburb near Tel Aviv where the landlady lived so I could present proof of income and possibly sign a contract.
Since the suburb lay about 45 minutes to Tel Aviv’s east, conveniently located next to absolutely nothing, none of my Hebrew speaking friends were able to go with me. I was reduced to begging yet another friend to translate for me by phone. That afternoon I was running late, so I called the landlady when it became obvious I wasn’t going to be punctual, trying to explain in broken Hebrew that I would be there in 10 minutes. This resulted in a comedy of errors, at the end of which everyone on the bus was yelling “esser dakot!!”
I gave up and got in touch with my translator friend to have him explain to her my status.
“Um, she’s a little eccentric,” he mumbled. “But I told her you were on the way. Call me back when you get there.”
As I got off the bus, I noticed this little old lady walking up to random strangers and saying my name. I headed in her direction, and called out that she was looking for me. As she turned around, I saw her eyes take me in, and then her mouth sagged in a moue of disappointment. I’m not saying I haven’t inspired that look before, but this was the first time that I hadn’t actually done anything to deserve it.
She spoke to me in a heavily accented Hebrew that was much more than I could handle, so I called back my translator friend. Just as he answered, the landlady accusatorily said something I understood: “At m’Africa?!” (Translation: Are you from Africa?)
My friend started laughing. “I’m sorry,” he said. “It’s horrible, and yet hilarious at the same time.”
I told him to talk to her, because if I had to speak, I was probably going to say something I’d regret. After several minutes, she handed the phone back to me.
“I told her you weren’t from Africa, and gave her a brief history of the colonial slave trade,” he teased. “I think she’s okay with you now.”
Apparently whatever my friend said mollified her enough to sit down and go over the payslips that I had brought with me, and within 30 minutes we had completed the paperwork for my new lease. I called my friend back as I was leaving the mall.
“I think that’s probably the most racist thing I’ve had happen to someone I know while I was listening,” he said. “Well, except for that one apartment that I called about for you where the landlord wanted to make sure that neither you nor I were Filipino or Sudanese, and so I told him you were both.”
As an old-school Buppy (Black upwardly-mobile professional) I’ve been remarkably insulated from personal bigotry, both in America and in Israel. However, here in Israel, it’s not too difficult to see instances of out-and-out racism, and its less virulent (and arguably, unfortunately, probably validated) cousin, profiling, on a daily basis. For example, I am continually amused by the irony of people who are horrified at a swastika spray-painted on a Paris synagogue, who have no problem harassing an African refugee going about his business in South Tel Aviv.
In the aftermath of the recent terror attack in Jerusalem where a pedestrian was killed by construction equipment by a rampaging Arab laborer, calls went out again to only hire Jewish labor. This was immediately met by a more pragmatic explanation of how no one would be able to sustain commercial construction without Arab labor, as they wouldn’t be able to win any bids.
Why do the Arab workers cost less? Well, the only argument I’ve ever heard is because they’re Arab, and they cut corners. I’ve never heard anyone say, “Yeah, I chose Salla over Avrumi because he’s the best, even though he costs more.” Which is weird, since the Arabs have been doing most of the construction in Israel for the last few decades, so it seems like they would also have the most experience.
My instant reaction to being pegged as African also made me come face to face with my own prejudice. In the hierarchy of my Israeli identity, first I consider myself to be from America, and then I think of myself as Black, like an extra layer of individuality. In other words, I love being Black; but only the right kind of Black.
I was insulted when someone couldn’t immediately discern my inner Americaness instead of my outer appearance, and this is truly something that I need to work on. Because until each of us is willing to look at one another outside the context of skin color or place of origin, Israel will continue to have problems with racism, no matter what the official laws are.