Rachel Shenhav-Goldberg
Israeli. Lives in Toronto. Racism Researcher. Activist. Believes in Peace and Justice Everywhere.

Israeli McCarthyism: the Wages of Inequality

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For Jews, landing in Israel is supposed to feel like “coming home.” That could be why the recent detaining of the journalist Peter Beinart and other left-wing Jewish activists by the Shin Bet at Ben Gurion Airport has shocked so many Jews in the Diaspora.  Interestingly, Israeli-Jews were also disturbed. The entire matter goes to the core features of liberal democracy: free speech and the pursuit of human rights.

I want to discuss racism as a possible explanation for these recent events. I am aware that it’s a challenging concept for some Jews to hear.  How could Israeli Jews, of all people, be racist? Indeed, Yehuda Shenhav and Yossi Yonna, in their book, ‘Racism in Israel’ (2008), claim that Jews in Israel hardly even use this word. The associations make them shiver. Yet, racism, in its institutional and informal expressions, is prevalent throughout the country.

The concern should go beyond the left and the ranks of progressive Jews. Right-wing voters and all citizens of Israel should be concerned about what could come next.  Social psychologists who study racism tell us why: ultimately, discrimination against minorities comes back to hurt majorities as well. If these scholars are right, then what happened in that airport in Israel indicates that we could be headed to a dark place.

So what exactly is racism, what forms does it take in Israel, and what might be its negative impacts on the Jews?

Racism, in its macro and institutional form, is the use of beliefs and actions to justify and sustain inequality, exclusion, or control by the dominant group. The dominant group is the one that holds the power in society. This group can be characterized by its race, religion, ethnicity or nationality.

The members of the dominant group in Israel are the Israeli-Jews. Different sub-groups in Israel suffer from racism. Non-Jews — such as Palestinians (living in the occupied territories or in Israel), Bedouin, Druze, and asylum seekers — are the victims of the privileged Jewish-Israeli majority. Various subgroups of Jews such as Mizrachi, Ethiopians, Russians, and women, who are a part of the privileged group in the Jewish state, suffer from discrimination (racism) from the Jewish Israeli elite (the Ashkenazi Jews).

Racism is a complex, multi-dimensional phenomenon, and it is designed to serve the interests of the privileged individual. Racism gives the member of the ethnic majority group access to rights, resources, decision making positions and opportunities that are denied to the minorities. These privileges are deeply rooted in the social structure, in institutions and embedded in the culture. For example; the language, holidays, and history are those that only the majority group identifies with.

Another aspect is racial attitudes (stereotypes). Don’t be fooled; you cannot be immune to it. We all hold racial attitudes, to varying degrees, against different groups. The only difference between each and every one of us is the way we aware of these attitudes, and how we express and justify them.

Israeli-Jews, the dominant group members in Israel, have many privileges due to the fact that they are a part of the most powerful group in the country. But here is where the irony comes in; as we all know, nothing is free. Racism takes its toll. There are negative impacts of racism on the majority group too. Psychologists highlight three types of negative impact; emotional, cognitive and behavioral.

Let’s start with the emotional cost. Some of the Israeli-Jews, who are aware of the injustices that Palestinians face, feel discomfort (guilt and emotional pain) when they witness those injustices. However, because they are in fact beneficiaries of the system, the cost may appear insignificant.   

If we delve deeper into this, cognitive distortion of the self is another price one pays, perhaps a much steeper one. An example is a false belief that all personal achievements are based on meritocracy (hard work), while in fact, an individual in the dominant group in a society has significant advantages over minorities in the country. In Israel, Jews have these advantages over non-Jews. Distortion of the reality might be another consequence. This occurs when the privileged member is only partially aware of the historical narrative that includes only the positive aspects of his own group. An example of this is when Jews perceive their group as moral while the “other” group is viewed as the villain. In Israel, this can be seen during the celebrations of Israel’s Independence Day, while the Palestinian Nakba is not even mentioned. Most importantly, let’s not forget the actual distortion of the minority group member. This occurs when the perception of the member of the minority group relies on stereotypes – such as perceiving Palestinians as primitive and violent (This will be discussed in a future article).

Lastly, there are the behavioral implications of racism. These include limitations of the privileged member in different areas of life, such as in social interactions and mobility. The privileged person feels s/he must ‘walk on eggshells’ or censor herself/himself in inter-racial interaction, because of the fear of making an unconscious or unacceptable racial remark in interactions with a minority member. An excellent example of the limitation of mobility is when the left-wing activists were detained at Israel’s border. That can be understood as an attempt by the institutions to keep them silent to maintain the inequality status quo.

When Jewish left-wing activists are detained at Israel’s borders, there’s an uproar. Diminishing space for Jews in Israel is a drastic step. After all, Israel just passed a law that declares that it is the home of all Jews. The obvious question is: if “Israel is the home of all Jews”, then why are there restrictions on Jews for entering and leaving the country? Freedom of movement into Israel should be a fundamental right and never be denied, regardless of a Jew’s beliefs and opinions.

However, we need to ask: where do we stand on other relevant issues? Why don’t we raise our voices when Palestinians, Arabs, and dark-skinned people are detained on a daily basis, not only at Ben-Gurion Airport, but also at checkpoints, on the street, in the mall, and pretty much everywhere in Israel. For these individuals in the minority, this is a routine daily traumatizing experience.

Where were we when their freedom was denied? Most of us kept enjoying ourselves and lived our regular lives. We continued to enjoy our privileges, our security, our freedom to move in and out of wherever/whatever spaces we wanted. We also continued to harbor high moral self-perception.

These detained Jewish activists are trying to warn us about the violation of human rights that we are a part of, and the racist system that we, unfortunately, belong to. They are showing us what toll our privilege takes. How our perception of reality is a distorted one, and how we all have a part in it, no matter where you place yourself on the social or political spectrum.

This is just an example of how the long arm of racism reaches and violates the rights of the privileged group members. For the time being, Israeli-Jews are still enjoying the rights of mobility. However, we are witnessing growing attempts to limit that space. It started when being ‘left-wing’ in Israel became a curse, and when left-wing supporters started being called traitors and self-hating Jews. There have also been some police investigations and incitement against left-wing NGOs and even individuals after expressing left-wing views, such as the Executive Director of the New Israel Fund, Mickey Gitzin, and the well-known singer, Noa. The numbers of such incidents are gradually increasing and they’re cracking the protective shield of democracy and threatening everyone’s freedom of speech. Their goal is to frighten people and dissuade them from expressing their thoughts and beliefs – due to potentially dire consequences.

The Israeli authorities are limiting freedom of speech, limiting freedom of movement, and passing racist legislation, such as the recent addition of the nation-state bill into Israel’s constitution. These are all to be considered as an attempt to minimize the Israeli democracy. Israel might remain a Jewish state, however, there is an increasing risk that it will not remain a democratic one.

In this article the following sources were used:

  1. Feagin, J. R., & Vera, H. (1995). White racism. New York, N.Y: Routledge.
  2. Goodman, D. G. (2001). Promoting diversity and social justice- educating people from privileged groups. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.
  3. Kivel, P. (2002). Uprooting racism: How white people can work for racial justice. Canada: New Society Publishers.
  4. Shenhav, Y. & Yonna, Y. (2008). Racism in Israel. Jerusalem: Van Leer.
  5. Shenhav-Goldberg, R. (2017). Jewish Israeli Attitudes and Emotional Reactions to Racism towards Arab Palestinians. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Tel-Aviv University, Tel-Aviv, Israel.
  6. Spanierman, L. B., & Heppner, M. J. (2004). Psychological costs of racism to whites scale (PCRW): Construction and initial validation. Journal of counselling psychology, 51, 249- 262.
About the Author
Rachel Shenhav-Goldberg is an academic researcher, group facilitator and an activist. She is a New Israel Fund fellow. Currently living in Canada, after spending most of her life in Israel. She has a post-doctorate from the University of Toronto, and Ph.D. from Tel Aviv University. Her research focuses on race relations in Israel and antisemitism in North-America. She has worked as a social worker in Israel and facilitated intercultural and anti-racism groups.
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