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Racism in Israel?

Racism in Israel?

Is it racist to treat Arab neighbors with caution?


Lately there’s been a lot of talk among my friends about racism. This was brought on, in part, by Israeli Apartheid Week, as well as by a video clip called "What Would You Do?" The clip shows an experiment in which Israeli actors play the parts of a racist store keeper and the young Arab woman in a hijab that he refuses to serve. The experiment, with hidden cameras, observes how people respond to the situation.

Much conversation has ensued about whether or not Jews in Israel are racist toward their Arab neighbors. The discussion has gotten heated, as Jews sometimes write unchallenged anti-Arab comments on community chat lists. (For example: “They can do their shopping elsewhere. This is not a place for them.") Others will point out the difference between an Israeli Arab as opposed to a Palestinian Arab. That’s clearly not racism.

What is it, then?

I have a friend who will go anywhere, just to prove that he can. He has an Arab friend who lives in Ramallah. "When can I come and visit you?" he asked his friend.

"It wouldn't be a good idea," his friend told him. "My [Arab] neighbors wouldn't like it."

Why does the cautious Jew get castigated, but this kind of story never makes the news, much less the court of world opinion?

Another friend says, "There is no symmetry in Israel. You are not able to create the same video with a Jew walking with his kippah into a shop in Ramallah or Jenin. Let’s create symmetric situations, film them, and then I agree to discuss this topic."

For the record, while relations between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East have never been totally trusting and easy, there were periods before the increased involvement of the West and the United Nations that were much better. Not only could Arabs travel relatively freely all over Israel, shopping and dining wherever they wished (as, indeed, they still can, certainly with a greater degree of safety than a Jew can shop in Ramallah or Jenin), but a Jew could travel to Bethlehem, shopping and exchanging pleasant conversation with merchants in the Arab shuk. Now, even the old-timers I know don't dare travel through those cities.

Social Tensions

When I was growing up in America, one could still hitchhike from place to place. After one terrible experience when I hitched a ride with a truck driver, I resolved never to take rides from men again. I didn't suddenly become sexist. I just became cautious. Later, when a few women passengers were reported to have done scary things (such as attacking their hosts with knives, holding them up, and so on), people stopped giving rides, period.

None of my children ever appeared on a milk carton (if you can't remember this era in American history, ask your parents) nor were the children of any of my friends kidnapped. Yet that was irrelevant. My kid wasn't going to be stolen. So they weren't permitted to travel on city buses or to go anywhere alone until they grew to be husky young bruisers.

We shocked our black neighbors by talking to them.

When we moved to Baltimore, we had just come from the US Army, where everyone – regardless of race, creed or color – is "green." Racial intermarriage is tolerated within the military to a greater degree than in society at large, because – with the usual exceptions – we are all one family. So when we moved to this East Coast city, we shocked our black neighbors by actually smiling and talking to them.

Later, as black high school boys turned my kids upside down to shake money out of their pockets, and routinely stole their bikes and other toys, we learned to be prejudiced. But our prejudice was specific: it only included inner-city black males in packs between the ages of 14-25. (Incidentally, my black neighbors in their 50s shared the same unfortunate prejudice.)

When we moved to Israel, we did not take this "racism" with us. Ethiopian Jews are as beloved to us as any other Jews.

Perhaps the most difficult inner turmoil with which I wrestle is the way I am forced to treat the Palestinians who work in my town as “invisible.” In America, if a workman of another race or social group worked regularly in my neighborhood, I would greet him, ask about his family, give him something to drink. Here, I do not feel that comfort level, purely because the workers don't walk around with neon signs on their foreheads stating "I am just trying to make a living, and have nothing against Jews," or "I hate Jews, and can't wait for the next opportunity to murder a few."

When I have a pleasant encounter with an Arab woman on a bus or in a shop, I am delighted. But I cannot treat all of her brothers like people. This causes me great pain. It's not the way I was raised, and it's not the way I want to behave. You may call this racism, if you like to toss around emotional epithets without thinking too deeply. I call it “tragically necessary caution,” and cannot wait for the day that I can set it aside, and take advantage of some of those great sales in Bethlehem.

Moment of Hope

Happily, the customers we are allowed to see in the filmed experiment treat the situation in what I see as the typical Jewish manner. They are offended at the storekeeper's callousness; and customer after customer offers to pay for the Arab woman's coffee.

In one touching scene, a young Jewish woman stands quietly while the storekeeper loudly declares to the Arab woman that he doesn't serve her kind in his store. At first, we are disappointed by the Jewess. Unlike the previous customers, she doesn't speak up. When asked, she responds, "What difference would it make what I think?" Finally, when she gets her coffee, she responds: "You want to know what I think? This is what I think." She hands her coffee to the Arab woman and walks out.

The interviewer who set up the experiment approaches her in her car. She is sobbing and shaking. When he asks her why, she answers that she could not believe anyone would behave in such a cruel manner toward another human being.

The Arab woman and the Jewish woman share a few warm remarks, and a gentle touch of the hands. And we share a moment of hope.

May 7, 2011

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The opinions expressed in the comment section are the personal views of the commenters. Comments are moderated, so please keep it civil.

Visitor Comments: 22

(19) Rafael, March 19, 2015 9:34 PM

The Herzog Netanyaho election was telling of the Changing Israel

The trust between the future Israeli Jews and new Arab Israeli will become much better and more secular . As the blood fued that started in the Torah disapates , the secular Arab / Jew/ Israeli coalition will bury the hatchet and minimize their religious fundamentalist factions .
Sixty years ago Netanyaho would have won 100% of the
vote . The Herzog "Zionist " party brought a new spin on what is Zionism and a virtual split in the politics of Israeli Jews . The Arab Israelis played no part in this election . Herzog is a climps into the changing landscape of Israeli politics.
Once the Koran and the Talmud are set aside ,Israeli Arabs will vote because Israeli Jews will demand it . Only then will racism and division between people cease . Only then will Israel shed all its enemies.

(18) Anonymous, March 19, 2015 5:41 PM

I Regret You Are Serious

So, you mean to suggest that one isolated incident stirred such discord in your being that you decided to religate an entire population group, of a specific ilk of course, to some subhuman station? Your thinking is a prime example of how we continue to promote racism. In reality there is only one race, and that we are simply from different people groups. DNA has proven all human beings are 99.9% the same. I am referring to the following statement which was; "Later, as black high school boys turned my kids upside down to shake money out of their pockets, and routinely stole their bikes and other toys, we learned to be prejudiced. But our prejudice was specific: it only included inner-city black males in packs between the ages of 14-25. (Incidentally, my black neighbors in their 50s shared the same unfortunate prejudice.)

(17) Anonymous, March 19, 2015 5:27 PM

I Beg to Differ

"When we moved to Israel, we did not take this "racism" with us. Ethiopian Jews are as beloved to us as any other Jews." I beg to differ. This statement is the equivalent of saying "I'm not racist. I have a black friend."

(16) Anonymous, October 30, 2011 9:19 PM

A Palestinian people??

The only dangerously ignorant comment is the one you make about there being such a thing as a distinct Palestinian people. You admit that historically there never was a Palestinian people and then you make some absurd argument about how they now exist. Clearly, the Palestinians, the name for the which was invented by Yasser Arafat, are Arabs, like every other Arab in every other Arab country. No amount of hocus pocus will suddenly change that fact. Too many Jews are aiding and abetting thee most dangerous enemy the Jews have known since Hitler, namely the Arab/Islamic world. By the way, the Jews as a nation existed before they became slaves in Egypt. Also, you mention Hebron, which became Arab only after the Arabs slaughtered the Jewish residents there in the 1920's. Stand up for your own people, it could save your life!

(15) Ron Kall, October 30, 2011 9:06 PM

Racism in Arab society

Let's just put Israel under a microscope again while ignoring the abject murderous racism of the Arab world. Just look at the Sudan. I believe that if the nation of Israel was about to be defeated in a war with its' Arab neighbors, most Israeli Arabs would gleefully attack their Jewish neighbors. This is why all but the Bedouins and Druse Arabs are not in the Israeli defense forces. The people that continually attack and criticize Israel are completely and willfully ignoring the life and death situation that Israel lives in.

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