WASHINGTON – I witnessed the absurdity and the agony of identity politics this past week. After the murder of the police officers in Dallas, when America was raging and fearful, hundreds of demonstrators from the Black Lives Matter group gathered in front of the White House. This is the radical organization that has organized protests in the wake of killings of black people by the police.
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The demonstrators cried out with all their heart, there was no doubt about that. They told me they feel like second-class citizens. Some were the victims of police violence themselves, as well as a wide range of expressions of racism and discrimination. And all of them, without exception, expressed deep frustration about the fact that even a black president could not succeed in uprooting this plague.
Suddenly, we heard shouts in foreign language, Arabic. A group of protesters with candles and flags were demanding “Justice for Iraq,” and mourning the masses killed in the recent terrorist bombings in Baghdad. They carried signs condemning the Islamic State, or ISIS, and talked about how worried they are about racism against Muslims in the United States.
The black protesters looked at them in anger. You are bothering us, said a woman protester carrying a sign that read “Racism = Cancer.” I’m an American too, I too suffer from racism, one of the young Iraqi demonstrators retorted. No, we were here first, she answered firmly. This is not your struggle.
I watched them, bickering, arguing over who is suffering more, much like in a play by Israel's Hanoch Levin. Both groups live in the same city, even in the same neighborhood. They both feel rejected, discriminated against. They are both poor, and both are alone in their struggle.
This is the power of the system: the deep belief that everything depends on you, and only you. The secret of the power lies in the constant shattering of norms related to social responsibility, and even more so – in the negation of society as the basis for human existence. There is no society. There is a jungle with animals hunting for prey, and we are all embroiled in a war of survival. Success is measured by your ability to trample others.
The lines of the racial and religious division touch on the deepest rift of all: class divisions. But identity politics hides the poverty. It is the most effective tool for drying up the social protest. It encourages every group and tribe to turn inside itself and deal with only its own discrimination.
You are black or white. Jewish or Muslim. A woman or a man. Mizrahi or Ashkenazi. Gay or straight. Don’t you dare mix protests. The internet does not respond to that well. It likes head-to-head battles, Mizrahim against Ashkenazim, Jews against Arabs.
But life is not like that. We are not just one type. Our identity is complex. What if I am a Muslim woman or black Jew? And what if I am also disabled or elderly? And if I am a half-Mizrahi and half-Ashkenazi male, gay who lives in a rented room in Petah Tikva and works as a courier for minimum wage? Who represents me? The men? Mizrahim? Gays? Renters? People living in outlying areas? Maybe the couriers?
Racism exists, boy does it exist. The way to fight it is not by isolating yourselves or practicing reverse discrimination, but by repairing society. Identity politics tries to hide the fact that the great majority in all groups suffer from the same misery and aspire to the same goals: personal security, a life of dignity, satisfying employment, and good opportunities for the generation after us.
In order for all this to happen, we need to take into consideration the needs of all and to rise above the racial and ethnic divide. That is not utopia, it is social democracy: good public services, progressive taxation and fair labor laws. It is a reality in countries that enjoy a high quality of life, with a minimal level of inequality and a social safety net. But these achievements are under attack.
As I watched this absurd debate of identity, I was reminded of a joke I heard in South Africa: A white man and a black man meet on the street after the end of apartheid. How wonderful, says the white man joyfully, we are all equal citizens: No more blacks and no more whites. Yes, it’s wonderful, said the black man, now there are only the poor and the rich.