Forget Kahane, Israeli Racism Is Going to Be Something Different

Rising Israeli Arab aspirations and a slowing economy are going to combine and create frictions of a kind Israel has never experienced

Campaign poster by Habayit Hayehudi: "Tomorrow this could be your daughter"
Moti Milrod

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu engineering an alliance between two far-right parties, Habayit Hayehudi and the Kahanist Otzma Yehudit was a pure act of self-interested cynicism. His purpose: to stay in power, no matter what the cost. In exchange for the promise of ministerial portfolios, they agree to support a fifth term for Netanyahu at the top. 

If Bibi has a moral compass, its needle must be spinning wildly.

Netanyahu’s maneuvering dealt Israel a gratuitous blow to its international image and frayed relations with Diaspora Jewry. What it doesn’t do is change the face of Israeli politics.

>> The Real Reason for Netanyahu's Ferocious Attacks on Israel's Arab Citizens

Habayit Hayehudi-Otzma Yehudit alliance will give the ilk of Michael Ben-Ari a Knesset stage to air his views, but it’s highly unlikely to lead to legislation or even influence public opinion.  Here’s why.

All types of racism may all be bad, each in their own way, but there are different kinds. The Kahanist variety shared by Otzma Yehudit and its allies, organizations such as Lehava and Hemla, is more about emotional disturbance than political ideology.

This kind of racism is particularly obnoxious because it is preoccupied with the idea of the despised other as sexual predators set on seducing our pure, innocent girls. In the Israeli context, Arabs are the predators and Jewish girls the victims. But the template is shared by rightist extremists the world over.

This sort of racism also insists that the other is an irreconcilable enemy of the state, a mortal danger to our personal and national security who has to be expelled. Then the nation will be safe, secure and purified.

Riding to the imaginary rescue

The reality is entirely otherwise. Although Lehava says it is busy rescuing Jewish women, a Pew survey estimated such only about 2% of Jews who are married or living with someone who is a non-Jew (and that includes someone who is religiously unaffiliated).  

The idea that Israeli Arabs are enemies of the state has no basis either. However offensive occasional remarks by Israel-Arab Knesset members may seem, in the 70 years since Israel was created – the nation has never seen anything like widespread political protest by the Israeli Arabs, much less violence. That was even true in times of war when Israeli Arabs experienced anger and distress over the fate of their brothers and sisters in the West Bank and Gaza.

Israeli Arabs may not be the blue-and-white blooded Zionists that Otzma Yehudit demands of every Israeli, but they are law-abiding citizens of the state and have equal claim to the same rights and opportunities as Jewish Israelis.

Unfortunately, the average Israeli isn’t quite convinced of that.

The average Israeli may not share irrational hatred like the Kahanists feel. But when it comes to real coexistence, a substantial minority of Jewish Israelis wants little to do with it.

A recent poll by the Israel Democracy Institute for Channel 10 television showed that almost 43% of Israeli Jews are “disturbed” by hearing Arabic spoken in public places. Just over half would not rent an apartment to an Arab tenant.

Much of this is the inevitable outcome of the long and often bitter war Israel has fought with the Arab world. It’s human nature to see the enemy not just as people on the other side of a conflict but as embodying all kinds of moral and other vices. That explains the rising anti-Semitism in the Muslim world as much as it does Israeli racism.  

Ironically, it is the very advancement in Israeli society that is likely to worsen Israeli attitudes toward Arab Israelis.

Israeli Arabs, especially women, have been  making remarkable progress in terms of education and jobs. They are increasingly more likely to get a college degree and hold down a well-paying job. The young are adopting middle class lifestyles of two-income families with few children.

Interestingly enough, the IDI poll asked whether people were disturbed by the large number of Arab doctors. The bad news is that 43.6% responded yes. The good news is that no pollster would have bothered to ask a question like that 20 years ago because there weren’t many Arab doctors.

So far the phenomenon of rising Arab incomes and aspirations hasn’t created a blowback from Jewish Israelis. That’s because the economy has enjoyed sustained growth, unemployment is at historic lows, and the labor market pie is growing and feeding everyone.

Eventually the economy will slow.Indeed, some forecasters see an era of tepid growth for Israel because of the demographic trends of an aging population and a growing share of ultra-Orthodox Jews.

It’s then, as pie stagnates or even shrinks, that Israeli Arab aspirations will collide head-on with Israeli Jewish anxieties, as they compete for jobs and pay.

This competition could have a huge political impact.

The Brexit vote was to a large degree about the perceived threat of “others” (in this case, immigrants) taking jobs from British people. Trump’s hostility to immigration answered the same fears among those competing for a shrinking number of lower-skilled jobs in the U.S. economy. Here, the competition will mark out Israeli Arabs as the "others."

 That doesn’t mean Otzma Yisraelit has a brilliant future ahead of it. But it does spell a new and different Israeli racism.