There’s a common mistaken assumption that Israelis’ hostility towards Palestinians and Arabs is based on a justified / deluded (take your choice) sense of the danger they pose. Israelis’ insecurity, it is often believed, derives from centuries of persecution of Jews around the world.
In reality, this is only a part of the story. There is also a deeply entrenched sense of separateness that comes both from the religion (the “chosen people” of Judaism) and from the lifestyle Jewish communities adopted in the face of persecution (e.g. the pales of settlement).
Reinvented by Zionism, the need for separation embodied by the Jewish state profoundly bolstered and exaggerated the kind of lingering legacy of “white racism” we find in western societies – the “model” for Ashkenazi Jews.
This was illustrated in a recent Haaretz feature about how the interior ministry grossly abuses non-Jewish spouses of Israelis when they try to naturalise.
It is also a prominent feature of Israel’s treatment of asylum seekers and foreign workers. Israel is barely better than a police state for these unfortunates.
But it also extends to Israeli Jews whom the wider society refuses to accept as “proper” Jews.
It is only with this background that one can make sense of the extraordinary story of a member of the Israeli parliament, Pnina Tamano-Shata, being treated as though she were a cross between a leper and the “kitchen help” at a recent blood donor drive run by the ambulance service at the parliament building.
Tamano-Shata’s problem is that she is black – an Ethiopian Jew. When she went to donate blood this week, alongside other MPs, she was rejected. The medics told her she had “the special kind of Jewish-Ethiopian blood”. When she insisted on speaking to the supervisor, she was told she could donate but the blood would not be used. The supervisor apparently added: “Sweetheart, don’t be insulted, you’re right but these are the Health Ministry’s directives.”
The directive tars a whole community with the idea that Ethiopian Jews are carriers of HIV.
Paradoxically, this long-standing practice of refusing blood blanket-fashion from Ethiopian Jews was what brought Tamano-Shata to public attention after she led a public campaign against it.
There has been lots of hand-wringing from government officials since the story went public. Health Minister Yael German said feebly in response, as though the government was powerless: “I find it absurd that in Israel of 2013, people of Ethiopian descent that came to Israel over 25 years ago can still not donate blood.”
But Ethiopians face myriad forms of discrimination. Not long ago, for example, it was reported that Ethiopian women had been given long-term contraceptive injections, despite the known dangers, to try to stop them having more Ethiopian babies.
Perhaps, not surprisingly, it was left to a Palestinian MP in Israel, Ahmed Tibi, to make best sense of the events: “This is a disgraceful, racist decision. The Israeli society and its systems continue to be infected by the deadly virus of racism, aimed at times against Ethiopians and many other times against Arabs. Racism is racism is racism. I feel solidarity with MK Tamano-Shata.”
A reader has challenged me about whether I am referring above to a special “Jewish” kind of racism. No, definitely not. That would be racist! What I am describing is a particularly entrenched kind of racism in Israeli society that feeds off the peculiar circumstances of Israel’s founding: the crude exploitation of exclusivist, religious ideas and symbolism as justification for statehood; a history as a religious-ethnic group of persecution and isolation; a core national ideology inspired by ugly European ethnic nationalisms; and decades of indulgence-at-all-costs by Western states.
In short, it is a racism comprehensively encouraged by Israeli institutions – from the state to the rabbinate and army – in a way hard to find an equivalent of in any modern country claiming or aspiring to be democratic.
Also noteworthy is the absence of meaningful countervailing, anti-racist forces in Israeli society. The best that I can identify is a superficial identification among some in the Ashkenazi elite – the tiny number of Meretz voters – with Western norms, which seems closely related to a form of class snobbery. The only other possible countervailing force is the national sport of hasbara, or deception designed to persuade outsiders that Israel is a normal society. But that is something else entirely.
This is why I disagree with some who wish to argue that Israeli racism is just another of the garden-variety racisms we find in modern Europe or the US.