In a hurry to get from the plane to customs at Ben Gurion Airport, I was weaving myself through the crowd. With a fond memory of spending two hours at customs over the summer at this airport, I wanted that to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. As I neared the end of the terminal, I was approached by a woman in her security uniform who flashed her military ID. This “random” check was a reminder that I clearly stood out as a foreigner, and specifically an Asian Foreigner. I gave her my passport and hoped my Australian citizenship would absolve me of the coveted “follow me, we just have a few questions to ask…” experience. She asked me why I was here, and instead of replying that I was visiting friends, I told her that I was researching Israel’s profiling practices. She glances down at my US student visa, my previous trip to Israel, my Australian background, and hands it back to me in silence. With pride, I continued to customs and thought to myself “Welcome to Israel” as I waited for over an hour.
Having initially believed these “checks” were random, my first notable understanding and brush with Israel’s racial profiling practices occurred when I lived in Jerusalem for two months over the summer of 2016. It was my first week there and the afternoon of another attempted morning stabbing attack on the monorail. I was taking the monorail back to my apartment from Abraham’s laundromat. With a white plastic bag over my shoulder, I watched as several Israeli military members picked passengers to check. They initially seemed to be checking everyone with a bag, until I was passed over without a second look despite my white, unlabeled, amorphous bag. I realized that they passed over haredi, women with Jewish headscarves, and foreigners like me. They focused on middle-eastern looking Arabs, including a Mexican traveller who was unfortunately yelled at until they realized that he didn’t understand Hebrew and had a Mexican passport. The request to see his bag was forgotten and they moved on.
I have had the privilege to be on both the fortunate and unfortunate side of profiling, if such a policy can even be split into such categories. While sometimes classified as the harmless Asian tourist, my race has contributed to my “risk factor.” On a public bus to Ramallah from Jerusalem, I was the only one asked to present an identification. Assuming that I did not know Hebrew, one soldier asked the other, after doing a quick scan of all the passengers, who were predominately white foreigners, as Palestinians had to get off the bus to get through, “Where is the Asian from? The other’s are fine.” Other times, such as my trip back from Nablus to Jerusalem, I watched in the comfort of the vehicle as two soldiers stood two feet away from two Palestinians as they took down their pants. In a crowded checkpoint, it seems almost random that certain Palestinians have to undergo such invasive security checks. I soon understood that these checks were normalized, as I embodied the shocked Western observer and told my Israeli friends in detail, who were calm and collected and noted that it was for “security”. But surely, what are the legal problems of such a normalized practice? I wondered about the criteria used for profiling by the security and where the dialogue about religious and ethnic discrimination was? Where was the tense political dialogue around profiling?
I interned with the JCPA the summer of 2016 and remember a striking moment: in an intimate lecture style setting, Zvi Mazel, who served as Israel’s Ambassador to Egypt, read us a few violent verses of the Quran. After doing so, he emphasized that there was no “moderate, peaceful Islam” but “moderate Arabs,” pointing over and over again to the few sentences he clutched as evidence that Islam is innately violent and therefore misleading. After his lecture, my Western liberal education erupted as I asked him about verses in the Tanakh that were also violent, why Islam is placed on such a negative pedestal, how this affected his work in Egypt and how he was affected by being in Egypt. All of my attempts to discuss Islamophobia were avoided by his claim that Israel needs security and how this, being Islam’s violent nature, was the reality we needed to accept to move on. I found no development in this precept of Islam when talking to Alan Baker, despite his participation in negotiating and drafting the Oslo Accords and peace treaties with Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon.
Many Israelis have only heard of the term, “Islamophobia,” in reference to other countries; the Israeli media and the community at large, at university, in the army or graduated and working, don’t discuss Islamophobia and its relation to Israel’s own security policies. When placing the two together in my interviews, my Israeli subjects responded along the lines of “we are not afraid of Islam,” and then talked about Israel’s need for security and victim status, Israel vs. the terrorists and the misunderstanding international community. Despite the seeming lack of dialogue surrounding Islamophobia in Israel, Islamophobia is strikingly evident in Israel’s security practices and the rhetoric used to defend these practices. Islamophobia takes on a different hat; instead of being what people want to expel, Islam becomes normalized as part of a long list of criteria that lessens one’s “rights.”
Before I delve into an example of this form of Islamophobia, I would just like to note that by the end of my 2016 summer I accepted the reasoning, that Israel’s racial profiling practices at all of its checkpoints and monitored locations, such as West Jerusalem, was justified. As one who benefited from thwarted terrorist attacks, it seems like I was in no place, particularly as a foreigner who was only staying for a short period of time, to critique a somewhat successful protective measure. My perspective changed largely due to my experience in the West Bank, where contact with those directly suffering from these security policies challenged my initial belief that they were just unfortunate byproducts of a needed policy. In fact, you don’t need to live in Israel to legitimately critique Israel’s policies; as a foreigner you have the privilege to have many unique experiences such as travelling within the West Bank to Palestinian villages — a privilege for non-Israeli citizens, as Israeli citizens are forbidden. I note this because it is too often said in Israel that a lack of support for Israel’s current policies stem from a lack of understanding.
The normalized Islamophobia in Israel is best exemplified in one of my conversations with a 24-year-old, self-proclaimed to be average, male who studies computer science and served in intelligence for the army. When I asked him whether he thought Islamophobia was prevalent in Israel, he responded that it wasn’t. He stressed that the difference between the US and Israel, “was that we don’t mind Arabs. We just don’t want terror.” He defended the legality of racial and religious profiling by explaining to me that it was just probability, “Similar to going to the doctor and getting preventive treatment for a list of diseases that you may show symptoms to, you don’t get offended if they presume that you might have a serious condition and treat you for it.” He applied this logic to defend some hypothetical cases I gave him on African Americans being “randomly” checked on the street and shadowed in stores; he emphasises, however, that it should be done carefully and with the welfare of other people in mind. When I probed whether this “carefulness” is applicable to Palestinians, he referred to a case in 2015 when a soldier approached an Arab sitting on a bench to conduct a random search and was then stabbed, exclaiming that Israel “is just a different context.” It may seem understandable and justifiable to adopt “probability,” as searching everyone is too exhaustive. But how can we reconcile the presumed parallel between preventative treatment and categories of identity? What are the problems of normalizing a religion as a “symptom” that requires “aggressive checks,” and does this affect dominant precepts of that religion?
Hatem Bazian writes in an article for the Daily Sabah that “Israel hides its occupational tracks by claiming an existential threat from the global Muslim bogeyman that prevents it from recognizing a Palestinian state”. While Baiban pushes aside the fact that there is a present security concern Israel is faced with, he validly touches upon the problems of institutionalizing Islamophobia, and thus a form of Islamophobia in Israel. He emphasizes that terrorism and “threats” are not free passes to construct aggressive security measures, such as land confiscation, the expansion of settlements and construction of more checkpoints. These security measures are “problematic” because they implicitly support one religion over another, and unfairly expect Muslims, Israeli or Palestinian, to be complacent despite this constant shift towards a more ever-present “Jewish democracy.”
Thus, Israel’s security policies are evidently Islamophobic, defined as indiscriminate negative attitudes or emotions directed to Islam or Muslims, because Islam contributes to one’s risk factor. Security policies at checkpoints treat Islam and Muslims indiscriminately negatively via increased suspicion and the subjugation of these communities to “random” checks. This becomes strikingly clear in noting how Israelis aren’t even allowed to travel to Area A and how expansion of settlements, construction of checkpoints and increased military presence directly and negatively affects those living in those areas on the “wrong side” of the border, who notably aren’t Jewish. Being Jewish and being able to achieve citizenship is a privilege to sit squarely on one side of the security policies — whether that be via travel restrictions, expedient processes at the airport and EL AL, avoiding the dreaded airport interrogation. Notably, this isn’t just a heralding of Judaism above all others but an indication that a specific religion is viewed as lesser than others. For instance, Christianity, the faith and lack of association with a certain ethnicity, isn’t generalized to be defined by any terrorist attacks perpetrated by Christians. While the religion does not afford its community the same political and social rights of Jews in Israel, the religion plays no part in increasing a person’s risk factor. So is a Jewish democracy innately Islamophobic? Is there a need to contextualize Israel’s security policies in its own form of democracy, and not the form of democracy in the US.
In-built with a Jewish democracy is implicitly accepting that one religious group should have more rights and protection then another. Ruth Gavison, a prominent Israeli professor and lawyer, details that “the needs of Jewish nationalism do, in some cases, justify certain restrictions on the Arab population in Israel, particularly in areas such as security, land distribution, population dispersal, and education”. This belief is institutionalized in Israel, clear in how any Jew, around the world, can gain Israeli citizenship, and, just one of many examples, how national education in Israel emphasizes Jewish nativity to the land, disregarding existing ambiguities regarding whether Israelis are Jews, and not composed of other communities such as the Samaritans and other Semites. This reality, in combination with the Palestinian conflict, and the geopolitics of the region — which is largely made up of Islamic nations — has given rise to a religiously under-toned conflict, including issues but not limited to: questions of nativity, religious Zionism and form of governance. Throw in a history of violence between Islamic countries with Israel and how Islam is the dominant religion of Palestinians, it becomes understandable why Islam has a historical association with violence in the eyes of Israel. The growth of the Jewish democracy has come at the cost of the waning influence and valence Islam has in the region, as a previously large Islamic community is displaced and placed under a Jewish democracy with certain priorities for its own community. In the US, public opinion is overwhelming “supportive” of religious equality: 88% in 2011 agreed that religious equality is an American Democratic value, but 47% expressed that they were uncomfortable with Islam and viewed it as opposed to American values–many view Islam not as a religion but as a radical doctrine. Thus, we can note another difference between Islamophobia in the US and Israel, the different forms of democracy and precepts of Islam. Is Israel’s religious based democracy, however, innately Islamophobic?
The statistical probability that a terrorist is Muslim is undeniably high in Israel. This is because most are Palestinian, who are mostly Muslim, or from surrounding nations, most being Islamic nations, and how the growth of Israel is seen as shrinking Islam’s influence. Islam’s association with violence is rooted in geopolitical reality, and thus a “reasonably” consistent course of action for a prospering Jewish democracy that has to protect itself from surrounding influences in order to have the space to flourish. Fundamentally, equal cohabitation and religious equality is impossible with a religious form of democracy. Islamophobia, which is a product of an expectation that religious equality is the standard, should not carry the same negative association in Israel because it would be an unfair expectation of a Jewish Democracy, which innately privileges one religion.
If we are to accept that religious equality is a falsely accepted necessary factor for a democratic society, what are the connotations of this? Further, is there a justification, not rooted in US rhetoric or “accepted” standards on equality, that problematizes ethnic, racial and religious screening? These questions are the resulting foundations to a possible greater exploration into the long term ramifications of Israel’s current policies, the possible future of a religious based democracy, whether Israel is a democracy and the conflict between trying to reconcile Israel’s status as a “victim” and an “oppressor.”