Israeli Society Is Tainted by Racism

Our muted reaction to the treatment of Ethiopian-Israelis in Kiryat Malakhi is a silence that damns us all.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

I hate writing about racism. It is such a heavy and deadening word, though people seem to glibly toss it around. I feel that accusing a person of being a racist, or ascribing racism to entire groups and societies, is such a terrible charge that it does not allow us to carry on a rational debate once it has been made. It just taints everything and everyone, and the moment it is out there, we can't trust ourselves to say or even think freely, lest we be associated and tarred by the same brush.

We don't think of ourselves or the ones we love as racists. If a friend or family member lets slip an ethnic slur or bigoted remark, we make up some kind of excuse in our mind. It was just a careless utterance, we say to ourselves; she's a bit old-fashioned and not entirely aware of today's sensibilities; he just expressed himself badly, that wasn't actually what he meant.

Ethiopian Israelis demonstrating against racism in Jerusalem.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Of course we can't be close to a racist. Even when it's not people we personally know, if they resemble us at all - not members of a closed and blinkered community or citizens of some other backward country, but just ordinary people - we don't want to believe they are racists. Racism is a heinous crime, like being a murderer. Only twisted and depraved individuals are capable of it, not people like you and me.

The very idea that 120 homeowners in Kiryat Malakhi, ordinary mainstream Israelis, signed a secret undertaking not to sell or rent their apartments to Israeli-Ethiopian families - as reported by Channel 2 last week - is so awful that I really want to believe the denials, as faint as they are. A few residents who were prepared to voice crude and vulgar opinions on screen can be explained away as ill-educated misfits, but 120 of them? But the fact remains, not one Israeli-Ethiopian lives in those four new apartment towers, though some have tried to rent there. And this in a town with a sizable Ethiopian community that suffers housing shortages.

What makes this story even more awful is that, since I can't fathom every one of those 120 owners being racist, I start making excuses for them in my mind. They are not to be blamed for the housing market, after all. Is it their fault that when large numbers of Israeli-Ethiopian families move into a neighborhood, the apartment prices are driven down? After all, these apartments are their main asset: If the value goes down by ten or twenty percent, or even more, is it their responsibility to suffer a severe financial penalty for the cold real-estate realities?

How many of us can say without hesitation that we would jeopardize our property and fortunes so as not to be part of a racist agreement? Most of us live in neighborhoods where we will not be confronted with that dilemma. But does a racial current running through the property business mean that an entire society is racist? That depends on our definition of a racist. Does remaining silent qualify? What about the fact that hundreds of thousands of middle-class Israelis took to the streets last summer to protest against the tax burden and the high prices, but last week in Kiryat Malakhi only a couple of thousand protestors, mainly Israeli-Ethiopians, turned up. That doesn't make those who marched on Rothschild Boulevard racist, but they did not make the short drive down to support the protest in Kiryat Malakhi.

Israelis are extremely sensitive to having their society branded as racist. And in many ways that sensitivity is justified. The state was founded by the survivors of the worst racist crime in history, and many of those who arrived from Arab lands were also the victims of a racist forced expulsion. The countries around us are much more sectarian, while many other western societies suffer from similar ills, yet the international media does single Israel out to a disproportionate degree.

Israel frequently gets called an apartheid state, a comparison that is not only historically erroneous but also counterproductive when used to describe the situation of Israeli Arabs and Palestinians under occupation. Arabs are discriminated in Israel and the Palestinians should have their own state, instead of being occupied, but the racist tendencies on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are symptoms, not root causes. A state for the Jews in the historical land of Israel was a necessary creation and can still be a noble enterprise, not a racist concept.

But while you can oppose the two-state solution for legitimate and nonracist reasons, discrimination of Israeli-Ethiopians has no political or national basis. It can stem only from racist feelings. And since almost none of us do anything about this, we are all at least tainted by racism.

Tenuous connection

There are different theories and opinions regarding the actual historical connection of the Beta Israel to the Jewish people. From what I have read and seen, I think this was tenuous at best. After covering this issue closely, I don't think the Falashmura still in Ethiopia have any claim to Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return. And on a totally different level, after eating at Ethiopian restaurants in Israel, the United States and Ethiopia, I have to say that it is one of my least favorite cuisines.

But while these opinions and culinary dislikes are based on my research and personal palate, I write them with trepidation because they resemble racist tropes that you can hear today around Israel. What if I am unwittingly giving succor to racists? And looking within myself, can I be totally certain that I am writing without a gram of racism of my own? It is, after all, a human emotion.

Israel has adequate legislation against racist discrimination, and occasionally this is implemented effectively. But we must acknowledge that racism is prevalent on a local level - and not only in the low-income areas, where access to education, employment, decent housing and social services is relatively limited and Israeli-Ethiopians lose out to other communities with better connections and more resources. The indifference of ordinary Israelis to this situation may not make them racists themselves. But by hiding our heads in the utopian sand, we are willing accomplices to racism.

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