Israel Has Always Been Xenophobic, It Just Used to Be Better at Hiding It

Long before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, there was no real democracy in Israel. There was plenty of hatred of Arabs, but everything was hidden, unlike today – so which is better?

Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy
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Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and Habayit Hayehudi party leader Naftali Bennett announce a coalition deal on Wednesday.
Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and Habayit Hayehudi party leader Naftali Bennett announce a coalition deal on Wednesday. Credit: AFP
Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy

This is the way we were, long before Naftali Bennett was education minister: the children of nationalists, closed off, quite ignorant – we just didn’t know it. That’s the way it was in those beautiful years when education ministers were from the left – the years it is customary to long for.

The brainwashing, censorship and indoctrination were much worse then than they are today, only opposition to them was much less. We thought that everything was fine with our education system. On Fridays, we had to wear blue and white, the national colors; we gave to the Jewish National Fund (Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael), so it would plant forests to cover the ruins of the Arab villages they did not want us to see.

At a time when the author Dorit Rabinyan had not yet been born, we had never met an Arab. They lived under military rule and were not allowed to come near us without authorization. A Jewish-Arab love story could not even have been considered science fiction, happening in a galaxy far, far away from where we were growing up. Druze were slightly more acceptable; they served in the army. I remember the first Druze I met; it was in 11th grade.

We never heard a word about the Nakba, the Palestinian term for the formation of the State of Israel, either. We saw the ruins of houses – and did not see anything. Long before the “wedding of hate,” at our Lag Ba’omer campfires we burned effigies of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser – we called him “the Egyptian tyrant.” In the secular schools of Tel Aviv, we kissed Bibles if, heaven forbid, they fell on the floor. We wore kippas in Bible studies, long before the establishment of “centers for deepening Jewish identity.” We hardly heard about the New Testament. No one would think of studying it in school: it was considered almost as dangerous as “Mein Kampf.”

Many of us spit when we passed a church door. Few of us dared venture inside and, if we did, felt very guilty about it. Making the sign of the cross, even in jest, was considered an act of suicide. To us, Christians were “idolaters” – and idolaters, as we knew, were the lowest of all. We knew there was a “mission” in Jaffa, from which we had to keep away as if from fire. One child who went to study there was considered lost. The first generation of independence knew that all the Christians were anti-Semites. We knew, of course, that we were the chosen people and the be-all and end-all. That was inculcated in us by the enlightened education system of the nascent state.

Assimilation was considered the greatest sin of all – even greater than leaving the country to live elsewhere. The rumor that the uncle of one of the kids had married a non-Jewish woman was considered a disgrace to be kept secret. The chilling significance of the sick concept of “assimilation” didn’t even cross our minds. We grew up in a unified society, racially pure, in that little Tel Aviv: without foreigners, without Arabs, almost without Jews of Middle Eastern descent. Jaffa was the back of beyond and no one thought of going there: it was dangerous.

They taught us to think in a uniform manner and be wary of any deviation. The most subversive discussion I can remember from those days was whether the Jews “went like sheep to the slaughter.” Once, I stopped next to a tiny demonstration of the left-wing Matzpen organization on the steps of Beit Sokolov, the headquarters of the Israeli Journalists Association, to talk with N., who was in my class at school. The next day, I was called urgently to the vice principal’s office: he whipped out a photo of me from the demonstration – which the Shin Bet security service had passed on to him – and demanded explanations. That was long before the “NGO law” and the “Boycott law.”

Long before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and the banning of Rabinyan’s “Borderlife,” there was no real democracy here. Long before anti-assimilationist Bentzi Gopstein and right-wing activist Itamar Ben-Gvir, there was xenophobia here and plenty of hatred of Arabs. But everything was hidden, wrapped in the noisy cellophane of excuses, buried deep in the earth.

And what is better? That remains an open question.

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