The race to be most racist

I would have thought after so many years of seeing and experiencing blind, senseless hatred, that it would no longer faze me the way it did in my younger, innocent days as an idealist. Alas, it still amazes me. It still leaves me struggling for words with which to address, if not actually confront it. And it leaves me – a guy who can talk seemingly without end, who took up writing because my voice runs out before my words do – at a loss as to how best respond to the racism in front of us.

It’s not the persistent anti-Semitism that we see over and over again that surprises me. Unfortunately, like many of us, I’ve come to expect that. Even as we are getting over the horrific murder of three children and a teacher at the Jewish school in Toulouse, France last week, in too many ways this is just the “same old same old.” Not only have Jews faced this for thousands of years, but the attitude that much of the world continues to hold against the Jews in their midst (both locally and globally) is pretty much summed up in none other than the Bible itself. In the book of Esther, when the evil Haman is explaining his diabolical plan to exterminate all of the Jews in the Persian kingdom, he tells the king that “there is a certain nation scattered and dispersed among the nations in all the provinces of your kingdom; and their religion is different than those of every other people…” (Esther 3:8).

While Haman’s world view still exists in many places, it is not quite as universal as many would have us believe, and I have no intention (or desire) to sit here and rattle off an entire blog about how everybody hates us poor poor pitiful Jews. It’s not true – not everybody hates us, and we are no longer the pitiable ones that at one time we fashioned ourselves to be. Of course anti-Semitism still exists, but while often we are victims, it is not our perennial fate.

The anti-Semitism bothers me, but it doesn’t surprise me, certainly not as much as the unabashed prejudice that I see among so many of my co-religionists, and more significantly, my fellow Zionists and fellow Israelis. Even worse, the prejudice is equally distributed from both sides of the political spectrum – and I don’t know which is worse.

From the more extreme right-wing in Israel, this prejudice is much more visible on the surface. It is no challenge or great leap in logic to see the conflict that exists between us and the Palestinian leadership as one between Jews and Arabs – as though each of the two peoples is of one mind and with one set of interests. I have alluded in other blogs to the fact that I draw a very clear distinction between the average Palestinian in the street and the so-called Palestinian “leaders”. And I have very clear ideas in my own mind as to which of those should be accountable for their share of our conflict as well as more than their share of the suffering of their own people.

The extremists from among the Arabs almost invite this generalization. After a tragedy like last week’s massacre in Toulouse and the killer’s attributing his acts to what’s happening in Israel and saying that he only regrets not being able to murder even more children – it’s easy for people, many of whom are otherwise kind, thoughtful, decent and loving people, to talk about “those stinking Arabs” and to call for killing any and all of them because “it’s what they deserve.”

This is what was going on in several of the Facebook groups and other forums both on- and off-line in which I am active. As Jews and as Israelis, we feel that we are under attack. And in order to mobilize and defend ourselves we need to know who we’re fighting. Human nature dictates that when things are rough, people need recognizable enemies, easily labeled and categorized as “bad.” This enables us to assign characteristics that are easy to spot on a “national” level, and when we see those traits in individuals, we feel vindicated for having applied them to begin with.

Let’s face it – the majority of Israel’s true (read: active) enemies are Arab. This is not to say that most Arabs are Israel’s true enemies – and the distinction is an important one. I honestly don’t know, nor do I think anyone can know how “the majority of Arabs” feel about Israel.

We know what the polls say – they reflect what the Arab leaders want the people to say and to believe. We know what is fashionable for Arabs to say about Israel, and more important, pragmatically safest for them to publicly say. We even know that for those who really do feel such hatred towards us, much of that hatred has been very carefully and masterfully shaped by the reality that the so-called “leaders” in the Arab world have allowed their people to see and to experience.

But we also know, or should know by now how much of the big picture this neglects to show.

Another example of this is the Zionist and religious extremists who invite a blanket hatred for right-wing politics and Orthodox Judaism.

Most politically right-wing Jews that I know completely reject and disassociate themselves from Baruch Goldstein, who opened fire on Muslims praying in Hebron in 1994, killing 29 and injuring 125. And as far as I can tell (and truly hope), most religious Jews in Israel, including those associated with the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community want nothing to do with the violence perpetrated by some haredim in recent months against women, particularly, but not exclusively on buses.

Yet we are so quick to lump all of the Arabs together as one when terror strikes. I know that it is far more complex than distinguishing between the right-wing Jews who do and don’t want to randomly kill every Arab, but it still a worthwhile venture. In fact I would even say that for our national sanity as well as any hope we can possibly have for a high moral ground, it is a necessity.

There are some, albeit not as many as we would like, Arab journalists and imams who do come out against Arab and Palestinian violence, publicly recognize Israel’s right to exist and support establishing full diplomatic ties with Israel. These are individuals who look beyond the hatred, stereotypes and propaganda to see reality as it exists. And they look to exist within that reality. Yet when we hear one speak, we shake our heads and marvel at how this poor bastard has signed his own death warrant by daring to state publicly that Palestinians have as much if not more to answer for than Israel. Shouldn’t that alone tell us that there probably more, perhaps many more out there who feel the same way but are not willing to come out and say it?

I cannot back this theory with solid proof or statistics. The best I can offer is my gut feeling and my personal experience with the Palestinians that I have known. Granted, it’s not hundreds of Palestinians, far less. But the Palestinians whom I have known are probably much more representative of the average guy in the street than their so-called leaders. These are the ones who pretty much want what I want, and what my friends want – to go to work, to raise their families, and to live as long and as happily as possible. Even those that I have known and worked could never say this too loudly, but that doesn’t change the fact that it is what they really want.

But again, it is easier to demonize an entire people based on what we see on the surface than to dig a little deeper to see what is not clear to the eye. We see the actions of the visible ones, and we take the easy way out and see them as the “norm” – whether or not they actually represent the majority.

We become guilty of exactly that which offends us when done to us.

Of course, I am far from being the first, or only person to notice, comment and bemoan the racist sentiments emanating from Israel’s right, but I have yet to hear any of our intellectuals recognize the very similar form of anti-Arab prejudice from the left.

Our so-called “peace camp” seems to have missed one of the most important principles in dealing with the Palestinians towards a lasting peace – relating to them as equals.

Equal means holding our would-be “peace partners to the same standards to which we hold ourselves. Many in the “peace camp” curse the Israeli right for valuing “land more than human life” (persoanlly I disagree with that), yet they shake their heads in sympathetic understanding at Palestinians who do the same thing!

Equal means that you can (and should) demand flexibility and compromise from the Israeli government, but at the same time you absolutely must demand the same from the Palestinian leaders as well. No, that they deign to sit down and even meet with us does not indicate their flexibility.

Perhaps I’m missing something here, but these gaps between how the peace camp relates to the Palestinians and how they relate to their fellow Israelis smack of racism.

Far too often I have heard the “peace-niks” say that they understand the Palestinians have been pushed to the point of “no other choice” but to resort to violence. Even worse, I have heard how this is inherent in the Arab culture – that we Israelis simply do not understand their code of honor, which demands showing intransigence in order to maintain a level of respect.

If we want to ever have a real and a lasting peace in the Middle East (and I seriously doubt that it will be in my lifetime, but I keep my hopes up for my grandchildren and great-grandchildren), the peace absolutely must be anchored in in mutuality.

When Palestinian leaders claim, as absolutely NO Israeli leader has, to have a million people ready to martyr themselves for the “cause” of regaining what they see as “their” land (interestingly, the leaders making those claims are never at the front of the line of volunteers), then we are still dealing with individuals who lack the respect of life and of differences which is a pre-requisite for a true peace. Individuals who are not ready to act as our equals.

We obviously cannot control what the Palestinian leaders will say, how they will act and react, and it is arrogant for us to assume otherwise. We can, however, control what we do, as well as with whom we are ready, willing and able to negotiate.

The standards of morality, humanism and respect for life that we rightfully demand of ourselves have to be equally present in those with whom we wish to make peace; those with whom we have no choice but to live near. That must be our “red line.”

When we accept these sub-standard norms of behavior by our so-called “partners”, we are essentially saying that this is all that we can expect of them.

And that is no different than the extremists on the right who would kill them all because of “what we’ve come to expect of them.”

About the Author
Asher Zeiger grew up (well, sort of) in North Carolina and moved to Israel in 1988. He lives in Modi'in with his wife and two daughters, and works as freelance writer, editor and translator. In his spare time, he tries hard at not taking himself or life too seriously (successfully) and at unwrapping himself from around his daughters' little fingers (not so successfully).