Racism in Israel Cuts Much Deeper Than Black and White

Deep-seated prejudices and resentments, always simmering below the surface, exploded into view during the hard-fought election campaign.

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Illustration by Eran Wolkowski.
Illustration by Eran Wolkowski.

You might think that the creation of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new coalition and the sniping between Israel’s government and the White House would be at the forefront of post-election public discussion in Israel today.

But no - across social media, on radio talk shows, on the street and around water-coolers - the conversation has been overwhelmingly about race.

Deep-seated prejudices and resentments, always simmering below the surface, exploded into view during the hard-fought election campaign. And over the week since the polls closed, it has proven impossible to put the racial genie back into the bottle.

Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson, like many overseas pundits, missed the many layers of Israel’s race issue in his post-election analysis. Comparing Netanyahu’s warning that “droves of Arabs” were voting to get out the right-wing vote to racist Republican scare tactics aimed at white voters in the U.S., Meyerson joked that “perhaps Likud and the Republicans can open an Institute for the Prevention of Dark-Skinned People Voting.”

Would that racism in Israel was as simple as skin color: it is a far more complicated mix of nationalism, religion and culture.

For example, it’s hard to find skin fairer than that on the wounded, tearful countenance of Lucy Aharish, a successful television anchor who also happens to be a Muslim citizen of Israel and who was the first to publicly demand that Netanyahu apologized for his remarks. Aharish hosts a mainstream “The View”-style program in Hebrew on Israel’s highest-rated station, Channel 2, and also broadcasts news in English on i24 News, a Tel Aviv-based international news channel. Raised in the southern Jewish town of Dimona, she straddles two worlds and cultures, and takes flak from both sides. In the midst of the election campaign, Aharish was chosen as one of the torch-lighters in the annual Independence Day ceremony. To many right-wing Jewish Israelis, she is an unwelcome interloper. To others on the far left - including Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy - she is considered something of an Uncle Tom, or as the locals put it disparagingly, a “pet Arab.”

Appearing on “Meet the Press” on Saturday, Aharish didn’t hesitate to show the Israeli audience the personal pain Netanyahu’s remarks caused her. On the brink of tears, her voice was quavering and she shook her head in disbelief: “It’s horrifying, because hell - I am a citizen of this state. I’m a citizen who just can’t believe that their prime minister stood up and spoke that way the prime minister of Israel who is supposed to be the prime minister of all of the citizens of Israel cannot allow himself to speak the way he spoke. It just can’t be that he would incite against 20 percent of his population.”

Netanyahu seems to have forgotten, she chided, that “only months ago” Jewish yeshiva students were killed because they were Jews, and shortly afterward a Palestinian boy was murdered because he was Arab. “The next time an Arab is murdered, it’s going to be as if the prime minister gave that murder a kosher stamp” of legitimacy,” Aharish said.

One doubts that Netanyahu’s subsequent half-hearted expression of “regret” to Israel’s “minorities” (in the remarks described as an apology, he neither used the word “apology” nor the word “Arab”) has done much to mollify Aharish. It will be interesting to see how she uses her torch-lighting platform during the Independence Day ceremony next month.

But Netanyahu was not the only face of racism in Israel this week - in fact, he wasn’t even the front-runner. That honor belonged to one Yoram Hetzroni - a communications professor who looks more like an aging refugee from an 80’s heavy metal band than an academic.

Hetzroni is no stranger to controversy - he was removed from his position at Ariel University for remarks he made against female victims of sexual assault, which he claims represent a political vendetta against his left-wing views. The fact that he has little to lose professionally must have played into his choice to toss lighter fluid on the flames of post-election ethnic tensions, insulting Jews of Middle Eastern and North African descent who make up Netanyahu’s core supporters in a fiery appearance on a morning chat show.

“It wouldn’t have been terrible if your parents had been left to rot in Morocco,” he told fellow guest Amira Bouzaglo. It must be noted that Bouzaglo had just called him a fascist and a racist for his stand against Israel’s Law of Return and policy of encouraging Jewish immigration, which he suggested was ultimately responsible for the ingathering of the riff-raff whose votes had kept Netanyahu in power.

Even in the no-holds-barred world of Israeli political debate, his remarks were judged by the host of the show to have crossed the line - and Hetzroni was summarily dismissed from the television studio after declining an opportunity to apologize.

The Hetzroni incident added to the existing fury of the anger sparked during the campaign when artist Yair Garbuz, a speaker at a pre-election anti-Netanyahu rally, railed against “amulet-kissers, idol-worshippers and people who prostrate themselves at the graves of saints” whom he charged were controlling the State of Israel.

Both Garbuz and Hetzroni touched on historic sensitivity of Moroccan, Iraqi, Yemenite and other “dark-skinned” groups who feel that their pride, culture and religious beliefs have been trampled for decades by a condescending, secular, “white” Israeli Ashkenazi elite. This resentment has long been politicized, with lighter-skinned Israelis identified with leftist Labor, and darker-skinned Israelis with right-wing Likud.

Usually, the members of the left-leaning elite who do, in fact, scorn their counterparts are too polite or politically savvy to express their disdain openly. But the high stakes and strong emotions of this election season pulled sentiments which most Israelis would rather bury above ground. Some libertarian types defended Hetzroni’s right to express his politically incorrect views - but in mainstream Israel, it created such a furious backlash that the police announced that they were “examining his statements” to see if they “constituted a crime.”

Where will Hetzroni be when Aharish lights her torch? Far away, presuming there are no actual charges filed against him. Unrepentant, Hetzroni announced on television that he is packing his bags and “leaving all this garbage behind and getting out of here” after concluding that “I’m too logical, intelligent and successful for this place: this is an emotional, hot-tempered and Levantine country.”

And, it can be added, one that won’t miss him very much.  

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