The Scent of Racism

Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy
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Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy

Shock is the proper reaction to the remark of cabinet Minister Gideon Ezra, who explained last week that Arabs should be used as security guards in Israel because only they have "the sense of smell needed to smell other Arabs, more so than guards who are immigrants from the former Soviet Union."

If anyone in Europe dared to say something similar about Jews, the world would be outraged, and rightly so. Another possibility is to ignore what Ezra said: What's the relevance of a low-life utterance from a marginal minister whose level of speech only casts a gloomy light on the institution he came from, the Shin Bet security service, and on his current place at the cabinet table?

On second thought, though, we should be thankful to Ezra: He has provided an apt description of the reality in which we live. We do in fact "sniff out" Arabs, all of whom are suspect in our eyes solely because of their ethnic origins.

We are all racists. Like it or not, we live in a reality of national, not to say racist, separation. A fusion of genuine security distress, the appalling terrorist attacks in the cities, the moral scars we bear as a result of decades of occupation and the faulty education we received has created a day-to-day reality here that can only shock anyone who believes in human rights.

However, we have grown accustomed to the situation and our eyes have become dim. We have grown used to seeing citizens who are made to say something, so that security guards can judge how much danger they pose on the basis of their accent. That has become entirely natural. Racism is here, but we continue to imagine that we live in a highly enlightened and progressive society.

Now Ezra has come and inadvertently held up the mirror in front of us. And what it reflects is ugly. After all, what's the difference between trying to sniff out Arabs as Ezra would do, and making passersby speak in order to see whether they have an Arab accent? An "oriental" look or an Arab accent, dark skin or traditional dress immediately create serious suspicions.

That may be understandable, but we must also be aware of the serious implications of such behavior. A society that classifies its residents according to their origin and is impassive about this behavior cannot be a just society.

The more incendiary manifestations of racism, such as the despicable obscenities you can hear at any soccer game, are the direct and inevitable continuation of this acceptance of the situation. And we haven't yet mentioned the discrimination in budgets and civil rights.

It is very difficult to be an Arab in Israel today, whether a citizen of the state or a resident of the territories.

Every Arab is considered a suspicious object unless he can prove otherwise. A few weeks ago, Dr. Mohammed Darawshe, a citizen of Israel from the Givat Haviva Institute for Advanced Studies, the education center of the Kibbutz Artzi movement, wanted to take a plane from Eilat to Tel Aviv. He had to answer dozens of impertinent and nosy questions about the purpose of his trip - and only because of his ethnic origin. There was no connection between the questions he was asked (Where did you lecture? What was the subject? Why did you come to Eilat?) and any sort of danger that was liable to accrue because of his presence on the plane. But Dr. Darawshe is an Arab, and Arabs have to be interrogated at every opportunity. It is more than likely that Darawshe will not forget the humiliating experience he underwent in Eilat for a long time, even if it's a matter of routine.

Separate lines for Jews and Arabs have long since become second nature here. There is no need to go as far as the occupied territories - where apartheid roads for Jews only and curfew for Arabs only have long been the reality - in order to witness the separation. It's here, within the country.

Under the aegis of the security situation the phenomenon has grown to worrisome proportions, far beyond what's necessary. Arab students find it difficult to rent apartments in Jewish cities solely because of their ethnic origin and without any security justification.

The country's Arab citizens are increasingly loath to venture out of their towns and villages because of the suspiciousness and humiliation they encounter in every contact with Jewish citizens or with the authorities. It is precisely because of the security needs, which sometimes oblige this sort of separation and discrimination, that unnecessary manifestations of discrimination should be reduced as far as possible.

The result is that a Jewish generation has grown up that has no experience or knowledge of contact with Arab society on an equal basis. To this generation, every Arab is only a potential danger that must be fought, and this even before the draft and the corrupting army service in the territories.

At the same time, an Arab generation has grown up that is aware of the apartheid and unwilling to accept it (along with the new generation in the territories, which knows only the armed Israeli who enters his home violently). The Arab-Israeli student, who is thrown out of a discotheque because of his accent or the way he looks, will not soon forget this situation.

In the United States, where there are similar phenomena, the civil rights organizations went mute after September 11, 2001. Now, every person whose name has a Muslim ring to it is a citizen under suspicion. And no one speaks out against this. Quite a few Muslim citizens of the United States have taken American names. In this sphere let us not take an example from the U.S. and let us not abandon ourselves to racism in the name of security.

So we have to be grateful to MK Ezra, who with his crude language, exposed the naked truth. Yes, we do sniff out Arabs.