Almost 30 years ago, my father employed a computer programmer who was an early and prominent support of Rabbi Meir Kahane's Kach party. Innocently, I once asked him how an educated man, an accomplished linguist and mathematician, could support racism. "Jews can't be racist," he answered. "We allow anyone to convert and become a Jew and once he is a Jew, he is equal to us in every way. So how can anyone say we are racists?"
I have learned a few things since then. Among them, that having an education is no bar to holding obscene views, and that racism is not technically just about race. But the idea that Jews cannot really be racist is far from being a fringe belief. The reasoning behind this is not just theological.
Two millennia of persecution have ingrained us with the knowledge that whenever there is racism around, we will be on the receiving end. True, the Torah includes exhortations to exterminate whole nations, men, women and children, but those are relics of an ancient time with no relevance to today's world. Or so we tell ourselves.
Most of the disparaging references to non-Jews in the Talmud were censored out a thousand years ago, mainly for fear of provoking more persecution. Racism always seemed like a luxury that a downtrodden minority group could not afford. Early Zionism may have ascribed to the notion of a "land without a people," disregarding the Arab inhabitants of the land, but this was originally an English Christian notion and by the time 1948 was here, the new Jewish state enshrined equality for members of all races and faiths in its founding declaration.
Sure, 63 years later we still have not yet got around to ensuring that Arab citizens enjoy equal access to land, resources, employment, education and budgets, but we see that as just one more problem that our facile politicians and small-minded bureaucrats have yet to solve. Racists? Us? Have we not we given homes and livelihoods to millions of immigrants, many of them non Jews by any standard? William Safire wrote in the New York Times after the airlifting of the Beta Yisrael from Ethiopia became public that "for the first time in history, thousands of black people are being brought to a country not in chains but in dignity, not as slaves but as citizens." Yes, not everyone wants their children to learn with them in the same school, but that's only because they have so much to catch up, that they bring down the academic level. And the segregation between Sephardi and Ashkenazi girls in Haredi schools? That's only some weird religious observance issue.
After 1967, Israel assumed control of the lives of millions of Palestinians, without civil rights, and after three generations of Israelis became accustomed to letting Jewish settlers through roadblocks and stopping Arabs, and mainstream state-employed rabbis began channeling biblical hatreds, we still convince ourselves it is a result of the existential nationalist conflict between us and them. They were the ones who shouted Itbach al-Yahud [slaughter the Jews], treated prisoners inhumanely and attacked Jews worldwide whenever tensions boiled over in the Middle East. We sent sophisticated field hospitals to Haiti after the earthquake. Two weeks ago, when dozens of rabbis signed the letter against renting apartments to Arabs, former Knesset Member Rabbi Haim Druckman proposed to change the wording. Instead of Arabs, he proposed "hostile elements trying to take advantage of the equality between loyal citizens, realize the 'right of return' and banish us from our land." Anything to maintain the illusion.
Well, finally the racist cat is out of the bag. The demonstrations in South Tel Aviv and Bat Yam against foreigners living in their neighborhoods can no longer be interpreted as anything else.
The group of teenagers that systematically hunted down Arabs on the streets of Jerusalem is not just a freak occurrence. The xenophobia is no longer political, or even solely religious. Rabbis stood by women in shorts at the demonstrations. Veteran Kach members such as MK Michael Ben-Ari were there, but so was Kadima MK Yoel Hasson. Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, a member of Labor, said the demonstration in his city was "understandable." I wonder how he understood the booing and jeering that greeted an Ethiopian immigrant speaker until he assured his listeners that he was Jewish and then called for the Sudanese to be deported back to their land.
The failure of successive governments to secure the border with Egypt, impose consistent regulation on the import and abuse of foreign labor and, above all, to develop coherent and up-to-date immigration and citizenship legislation, has finally unmasked the demons that were always lurking close beneath the surface. Finally, we have the damning proof that in hurtling down the slippery slope between legitimate concerns over immigration and downright hatred of foreigners, Jews are no different from the goyim.
There is a lesson to be learned here from the Diaspora. The parties of the far right in Europe have shed their old neo-Nazi ties and recast themselves as anti-immigration and especially anti-Muslim. In doing so, they have tried to court the local Jewish communities, citing joint concerns over anti-Semitic attacks. By and large, these overtures have been shunned; most Jewish leaders responsibly knew where to draw the line between speaking out against Muslim hate crimes and the resulting racist backlash. Some of those very politicians who would never be allowed on any respectable platform in their own countries were welcomed here last month and taken on a tour of the settlements.
Israel, for all its faults, is not a predominantly racist or Apartheid-like country. But there has been a continuing failure of Israeli society as a whole to recognize victimhood in others; to understand that there were other genocides in the 20th century that need commemorating other than the Holocaust; that while an entire nation hopes to see Gilad Shalit returned to his family, there are 10,000 mothers on the other side who see their imprisoned sons as fighters and not murderers; and to realize that no amount of PR can ever change the impression made by 43 years of occupation of another people. These demons have been unleashed on our streets.
The government has a duty, finally, to build the southern border fence, to find ways to integrate some of the illegal immigrants and find alternative solutions for the rest, but all of us have a duty to ourselves - to admit we can also be racists.
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