The thirty-fourth government of Israel, the fourth headed by Benjamin Netanyahu, finally gathered together at the end of last week for the traditional photo-op at the President’s residence. In all the secular press, 21 ministers (including the Prime Minister) are clearly visible. In Yom l’Yom, the official mouthpiece of Shas, the new government has only 18 members. The three women ministers (Miri Regev, Gila Gamliel and Ayelet Shaked), were effaced. This is perhaps the most egregious example of what has become a growing Israeli habit: deleting human representations of what is inconvenient, uncomfortable or undesirable in the hope that the underlying challenges they convey will disappear with the same ease with which their images are erased.
Not seeing the other is all too common in contemporary Israel — despite the fact that the mass media is working overtime and social networks are hyperactive. Ironically, Shas, which exhibited no compunction whatsoever at eliminating pictures of women in the public sphere, ran its electoral campaign in the name of Israel’s invisible populations — those disadvantaged and disempowered who have been systematically overlooked (if not marginalized and degraded) by the power elites. Aryeh Deri, the party leader, went out of his way to bring on board Mizrahi intellectuals in the name of transparency and the quest for equality.
But he, along with many other elements of Israeli society, publicly refused the offer made by Ayman Odeh, the leader of the Joint Arab List, to lock hands in a common struggle to combat deep-seated inequities in the universal quest for social justice. Arab citizens of Israel are hardly ever portrayed in the public sphere: pictures of their daily life don’t penetrate the Hebrew electronic or print media; statements of their leaders on matters of general interest are rarely aired. Even when their concerns are brought into the heart of Tel Aviv, these take a back seat to their depiction almost solely in the context of civic dissent and violence.
They are not alone. Israelis of Ethiopian extraction have complained for years that they have been isolated from mainstream Israeli society: they have been placed in the periphery of the country and in the poorest neighborhoods in Israel’s cities, their children have been isolated in separate schools and classes, their culture has been belittled and their dignity has been trampled. Only their organized (and at times vehement) outbursts against the indignities they suffer have allowed them to periodically transcend their social transparency.
Israelis who are blind to the Ethiopian Jews in their midst also have trouble seeing African asylum-seekers — many of whom have been banished to the far reaches of the Negev in Holot and Saharonim to ensure that they remain out of sight. They avoid the places they congregate and shun their downtrodden neighborhoods. If all recent governments could have their way, then these so-called intruders would dissipate entirely.
Unquestionably, those most consistently distanced from Israeli eyes are the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank (the former cut off entirely after the disengagement in 2005; the latter fenced in behind the security barrier). Invisibility in this instance is the surest way to expunge constant reminders of the daily travails of those living under Israeli overrule. By creating the appearance that Palestinians are not part of the human landscape in this land, it becomes easier to export — and hence ignore — their plight. This might be the reason behind the outrageous — and justifiably thwarted — attempt this past week to have Palestinian workers travel back to their homes on separate buses after long hours of work in closed-off constructions sites, fields and kitchens within the Green Line.
Wherever one turns recently, there are instances of purposeful disappearance: of women, of the disadvantaged, of refugees, of newcomers, of the working poor, of Palestinians and even of the middle classes. Fewer and fewer people are able to observe Israeli society in all its complex diversity. Oftentimes, those most hidden are also the ones quickest to occlude other groups. Too many people are not seeing anybody else. In the process, the vestiges of what was once a source of Israeli pride, its social solidarity, are fast disintegrating in a fog of confined vision.
There always seems to be a reason for overlooking a particular group or community. Women’s faces are rubbed out ostensibly for religious reasons; residents of the periphery are too far from the centers of economic and political life to be taken into account on a regular basis; Arab citizens of the country, for the most part, reside in their own towns and their children are educated separately; the ultra-Orthodox stick to their own; and Russian-speakers still prefer a vibrant subculture that filters out other faces and voices. Multiculturalism is exalted for its exotic quality, not for the vibrancy it evokes or the tolerance it demands.
Whatever the specific rationale, the outcome is the same: keeping certain sectors out of sight is the best way to ensure that they are also out of mind. Those who are excised from the public view are perforce stripped of their personal worth: if they are invisible then surely they can’t matter. This dehumanization creates a distorted view of who they are, what they stand for and what they are entitled to (both as individuals and as a collective). By making certain people transparent Israeli policy-makers — especially those in charge of the media — see only what they want to see. They promote a skewed picture that distorts reality and narrows options. Indeed, the practice of visual (and hence substantive) exclusion instills a peculiar, and especially harmful, form of social blindness which adversely affects all involved.
The erasure of others paves the road to a denial of their needs, concerns and aspirations (except at critical junctures when their votes are needed or their backing required). It is also is a proven method of avoiding issues of inequality, discrimination, intolerance, bigotry and persistent inequities. But lack of visibility cannot make these underlying problems go away. They will persist and fester until dealt with and ultimately resolved.
Israelis, if they truly want to mend their society, should make a concerted effort to expand their peripheral vision. For each snapshot they see, they should ask who is not in the frame. For each picture they are shown, they should seek those who have been subsumed. Clarity of vision is the best way to grasp reality and, consequently, to meet the challenges it poses. Israeli society, after all, is composed of a particularly diverse human mosaic which can hold together only if all of its components are cemented with a strong normative adhesive.