Israeli Racism and the fight for Hillel's soul
posted by guestposter “unintentional community.”
It’s time to talk about Israeli Jewish racism.
Jeffrey Goldberg yesterday called Bibi Netanyahu’s last-minute election antics just what they were: an Israeli version of the “Southern Strategy,” the electoral approach developed by the Goldwater and Nixon campaigns in the American South to drive a racial wedge into the Democratic party, and flip the former Confederacy decisively to the Republicans. Netanyahu’s promise never to permit the creation of a Palestinian state, and his warnings about “droves” of Arab voters being bused in by leftists, represent a best-fit line for appealing to the Israeli Jewish public in 2015. Divided as Israeli Jewish society might be over economic, social, and security issues, it’s united by anti-Arab racism that goes largely unquestioned in polite society.
An old Israeli friend admitted to me that he gets defensive, and even “right wing,” (despite not voting with the political right), when he hears observers identify the source of Israel’s racist politics as the Jewish public, rather than its leaders. But what made the Southern Strategy a “strategy,” rather than “Lee Atwater’s offensive life outlook,” was precisely that it recognized, and sought engagement with, a public discourse that was profoundly influenced by anti-Black racism. It is impossible to understand how and why the strategy worked without correctly locating the source of its power in the voters it mobilized.
And that, unfortunately, is a lesson that Jewish Israelis, and their supporters abroad, must finally learn. Bibi Netanyahu, even beyond his politics, seems like an exceptionally unpleasant person. But he is not a demon. He’s not even a Nate Silver. He wins elections the old fashioned way: by identifying what his (Jewish) countrymen want to hear, and saying it.
Activists on the far left who hope to see Israel dismantled as a national entity use Jewish Israeli racism as a cudgel to further their political ends. Their mere presence in the debate lends profound emotional depth to my Israeli friend’s half-stated feeling, that one can’t openly discuss Israel’s racist undercurrents without in some way making common cause with these people, which would mean indulging in Jew hatred. A more pragmatic argument begins from the same place, and concludes that one mustn’t bring Israeli Jewish racism into the open, because it will be used as cannon fodder by the same far left.
Effectively buried by these arguments, Jewish progressives allow Israeli Jewish racism to carry on as an open secret, a force whose contours can be discerned even as it cannot, must not, be named–in the latest price tag attack, in the suggestion that Ayman Odeh open an office in Gaza, in the adoption of explicitly fascist symbols by grassroots Israeli rightists, in “anti-assimilation” campaigns that are indistinguishable from anti-miscegenation campaigns, and, now, in the openly racist rhetoric of Israel’s victorious head of state.
At a recent talk sponsored by a local university, entitled “The Inaudible Cry for Citizenship,” Palestinian Israeli author Sayed Kashua spoke to a room of mostly Jewish Americans about his experiences growing up as an ethnic minority in Israel, his successful career as a newspaper, book, and TV writer, and his painful decision to leave the country with his family, permanently, after a series of attempted and successful anti-Arab lynchings during last summer’s conflict in Gaza.
With an over-capacity crowd, I had to stand in the doorway to hear–very much in the personal space of two young Israeli men. I did my best to concentrate on Kashua’s story, but it wasn’t easy, primarily because, throughout the lecture, the young men kept up a running commentary, casually referring to Kashua as “an Arab dog,” “the son of an Arab whore,” a “pathetic liar,” and an otherwise constant stream of invective. Delivered in Hebrew, with the occasional Arabic curse word thrown in for good measure, it was a perfect, if unwitting, soundtrack for Kashua’s story of discrimination, alienation, and, ultimately, exile from a place once called home.
After the lecture, I asked a few older American Jews in the room what they thought of Kashua’s story, and his commentary on the growing racism of Israeli Jews. One of them shrugged, and said something to the effect of, “I thought the story was very good, but of course it’s more complicated than he made it out. It’s politics.”
But it’s not politics. It’s racism. Israeli Jewish politics have arrived at this point because of Israeli Jewish racism, not the other way around.
You’d be out on a limb if you were to say that Diaspora Jewish silence is to blame for the ugly side of Israeli society. But it seems like an equal stretch to claim that the two have nothing at all to do with each other. If nothing else, it’s hard to shake the historical comparison to racism in the American South, and the mass popular movement after World War II that was required to confront it. Perhaps a similar mobilization will be required to confront and defeat racism in Israel. Or, perhaps not. But is it really so outlandish to ask? And, in the asking, to wonder whether the Diaspora Jewish community, one that aspires to common cause with anti-racist forces here in the US, might also have a role to play in Jewish Israel?
Whether it is possible to ask such questions is currently being gamed out on a micro scale at a handful of college campuses, in the escalating confrontation between Hillel International and the Open Hillel student movement. At issue is a speaking tour, launched by Open Hillel at the beginning of this semester, that is bringing veteran Jewish activists of the civil rights movement into local Hillels to talk about their lives, their activism, and–controversially, according to Hillel International–their thoughts on racism in Israel.
At first glance, the entire dispute–including, most recently, Hillel International’s wild threat to sue Swarthmore Hillel for trademark infringement should it agree to host these veterans for a panel discussion–seems to prove the well-known correlation between the smallness of the political stakes and the ferocity of the fight.
But viewed in the context of an Israeli Jewish polity whose open racism is becoming impossible to ignore, the Hillel fight is anything but petty. To the contrary, it captures the most basic and crucial question confronting progressive Jews on the subject of Israel: will we risk some dignity and hurt feelings to call out racism, or won’t we? Hillel International says that it won’t abide by programming that holds Israel to a “double standard.” Their heavy-handed suppression of students illustrates that what they really mean by this is that they won’t tolerate programming that holds Israel to any standard at all.
At the end of Kashua’s talk at the university, one of the young Israelis with the colorful views of the value of Arab life found the event organizer, and angrily demanded why the program was not “balanced,” –i.e., why the program did not align itself with his racist, right-wing politics. When she didn’t give him an answer he found satisfactory, he assured her that he would be rallying forces, from Hillel and elsewhere, to audit and challenge any future events–tactics that he likely learned from various trainings provided by Hillel partners like StandWithUs and Israel on Campus Coalition, if not from Hillel itself.
Hillel International staff and donors may not intend to further a racist agenda. But by training students to silence their peers, and by shunning those students who refuse to cooperate with that silencing, they have rendered themselves handmaidens to racism. Progressive Jews must reject that ethos and force a conversation about the racist wave overtaking Israeli Jewish society. The stakes are too high, the damage done already too severe, to settle for silence.