Israel's New Mainstreaming of Racial Separation

We in Tel Aviv are lagging behind the apartheid thinking associated with extremist rabbis in the settlements. But Israel's education ministry and settler elite are doing their best to ensure that we catch up fast.

An undated photo of a young black man, in an act of resistance to South Africa's apartheid policies, riding a bus restricted to whites only, in Durban, South Africa 1986.

Nostalgic White South African diehards are going to be delighted at the spirited defense of racial separation mounted by senior Education Ministry official Dalia Fenig last week.

Not since the end of South African apartheid in 1994 has the policy of apartheid been expounded as explicitly and clearly as in Fenig’s explanation of her disqualification of a novel from inclusion in the general high school curriculum in Israel.

The novel, “Borderlife,” by Dorit Rabinyan, deals with a love affair in New York between a Jewish Israeli woman and a Palestinian man. Last week, it was deemed inappropriate for Israeli high schoolers.

"Young people of adolescent age tend to romanticize and don’t, in many cases, have the systemic vision that includes considerations involving maintaining the national-ethnic identity of the people and the significance of miscegenation,” Fenig is reported as saying in her own defense. (My italics.)

Copy of "Borderlife," by Dorit Rabinyan, at Israeli book store.
Moti Milrod

Until recently, Israeli racism could be shrugged off as a consequence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Animosity and distrust are bound to occur when two national groups clash over their rights and narratives. It was possible to see it as a sort of operational racism that would gradually disappear when the conflict was resolved.

Most of us knew of the bigoted and pernicious Judaism taught by extremist rabbis in the occupied territories, but they and their teachings always seemed to be too obscure and too inconsequential to be taken seriously. Their rants about Jewish exclusivity and blood purity were never going to fly in Tel Aviv.

Well, they’re flying now. Fenig represents mainstream Israel and her thinking has a direct influence on the education our children receive and, by extension, the people they grow up to be. Nor is it just Fenig. She happened to stumble into the limelight, but behind her is Naftali Bennett and the burgeoning forces of darkness that he commands.

It’s worth bearing in mind that the essence of apartheid in South Africa was never segregated park benches or puritan censorship. Those, and many other absurdities, were just the outgrowths of apartheid – the tumors, rather the cancer itself. And, as we know, cancer can manifest itself in many ways.

Apartheid is the Afrikaans word for what in English is best translated as apart-ness; a policy designed to keep races or ethnic groups from mixing out of fear of racial pollution. Or, as Fenig put it, to prevent them from “threatening [each other’s] separate identity.”

Identity, of course, is a laden concept – Fenig-speak for both racial xenophobia and the power and privileges associated with the superior socio-political position of the dominant race, to which Fenig just happens to belong. 

Like Fenig, the Afrikaners who were so enthusiastic about retribalizing the Zulus, Xhosa and Tswana into bantustans had zero interest in the culture and traditions of those tribes, but enormous interest in ensuring that they could neither challenge nor share in the self-enrichment of the Whites. Sanctimonious concern for the other – “it will be best for them as well” – is classic racism.

The proponents of apartheid liked to describe it as a policy of “separate but equal,” a proposition as preposterous in South Africa then as “democratic and Jewish” is in Israel today. In a power structure in which just one race (or religion or caste) has the monopoly, both equality and democracy are a sham. In apartheid South Africa it meant that, once the races were fully separated, whites would be equal to whites and blacks would be equal to blacks. In Israel it means that a small number of Arab parliamentarians with no chance of ever gaining power are allowed to be a PR window-dressing.

Fenig’s racism – her “systemic vison” of national-ethnic identities – is the real cancer, and it’s metastasizing fast. In South Africa, a similar systemic vision required anti-miscegenation legislation, separate living areas for the different races (known as Group Areas), separate – and highly unequal – education and, of course, separate political institutions, to prevent one race from polluting the other.

That’s the path that Bennett, Fenig and the settler elite have mapped out for us. Israel proper is not there yet, though the South African model has been precisely and diligently implemented in the occupied territories. We in Tel Aviv are lagging behind the new settlement-Im Tirtzu mainstream, but they’re doing their best to ensure that we catch up fast.

And we’re moving ahead quickly on the other fronts, as well. True apartheid requires a foundation of secrecy and censorship, political suppression, unfettered security activities (including the use of torture,) thought and culture policing, scapegoating, random brutality and intolerance. The current government has made significant progress in all of them, with more to come in 2016.

Roy Isacowitz is a journalist and writer living in Tel Aviv and an editor at Haaretz. He has worked on newspapers in both South Africa and Israel.