Emanuel Shahaf

Racism it is..

If it’s a denigrating remark about “Kushim” (“Niggers”) on Israel’s premier basketball team by sports commissioner Oded Tira, no less, or systematic discrimination of schoolgirls of Mizrachi origin by Ashkenazi Jewish orthodox religious schools, if its systemic preference of Jewish municipalities over Arab ones as practiced for decades by the Ministries of Finance and Interior, if it’s MK Miri Regev (Likud Beiteinu) calling Sudani migrants a cancer among us, if it’s Betar Jerusalem Soccer Club fans yelling “death to the Arabs” or children of Ethiopian origin not getting placed in schools in Petah Tikvah or if it’s a Haredi lawyer who can’t find work,  Israel, like many other nations, is tainted with racism. We happen to have a lot of fault lines between numerous ethnic and religious groupings, there is an active inter-ethnic conflict and we have religious elements busy trying to keep ethnic homogenity, not to say purity. As a result overt and covert racism is pretty rampant. Nevertheless, until now, it has been mostly tolerated and pretty much ignored by the authorities and the media as well except for isolated events. Hopefully that is changing.

Several days ago I attended  a session of the Knesset Education Committee which dealt with racism in Israel. As an interested party I thought it would be beneficial to see what our lawmakers are doing about a problem that should be very much on top of the public agenda but quite obviously isn’t since we always have more important things to deal with.

My initial surprise came when I realized that only a few MKs would be in attendance, despite the obvious importance of the subject. The representatives sent by the Min. of Education were not from the top echelons and had a hard time responding to some aggressive questioning from our lawmakers. It quickly became apparent that the Min. of Education is completely out of its depth, not having a data base of events of a racist nature in the school system. There is no defined body within the Ministry whose only mission is to deal with the issue, nor is there any plan on how to approach the problem. Last not least there are no serious budgetary resources that an all-encompassing educational program covering schools all over the country would require.

The venue, coincidentally, provided a perfect example of Israel’s every day reality: Among the few MKs present were Haneen Zoabi (an Arab legislator from the Balad party) and Pnina Tamano-Shatta a Jewish legislator of Ethiopian origin, from “Yesh Atid”, both presumably well versed in the sensitivities of the dialogue on racism in Israel having been on its receiving end for many years.

When MK Zoabi talked about the racist nature of Israeli society, MK Tamano-Shatta interjected to point out that Arab society isn’t any less racist (Zoabi agreed). By making the distinction, MK Tamano-Shatta clearly indicated that she does not relate to Arabs in Israel as an integral part of Israeli society  (a frequent slight against Arabs in the public discourse in Israel). MK Zoabi could have jumped and taken MK Tamano-Shatta to task for the snub but she herself, just like many other Israeli Arabs, has already internalized that she is not a member of Israeli society so she didn’t react and apparently failed to notice what just happened.

Supporting the MKs present and the discussion by providing some valuable insights were members of the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC) which belongs to the Reform Movement. They and another NGO, the Coalition against Racism, supplied background information indicating that many of the racist activities nowadays appear to take place on the internet, particularly on social networks where racist incitement is proliferating and getting stronger by the day, partially due to the almost complete absence of law enforcement measures.

There are facebook pages where attacks on Arab citizens and their property are encouraged and hailed, others that call for “Hebrew and Zionist employment” to convince businessmen not to employ Arab citizens and, last not least, there is the site of the Jewish Orthodox  “Lahava” organization that encourages racial purity (fighting relations between Arab men and Jewish women). Some of these sites, particularly that of “Lahava” do not only incite generally against Arabs but actually call for organizing racist attacks while exchanging telephone numbers and setting up meetings. “Lahava” also encourages Jewish students to complain if Arab teachers are assigned to their classes (under a new program run by the Min. of Education) and promises to “take care” of them.

Youth today spend long periods on the internet and a significant part of their social life on social networks. They are frequently exposed to racist messages and lack tools to deal with these influences and recognize them as what they are, incitement to racism. According to NGOs figthing racism, youth have in many cases internalized racist and misogynistic messages.  It is therefore critical to fight racism, not only through activities of the Min. of Education but first and foremeost by providing youth with the tools to be able to clearly identify incitement and racist comments and counter them, in particular on the internet.

Based on the evidence, the almost total lack of engagement with the problem by the authorities, it is clear that the Min. of Education and the government in general are in denial with regard to the pervasiveness of racism in Israel, not only against Arabs but against migrants, Haredim, Mizrachim, Ethiopians and in general, anybody who is different. The issue is politically not opportune and is considered a left wing agenda while we have a right wing government. Nevertheless, if members of the Knesset will keep pushing and the public will start to get involved, it will be possible to get the government to act. The choice is our’s. If only a fraction of the effort that we spend on countering anti-Semitism would be spent on fighting racism in Israel we could go a long way towards mitigating the problem.




About the Author
The author served in the Prime Minister’s Office as a member of the intelligence community, is Vice Chairman of the Israel-Indonesia Chamber of Commerce, Vice-Chairman of the Israeli-German Society (IDG), Co-Chair of the Federation Movement (, member of the council at and author of "Identity: The Quest for Israel's Future".