We know that we are living in crazy times when there are so many elephants in the room that it becomes almost impossible to know which one to address first. The charges brought against Prime Minister Netanyahu last week were such a huge deal that they successfully butted out the elephant who had previously been sitting in the room. The elephant previously occupying the room was racism and it is this elephant that I would like to address here.
“Are you willing to defend racism?” Not the usual question one is asked by their boss at work but it was one I faced last week. “Yes, I can make a strong case for that,” I replied. If this conversation is beginning to sound some warning bells to you, then let me reassure you that my boss is not racist but I did find myself in the uncomfortable position of trying to defend racist views. Not because I or my boss are racists, but quite the opposite. “Racism is immoral” he said. “Why would you try to defend it?” and in that instant I decided I would play devil’s advocate and attempt to defend it.
I do not believe myself to be a racist. I do not believe that racism is positive. I do not believe that Israel should be run as a racist state. I do not believe that our children should be taught racist attitudes in school or that racism has any place in our civil society.
And you know what shocked me? What shook me? It was just how easy it was for me to do. Easy-peasy. I was able to come up with several strong and convincing arguments for how racism can be justified. The racist tropes that I was able to justify to myself were not from some terrible distant past nor were they from extremist groups and websites. They came from the prime minister of Israel.
In recent weeks, Prime Minister Netanyahu rallied his Likud supporters to rail against the minority government that Benny Gantz was purportedly seeking to form. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech included many traditional anti-Arab canards and stereotypes. It was largely unbefitting a leader of a country in which a fifth of the population is Arab. It was a clear attempt to bedevil a minority group and drum up support for his own agenda.
Not for the first time, Prime Minister Netanyahu used racist and hate-filled rhetoric against the Arab citizens of the state that he is the head of. He even was admonished by President Rivlin for the base level of his speech. The presidential role in Israel is largely ceremonial. Election time being the most notable exception and it is unusual for the president to involve himself with individual politicians in this way. Does Prime Minister Netanyahu honestly expect the nation to move forward from a period that now may culminate with us heading back to the polls for the third time in a year? It is obvious that moving forward is not at the top of his agenda. His own legal immunity is obviously at the top of his agenda, but what about the rest of us?
What is at the top of each of our own agendas? What is important to each of us as individuals, as family members, as community members and citizens of the State of Israel? My little experiment of defending racism led me to think deeply about what my agenda is. What is important to me and what should be important to the country I am a proud citizen of.
I believe that despite the frustration of not having a functioning government and a political system that clearly needs some repair work, we now have a unique opportunity. An opportunity to reflect on what is important, to listen to others to hear what is important to them and to really move forward to develop an Israeli society every citizen can be proud of.