Opinion

Coronavirus Inflames Israel's Endemic anti-Asian Racism Problem

I chose Israel as my home, but for Israelis – from bureaucrats to bank tellers to passersby – I'm never 'one of them.' And now that dispiriting, hurtful feeling of being considered an outsider is about to get much worse

A man wears a face mask as he visits the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray, in Jerusalem's old city. Feb. 16, 2020
Ariel Schalit,AP

Of the many places I’ve traveled to and lived in, never have I experienced more racism than in the Middle East, and more specifically, in Israel. Between people complimenting my excellent English (never mind that it’s my first language), the "But where are you really from?" question (after telling people I’m from California) or people yelling "China, ni  hao" and "konichi-wa" at me while walking through the streets, routine racism has become the reality of my life here. 

A few weeks ago an elderly woman stopped me on the street and tried to hire me as her caretaker. After politely declining, she asked, "But what about one of your friends?" Instead of trying to explain that she can’t assume every Asian walking down the street has uprooted their entire life for the prospects of making a decent wage to send back home to their family, I respectfully apologized for not being of any help - and left. 

Following the outbreak of novel coronavirus, I decided to reach out to Chinese students studying in Israel for a story I was writing on the uptick in racist incidents. I thought I would find some sort of solidarity, a group of people also feeling hurt and dehumanized and hoping to raise awareness.

I knew that the fear of the virus had led to a spike in racism directed at Asian people in many countries, including the U.S. I had already seen examples of this in social media messages among Chinese students in Israel: "It happened again. A woman got up and went to the next car after I sat down next to her on the light rail," I read. "They yell 'Corona!' at me when I walk by," another wrote.

But when I asked for anyone to speak to me for the story, whether on or off the record, I was met by backlash and apprehension. Despite the many complaints made in private forums, no one would talk to me. 

One Chinese student even warned colleagues to be careful about me, telling our peers that "She doesn't know the Chinese people." True, I am not a Chinese national; I can't pretend to know what it is like to grow up under the rule of the Communist Party.

But in Israel I have often gravitated towards friends from China, a comfort for someone also far away from home, longing to make dumplings while singing along to Chinese melodies. Speaking Chinese had always brought me back to childhood memories of watching Chinese soap operas at my late grandmother’s house in Singapore and the lingering velvety fumes of incense my uncle burned twice a day as an offering to our ancestors.

It would hardly be a surprise if Chinese students, despite being thousands of miles from Xi Jinping’s reach, were hesitant to speak out, nor that they have difficulty identifying racism. The state censorship of the Great Firewall is not bound by the confines of China’s borders; it's a self-censorship ingrained in the mentality of its subjects, and follows them everywhere they go. Breaking the wall would mean shattering the fundamental idea that dissent only invites trouble, and conforming is always best.

Chinese students hold a memorial for Dr Li Wenliang, the whistleblower who died of the Coronavirus in Wuhan, China. Westwood, California, February 15, 2020
AFP

But what the Chinese student who insisted "I wasn’t one of them" didn't get is that it doesn’t matter what passport I hold, what language I speak or how I identify. My mixed Chinese-Caucasian features forever categorizes me as being "one of them."

I am "one of them" to the Israeli Interior Ministry officials who kept asking me what I was doing in their offices, because I couldn’t possibly be there as a Jew to make aliyah. I am "one of them" to the woman at the bank who refused to open account for me since my Chinese middle name "wasn’t real" and made it "impossible" to register me into the system, or to the police officer who pulled me over, when driving with a Japanese friend, despite having made no traffic error.

In the U.S., I can comfortably speak out about these issues. At least in my social circles, the awareness of racism is widespread: people understand and are equally infuriated. As someone who learned about social injustice in my remarkably diverse San Diego high school and who experienced "PC culture" as ubiquitous as a New York college student, it’s hard to understand how to confront racism in a setting where the people on both the giving and receiving ends are unable to recognize it.

When a man yelled "Ching chang chong mutherfucker" at me while crossing Madison and 60th a few years ago in New York, he knew exactly what he was doing. Whether motivated by fear or entitlement, this was a conscious decision to make me feel lesser. Here in Israel, the many more insensitive remarks that find me aren't intended (giving them the benefit of the doubt) to inflict hate, but emerge out of profound ignorance. One would think that racism fueled more by ignorance than hate would be easier to address, but my many attempts to do just that have been dispiriting.

I have come to believe that some Israelis live under the assumption that they cannot be racist simply because they’re Jews. Is it because they feel they’ve created a state where anti-Semitism can’t find them? Therefore racism can’t find anyone? I've got news for them: Being even a tiny often-targeted global minority isn’t a get out of jail free card when it comes to racism. 

Frankly, I expected better from my own people, given the thousands of years of suffering we have endured. My own grandparents fled Nazi Germany because their families were targeted as Jews. This blindspot allows us to live in a society where people are reduced to stereotypes and streamlines the "othering" of all those who fall outside the small boundaries of how Israelis want to construct their community.

Israeli security forces detain a protester at a demonstration in Tel Aviv on July 3, 2019, against police violence and the recent killing of a young Ethiopian Israeli amid accusations of police racism
AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP

The number of those who do acknowledge the racism in Israeli society, whether it’s racism against Israel’s Mizrahi and Ethiopian communities, Sudanese asylum seekers or Palestinians, is far too small. Of a country of nine million people, tens of thousands, some say 50,000, protested against the Jewish nation-state law in Tel Aviv. That’s 0.5 percent of Israel’s population. Only 0.5 percent of the population going out to demonstrate over a law that reinforces Jewish supremacy.

"Israelis just don’t get it," so many people have told me, perhaps as an attempt to comfort me. So somehow, along this line of thinking, Israelis don’t have this reflex or knowledge - but suddenly it appears when calling out anti-Semitism?

The color of my skin and the shape of my eyes shouldn’t make me feel like an outsider in the place I’ve chosen as my home. Everyone loses when we decide racial injustice is something we can tune in and out of. The only way to move forward as a multicultural society is by understanding that the things that make people different or "not one of us" are social and political constructs that we can learn to recognize and challenge, and to remember that we, too, have been regarded in our history as "strangers" too many times to enumerate.

But perhaps this is the wrong diagnosis and prescription. Perhaps what I've learnt living in Israel, and from the racist surge I expect in the wake of the Corona virus, is that Israel really isn't interested in, or preparing for, becoming a multicultural society.

Shaina Oppenheimer is a news editor at Haaretz and holds a M.A. in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Twitter: @ShainaOppenheim