Israeli racism in popular culture

by Yaniv Reich on November 1, 2009

In a recent interview, the brilliant Amira Hass (the only Jewish Israeli journalist to live as a full-time reporter in occupied Palestine) describes the current regime as a mixture of apartheid, military occupation, and classical colonialism. But the form of apartheid that exists in Israel/Palestine is not motivated by racism, she argues, as evidenced by the fact you can go into any hospital and see Jews and Arabs working together in harmony. Well, this fact does differ from apartheid in South Africa, but Hass seems to be arguing rather more in asserting racism is not the problem.

I respectfully disagree. Whether or not the institutional structure of Israeli apartheid is based primarily on race, racist thinking permeates Israeli attitudes toward Arabs (and the reverse is also true, incidentally). The immediate consequence of this racism is the dehumanization of Arabs to such an extent that we can live with the wholesale and routine violation of their human rights.

There are many racist statements made by Israeli politicians in the historical record. As just one taste of the more overt style of Israeli racism, check out Interior Minister Yishai’s statement about foreigners this week, who he believes would be bad for Israel and therefore wants to deport:

“We will have…hundreds of thousands of foreign workers coming in here with disease like hepatitis, tuberculosis, AIDS, drugs,” he said. “‘Doesn’t it threaten the Zionist enterprise of the State of Israel?”

Yes, Yishai, all those threatening foreigners riddled with disease and bad habits. One of my concerns is this direct form of racism, but I would also like to make a point about racism’s more subtle and therefore insidious manifestations. In some ways, the latter are even more dangerous because they allow people to believe they are not racist when in fact they harbor deep-seated prejudice.

Let’s discuss a concrete example.

Imagine a group of Americans travel to Israel, where they are unluckily involved in a car accident. The group winds up in the hospital, where they receive excellent care. Upon their return to the US, they talk to an American reporter about their experience:

“The locals were so friendly and efficient”, the family reported, “they acted like Americans.”

They go on to describe the way the medical staff attended to their every need, learned their names, and made special provisions so the family could stay together in the hospital.

They explained: “When our belongings arrived from the accident scene, not even a single item was missing!”

Finally, they concluded by saying the Israelis were “good people.”

The editors of the paper decide this is a strong news item, publishing the article on the front page.

What’s racist about this? The racism arises because of the American’s implicit assumption that they wouldn’t be treated well at the Israeli hospital, that the staff would act in any way other than professional, and that it was worthy of mention—perhaps even surprising—that their personal items were not stolen by the very people nursing them back to health.

That is one level of racism. But it is also racist that a journalist considered this information sufficiently revelatory to write the story about the well-behaved Israelis. And a racist editor is also implicated for publishing this article in this form in such a prominent place, presumably after deciding that sufficient interest existed in the population to make it worthwhile. In other words, it is only in the context of widespread racism could this article be initially thought, investigated, written, and published.

This concrete example is not a thought experiment. It is taken from an unfortunate bus crash in Jordan last Friday in which a number of Israelis were injured and taken to a Jordanian hospital. The quotes were taken directly from the Israeli’s statement about her experience.

The original article is here.

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