Opinion |

Racism in Israel? You're Exaggerating!

In honor of the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, I urge everyone to stop denying the existence of racism in Israel. Only then can we truly fight it.

Mesi Aychek
Mesi Aychek
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An Ethiopian-Israeli protester in Tel Aviv, May 18, 2015.
An Ethiopian-Israeli protester in Tel Aviv, May 18, 2015. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Mesi Aychek
Mesi Aychek

“Race” isn’t a term that exists in reality. It has no biological reality, but it nevertheless exists in our social reality. On a personal level, it accompanies me everywhere.

Throughout history many theories have sought to classify human beings, and the belief that there are different races remains prevalent to this day. Such views have enabled an entire system of justifications, of which the most noteworthy in world history are those for slavery and colonialism.

With the development of science and the growing understanding of the human genome, it has been clearly proved that all people share almost exactly the same set of genes. Still, racism is alive and well. It has enormous power; it wounds and kills.

How does it happen that a physical difference like skin color occupies such a central place in our social psychology, even though from a scientific standpoint the difference among us humans is near zero? How does it happen that in 2017 many people still believe we belong to different races?

To understand a given social phenomenon, it’s important to understand who it serves and identify its world of justifications. Every time I experience or witness a racist incident, I immediately encounter the “persuaders” who try to explain that it wasn’t really racist, that I’m exaggerating or – a beloved explanation – that I’m not reading the situation correctly. Over the three decades of my life I’ve heard a wide variety of creative excuses and explanations for the manifestations of racism I’ve encountered.

When I ask about racist attitudes toward Israeli Arabs, I’m told, “What do you mean, racism? We’re all Semites.” Regarding racist attitudes toward African migrants and asylum seekers, the common response is, “That’s not because of their color, but because they’re in Israel illegally.” When I ask about racism toward Ethiopian Israelis, they tell me, “Enough, you’re exaggerating! We’re all Jews.”

Racism has a rich past and a substantial present, but its future depends on us. Racism’s continued existence depends on accurately diagnosing it. The first step toward ending it is to stop denying it. Racism exists, it’s alive and kicking, and this step is vital to making it disappear.

It sometimes seems as if the denier is more dangerous than the racist, because denial is what allows racism’s continued existence and constitutes a major obstacle in the battle against it. This battle must be fought by educating people (both children and adults) to dismantle our world of justifications regarding different segments of society.

To the classic racist and the denier we can add a third, elusive type – the “liberal racist.” He doesn’t know that’s what he is; he’s so liberal he has become colorblind.

For example, let’s say I tell a liberal racist that after being invited to a job interview I was asked three times by the interviewers if I was sure I was really Ms. Aychek (a surname that’s considered Ashkenazi). And the interviewers stared at me in astonishment each time I nodded yes. The liberal racist still can’t understand what all the fuss is about. His liberal color-blindness blurs his vision and prevents him from understanding that racism exists everywhere and hides in the details.

The next stage in liquidating racism is to redefine it, as has been done, for instance, by Prof. Yehouda Shenhav, who calls it “racialization” and defines it as “attributing inferiority to a person or group on the basis of stereotypical traits defined in biological, social or cultural language. In racist discourse, these traits are viewed as inferior, invariable and fundamental to that group.”

In honor of the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, which fell Tuesday, I urge everyone to stop denying the existence of racism in Israeli society, to lay bare all the racialized groups in Israel, and to immerse ourselves in conversation about the issue so that we can truly fight it and finally liberate ourselves from it.

Mesi Aychek works in the Human Rights Education Department of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.

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