Everyone’s A Little Bit Non-Racist

Jerusalem signpost

In 2003, Broadway musical Avenue Q declared that “everyone’s a little bit racist”.

I’ve often thought this about Israel – that all Israelis (both Jews and Arabs) are at least a little bit racist. And understandably so, since it’s rooted in fear. Jews fear Arabs because of rockets from Gaza and suicide bombers and now stabbers from the West Bank and East Jerusalem; Arabs fear Jews because of air strikes and house demolitions and arrests in the middle of the night. When you live in constant fear because of the actions of members of a population that is “other”, it’s natural to internalise this fear and for it to evolve into anger and hatred. That said, I think the issue of racism is more complicated.

I was recently reminded of this Guardian video from last year, which explains that even among those who are not actively racist, there exists a distinction between those who are non-racist and those who are anti-racist. Non-racists do not commit hate crimes or even express racist views, but they’re unlikely to stand up in the face of racism. Anti-racists, on the other hand, fight racism in all of its forms, converting their beliefs (that racist acts are wrong) into tangible actions (opposing those acts).

This is a useful lens through which to view Israeli society. It’s clear that, albeit a smaller majority perhaps than those found in other Western countries, it is an obvious majority of Israelis who are not racist. Groups like Lehava and their fellow price-tagging “activists” are thankfully few and far between, although racist policies at the highest level of government (like the “Muezzin Bill” which just last week passed its first reading) are unfortunately no longer extraordinary. But on the whole, most Jews and Arabs go about their daily lives with no raging desire to attack each other.

But what about the distinction between non-racists and anti-racists? The reality is that most Israelis seem content with living as non-racists rather than anti-racists. The problem with this, as the Guardian video shows, is that non-racists fail to address the problem of racism, in the same way that “you thinking climate change is terrible is not going to stop climate change”.

This phenomenon is epitomised by the settlers. Israeli settlers are often perceived homogeneously as messianic lunatics, and while studies would indeed most likely reveal a higher level of racist views among the settler population than those within the Green Line, the perception is largely false. A 2007 Peace Now poll found that 77% of settlers claim that “quality of life” was their primary motivation for living over the Green Line. With the settlements containing nearly one third of all government-subsidised housing despite accommodating only 5% of Israel’s population, in addition to cheaper public transport and more funding per school student, this is quite easily understandable. And yet, despite being motivated by quality of life reasons rather than assertions of racial superiority, we cannot conclude that these settlers are anti-racist.

In the same way that it is false to argue that every American who voted for Trump is racist, it is false to argue that every settler is racist. Americans who voted for Trump are by no means necessarily racist, but nor is it possible that they’re anti-racist, since their being anti-racist would have required voting for Trump’s opponent. And it follows that Israelis who live in settlements are not necessarily racist, but nor can they be anti-racist (with the possible exception, it could be argued, of fringe groups like Roots), since their being anti-racist would have required living elsewhere. Many in both situations, it seems, are non-racist.

So it may not be true that everyone’s a little bit racist, even in Israel. But what’s certain is that despite the fantastic work of a vociferously active network of NGOs, non-racism is a much more powerful force in Israel at present than anti-racism.

About the Author
Ben Reiff studies International Relations & History at the London School of Economics (LSE), where he is the founder and president of the Voices of Israel-Palestine society.