Terror, racism, and the idea that Israelis are people too
When opposition to Israeli policies crosses the line into hatred and dark stereotyping of Israelis as a whole, it turns into racism.
In the aftermath of a terror operation in which gunmen attacked several fronts in southern Israel, killing eight people and wounding dozens more, try this sentence on for size: "Israelis are people, too."
What’s your first reaction? If you've been around this block before, it may well be something akin to suspicion. It is, after all, a sentence with an ax to grind. Why else would anyone need to say something like that at all?
Here's one reason: You can bet that terrible things are about to happen, with Gaza being the imminent target of Israeli retaliation. The next step will be a ritual bifurcation of sympathy, either exclusively for Israeli victims of the Thursday attacks, or exclusively for the Gazans to follow.
There will even be scorn for those who suggest that innocent victims are innocent victims no matter who they are – an observation which will quickly be written off by some (at the bottom of this article) as mendacious moral equivalence, or willful ignorance of the obvious malice and evildoing of one side – take your pick – toward the other.
Which brings us back to that statement, simpleminded as it may sound, alleging that Israelis are people, too. It came to mind because at the time I heard about the attacks, I happened to be reading an article on racism in Israel by Palestinian author and activist Omar Barghouti, a driving force behind the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign.
Referring to a Hebrew University professor's study of racist attitudes in Israeli education, to be published in Britain this month, Barghouti wrote: "This insightful research by respected Israeli scholar Nurit Peled-Elhanan will confirm what Palestinian researchers have always known: Israel's prevailing culture of racism, fundamentalism, support for war crimes, and apartheid against Palestinians is mainly a product of an educational system that indoctrinates Jewish-Israeli students with militant colonial values and extreme racism that turn them into 'monsters' once in uniform."
Barghouti concludes that "more BDS is needed to end Israeli occupation, colonialism and apartheid. Other than the obvious benefits to indigenous Palestinians," he writes on Mondoweiss.net, "an end to this system of oppression may well transform most Israelis from colonial 'monsters' into normal humans."
Barghouti's use of the word monster, taken from remarks by Peled-Elchanan quoted in The Guardian ("People ask how can these nice Jewish boys and girls become monsters once they put on a uniform.") sheds light on a question which bears further examination.
All but obscured in the endless debate over whether criticism of Israel constitutes anti-Semitism – a debate now tearing a hole in the leadership of the American Jewish Committee – is a little-discussed but no less significant companion issue: When opposition to Israeli policies crosses the line into hatred and dark stereotyping of Israelis as a whole, does this not constitute racism?
Do those who hate Israel and what it does, which is certainly their right, also enjoy a moral exemption that allows bigotry against Israelis as Israelis?
It seems to me that people who justly fight racism have a responsibility not to practice it. It is all too natural a matter, especially in this part of the world, for anger over hated policies to boil over into racism against an entire people.
We've seen what that does. We've seen what that enables. We're about to see it again. By the time these words see print, more innocent people are going to die. They are not the enemy, faceless, merciless, heartless and monstrous.
They are people, too.