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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.

Published: May 7, 2011

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Visitor Comments: 19

(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.

(14) Anonymous, May 16, 2011 11:43 AM

"Is it Racist to treat Arab Neighbors With Caution?" #2

An article of faith among Mohammedans is that the world must come to accept their faith before Allah will bring our present world to an end, and, being desirous of this outcome, what we are witnessing as the so-called "Arab Spring", is really the first re-formation of an Islamic Caliphate. This Caliphate will, it is hoped by Mohammedans, wage a propaganda-based *and* military Jihad of recruitment among the "infidel" peoples -- winning many to reluctant conversion because of fear of death at Jihadist hands, scimitars, guns and (God forbid) nuclear weapons. So, in answer to the question, "Is it racist to treat Arab neighbours with caution?", the answer is a resounding "NO, it is not racist to do so." It is having learned caution from a study of the Q'uran, and the observation of Mohammedans' behaviour, both present and past. As a Christian, I will not fear Jews, for they have no such violent history, and take up arms only if provoked. I will fear other *nominal* Christians who have been corrupted by their love of money and profit, with no regard for their fellow man, but not as much as I fear the blind obedience to a call for Jihad by Mullahs-in-concert, that each Mohammedan is bound to obey, lest they be considered as "infidels" themselves. Fearfulness is not racism, but Wisdom.

(13) Kirk Gunn, May 16, 2011 11:37 AM

In Certain Cases, One Must Treat Neighbours With Caution - #1

As it pertains to the group in question *here*, let us look at three religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Mohammedanism (I use that old term, because "Islam" is really a larger Nation, and Muslim-ism seems insufficient as a descriptive term): Judaism, the elder religion from which the other two are descended, has never been a faith based on conquest, which largely explains why there are a mere 14 million Jews in today's world. Christianity was founded as a Judaic offshoot. Its numbers swelled mostly because of reaction to Roman persecution and post-Roman privations by the European "barbaric" tribes, as well as the fairly peaceful practise of "conversion-by-verbal-persuasion". The Western World is based on that Judaeo-Christian bedrock, even though it is now largely secular. Mohammedanism, on the other hand, has a brutal policy of "convert or be killed", and, since most people prefer to live, the Mohammedan armies swept over the south shore of the Mediterranean and far to the east -- ultimately as far as Indonesia and the Philippines, with a current total of roughly 1.5 billion true-believer adherents. An article of faith among Mohammedans is that the world must come to accept their faith before Allah will bring our present world to an end, and, being desirous of this outcome, what we are witnessing as the so-called "Arab Spring", is really the first re-formation of an Islamic Caliphate. This Caliphate will wage a propaganda-based *and* military Jihad of recruitment among the "infidel" peoples -- winning many to reluctant conversion because of fear of death at Jihadist hands. (to be continued...)

(12) Nach SHon, May 15, 2011 2:26 PM

no racism

Just what are teh 2 RACES here. We as Jews are not a race. Arabs - a linguistic, or geographical group. not a race. Since "arabs" all nearly all are determined to wipe us out, how can one not understand, caution & even hostiilty toward them. Too many , maybe all libirals (read hypocrites or naive tummels ) do not function in reality. by choice or ignorance..

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