Fighting Israeli Prejudice Is No Black and White Issue

Israel's leaders are meticulous in decimating the chance of solidarity among us. Backed up by nationalist forces on the one side and economic forces on the other, they are taking 'divide and conquer' to the next level.

It was impossible to escape the new Israeli fairy tale over the weekend, the morality tale of the moment - the story of Yordanos, the little Ethiopian princess who, along with her friend, recorded their evil, beastly bus driver saying ugly, racist things to them. The media went to town, using phrases like "The disgrace of racism," "Israelis fight racism" and "Look at us."

The bad guy in this story isn't the Jewish Agency, which operates the absorption centers and the school buses like the one in which this tale took place, or the government, which is responsible for the fact that Yordanos Godetta has been living in an absorption center since she immigrated to Israel six years ago, but the bus driver (whose name, Eyal Bachar, does not seem to be of particular interest to anyone ).

No one bothered to listen to his side of the story, even though it came up in every interview and could be heard in the recording the students made: Bachar apologized to the Ethiopian community, but refused to apologize to the students themselves, saying they refused to put on their seatbelts, cursed, spit and made a mess for four months, during which time he "spoke to the parents, went to the council, the same people who were interviewed, and said that I harmed the community - they're the ones from whom I requested appropriate behavior from the children, many times."

Clearly, that's no justification for the way Bachar spoke to the children on his bus; but reality is more than the black-and-white lens through which it is depicted. To say the least, Eyal Bachar, who has been a bus driver for 23 of his 44 years, is not exactly lily white, nor was he born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He is the divorced father of a Border Police officer who "has lots of Ethiopian friends - and they smell great," as Bachar told me, alluding to his recorded comment that the Ethiopian students on his bus "smell bad."

The shock over racism against Israelis of Ethiopian origin is a trend that began three minutes after the nation expressed its shock over the exclusion of women from the public domain. In both cases, most people were convinced that it wasn't their fault. "We" aren't the ones excluding women; it's those bad, exploitative, lazy, unenlightened Haredim, who we condemn, protest against and consider passing bills against. Similarly, "we" aren't the ones who are racist; it's a Russian minister, who we immediately denounce, or a "racist" driver whose life we ruin. Bachar, after all, has been fired since the recording was released, and police are opening a criminal investigation against him on suspicion of incitement to racism.

And so it is that no one is opening a criminal investigation against the rabbi of Safed, who has told his community not to rent apartments to Arabs; but the police are rushing to investigate a hard-up bus driver who messed up in saying some ugly things to Ethiopian students.

There's something too precise about this story, which - how conveniently - came to light, with perfect timing, a week after the media began reporting on anti-racism protests held by Israelis of Ethiopian origin. Yordanos told me that her friends suggested recording the driver; but where did her friends get the idea?

The media exposure was a very pleasant experience for Yordanos and her friends, but they have been used to some extent, and not necessarily just by the media. Eyal Bachar also realizes that the timing "worked out great for them," saying, "They made me into an Eichmann for the Ethiopians."

Though the summer's protests against the high cost of living may seem to have ended without making an impact, there has actually been continued social awareness. Consumers have banded together, tent cities for the homeless have won public support, the protest against the exclusion of women has been growing, and now the Ethiopian community is getting organized.

"A new consciousness has arisen among us, and it will remain," Ethiopian activist Gadi Barkan told columnist Nahum Barnea at a recent anti-racism protest in Jerusalem.

"The ground is burning beneath our feet... and it is burning, ever so quietly, beneath the feet of our leaders as well," wrote author Almog Behar on Israeli social criticism website Haokets, in a look back at the six months that have passed since the summer protest.

And our leaders, in response, are meticulous in decimating the chance of solidarity among us. Backed up by nationalist forces on the one side and economic forces on the other, they are taking "divide and conquer" to the next level. With one hand they are sponsoring heavy-handed legislation against various minorities; and with the other, they are pitting one segment of the population against the other, so that we fight each other while they laugh all the way to the bank - or, as the case may be, to shoring up the occupation and preparing to bomb Iran.