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Israeli racism: Changing the discourse

The time has come to change the discourse about Israeli racism and acknowledge -- on a national level -- the difficult plight of the country's Arab population

On Saturday night, I attended a demonstration protesting the attack on three Arab youths in Zion Square in Jerusalem on Thursday the 16th.

By all accounts, it was a lynching.

The Jewish youth had attacked the Israeli Arabs solely because they are Arab – nothing more. I would have expected the political and religious leaders of this city and country to lead the public expression of outrage and pain at this repugnant violence, rooted in racism. But no public figure showed up.

The demonstration was organized in part by Tag Me’ir, a coalition of 30 organizations devoted to promoting religious pluralism and protecting civil rights, whose purpose is to respond in real time to racist incidents in Israel. They raise their voices against all racist assaults, whether the victims are African refugees, Palestinian Israelis, Palestinians in the West Bank or any others targeted by violence and hate. On Friday, the day before the Saturday night demonstration, Tag Me’ir had organized a gathering to mark the firebomb attack on a Palestinian taxi on Thursday, in which six Palestinians — five family members and the driver — were wounded. This occurred in the Gush Etzion area, near Bat Ayin, on the eve of Id Al Fitr, the Muslim celebration that marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan. Again, no political or religious leader showed up in solidarity.

Perhaps most Israelis did not hear about the burning of the Palestinian vehicle and the wounding of the family in the West Bank. It is somehow easy for Israelis to ignore things that happen way out there in our very own very wild west. And perhaps most Israelis are not aware of the daily acts of demolition, violence and vigilantism committed against the Palestinians and their property, such as the slaughter of sheep, the uprooting of olive trees, the destruction of vineyards. It is so easy to hide our heads in the sand of the beaches of cool and groovy Tel Aviv. In the case of the attack on the Arab youth in Jerusalem, there was more public awareness, since it hit closer to home, in the heart of Jerusalem.

The Vice Prime Minister and Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya’alon issued the government’s official reaction: “The hate crimes committed over the weekend against Arabs in Judea and Samaria and Jerusalem are intolerable, outrageous and must be firmly dealt with.” This is what the government should say, but perhaps it would have been more effective and powerful if the prime minister himself had said these things on national TV instead of through an emissary or in a statement almost a week after the fact. And the state leadership can do more than utter correct words about this or any particular event. With racism rising in this country, and chants and graffiti calling for “death to the Arabs” becoming a distressingly common event, it is clear that such reactive public statements are not sufficient. Not only swift and vigorous action against the perpetrators of such criminal attacks, but also a paradigm shift in public rhetoric, are necessary to halt the trend.

A rising tide of hatred. At the Jewish-Arab bilingual school in Jerusalem, workers clean off graffiti stating "death to arabs" and "Kahana was right," February 2012. (photo credit: Flash90)
A rising tide of hatred. At the Jewish-Arab bilingual school in Jerusalem, workers clean off graffiti stating “death to arabs” and “Kahana was right,” February 2012. (photo credit: Flash90)

Now is the time to proactively change the discourse. An appropriate beginning would be for the State of Israel to publicly acknowledge and recognize the difficulties that befell the Arabs in Israel with the establishment of the Jewish state. This validation should have been given years ago. The Israeli Arabs are not the enemy, they are citizens of this country, and their families endured physical and emotional agony, not to mention their loss of identity and status, with the establishment of the state. The de facto treatment of Israel’s Arab citizens as second-class citizens, and the persistent refusal to recognize their grievances, contributes to the environment in which racist behavior such as we are witnessing can arise and flourish. When members of a minority are systematically discriminated against by state actions (for example, unequal access to resources such as education and housing) and their voice and story are deliberately ignored, they are de-legitimized in the public perception. Of course they suffered a Nakba: how could they feel it was anything else?

It is the sign of a mature state to acknowledge painful truths and even apologize for past wrongs. In recent years the United States has apologized for its treatment of Native Americans, regretting its “official depredations” and “ill-conceived policies.” The US also officially apologized to African Americans for the centuries of what the sponsor of the Senate resolution called “collective injustice.” At the same time, Australia officially apologized to the Aborigines for inflicting on them “profound grief, suffering and loss,” in the words of the prime minister. This is what enlightened and strong states can and should do. It does not subtract one iota from their legitimacy as states, but it does affirm their moral resolve and historical honesty.

Just as Israel has not just a legal but a moral obligation to act against all racist attacks by its own citizens, so it must maintain a strong moral public face and utter honesty with its own history. The validation of the Israeli Arabs’ historical suffering in the creation of the Jewish state would not invalidate the State of Israel or negate its identity as essentially Jewish. Rather, it would acknowledge that natives of this land suffered loss and deprivation as they were buffeted by world events beyond their control. Admitting the historical facts would only strengthen the state and the Jewish people.

There is no need to wait for the Israeli Arabs to pronounce full-throated approval of Israel as a Jewish state. It is not a game of tit-for-tat, and we do not need anyone to define for us what we are. We have our own moral imperatives, which must wait for no one. Officially acknowledging the painful history of Israeli Arabs (which is unfortunately perpetuated via discriminatory policies) can help to change the public discourse, and such a public declaration by the State of Israel can only have a constructive effect, even if only slight and gradual, on the private attitudes toward a significant minority that suffered loss and devastation in the creation of the Jewish state.

But our leadership will not make such a gesture without public pressure. It is true that civil society groups — such as the Tag Me’ir coalition, the Sharaka group of directors of social change organizations that document and respond to racism, the Forum against Racism — are all trying to raise awareness, organize public protest, call for the eradication of the malignancy of racism. But civil society groups can’t do it alone. The relative silence of the political and religious leadership is deafening; some leaders are even fanning the flames of hate. The pressure for change has to come from all sectors: not just from NGOs but also from prominent religious and political figures, from the academy, from the media and from influential business people and other humanitarians.

Above all, the government of Israel must take responsibility. Instead of firing Adar Cohen, director of the Ministry of Education’s civics program, for trying to strike balance and temper nationalism, bring him back and let the civics curriculum deal honestly with Israel’s biggest minority. We rightly criticize the Palestinians for the distortions and incitement against Israel and Jews in their textbooks. There is no reason to accept or pardon them, and the leadership of Israel and the PA could work together to expunge such harmful propaganda. But let us deal now with a problem under our immediate control: the anti-Arab sentiment that is prevalent in our school system and our society at large.

We may never be able to eradicate racism completely, but official state recognition of the wrongs that were done, and developing together with the Israeli Arab leadership concrete strategies for change, is a good place to start. At next year’s Nakba Day events, it would be deeply impressive to see public officials and religious leaders speaking publicly, recognizing the suffering of others and presenting ideas for a new and better future together. If we claim to be a light unto the nations, let the beacon of truth shine from Israel.

About the Author
Naomi Schacter is Director of International Relations in the National Library of Israel. The views expressed herein reflect her personal opinions.