Sunday, 28 April 2013

On Zionism, racism and fear

Jewish political independence should not come at the expense of human rights of non-Jewish citizens.

IT IS no mean feat to be celebrating 65 years of Israel’s independence as a Jewish and democratic state. A series of wars and armed conflicts, numerous acts of terrorism and a global campaign to delegitimize Israel’s existence as a national homeland for the Jewish people are just some of the external threats to the Jewish people’s right to self-determination.

But there is also an internal threat to the Zionist dream of an Israel that would be a light onto the nations, founded on the universal values of “freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel,” as stated in the Declaration of Independence. That threat is Jewish racism, directed at excluding Israeli Arabs from the public sphere.

Legislation proposing to nullify Arabic as an official language, an edict by top rabbis against renting homes to Arabs, and a violent assault of a street cleaner simply because he is an Arab are just some of the ways of letting Israeli Arabs know that they are not welcome in the predominantly Jewish public sphere.

Motivating this racism of exclusion are three principal fears. The first is existential fear, clearly expressed by Ron, a Jerusalem high school student, in a recent interview.

“There is a small part within every Arab, even those who say they want to live with us in peace, that can without warning jump on you and stab you with a knife. There is nothing you can do about it: In their roots they are against Jews.”

According to this view, Arabs are fundamentally untrustworthy, constituting a constant “security threat.”

They are the enemy. This applies to all Israeli Arabs, regardless of citizenship or how they come across as individuals.

Not surprisingly, Ron does not want to see Arabs in the public sphere: “not in the streets, not at the mall, not on the light rail.”

But is it right to call this racism? Not according to Nir, another high school student, for whom “racism is when you hate a person without reason.”

His hatred for Arabs is well-grounded, he thinks. He simply doesn’t feel safe around them. “They brought it upon themselves, with all the terror attacks,” Nir explains. “Because they are here, part of my life is ruined.”

The fear motivating these attitudes and beliefs is understandable, yet it is nevertheless irrational and racist, as are the reactions themselves. It is irrational because according to the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) the involvement of Israeli Arabs in terrorist attacks remains “relatively minor.”

To fear all Israeli Arabs because of the subversive or violent actions of a few is as irrational as it would be for a woman to fear all men because of the sexual assaults committed by some men. Such fear is also racist, for it presupposes that “in their roots” all Arabs hate Jews, thereby promoting the stigmatization and penalization of individuals based solely on group membership.

The heart of racism is not gratuitous hatred, but Manichean essentialism. Modern racism is based on the belief that members of a certain group – whether racial, cultural, national, religious, or some other belonging – possess features that warrant hostility and discrimination and, most important, that these features are rigid and unchangeable, resulting in unbridgeable differences between “us” and “them” so that “there is nothing you can do about it,” as Ron said, except separate the two groups.

Minimizing contact between Jews and Arabs also responds to the second motivation underlying the racism of exclusion – the fear of miscegenation. As one person put it, “My blood freezes when I see an Arab man talking to a Jewish girl.”

This is not simply the ancient Jewish aversion to assimilation. Nor is it simply concern for the girl’s well-being, sincere as it may be. There is also fear of the “demographic threat” of a possible Arab majority in Israel. From this perspective, a Jewish woman (and the focus is predominantly on women) who goes off with an Arab man, diminishes the Jewish collective, particularly if she bears children of mixed identity.

But there is a further, more subtle fear that drives the racism of exclusion. This fear is a response to a core tenet of Zionism, namely, that appearances can create reality and that political power comes from appearing in the public sphere.

Theodor Herzl’s utopian novel Altneuland (“The Old New Land”) made public his dream of a Jewish national homeland and in so doing helped transform the dream into reality. Homa U’Migdal, the Jewish settlements of the 1930s, also showed how the barest appearance of a settlement – a tower and stockade – sufficed to create a new geographic and political reality overnight. Those calling for the exclusion of Israeli Arabs from the public sphere recognize the power of appearances.

The mere presence of an Arab woman, a teacher, in a Jewish neighborhood challenges the claim to exclusive Jewish ownership and control of that space. It reminds us that the Jewish homeland is also home to Arabs who have a right to equal consideration and respect as Israeli citizens. For the woman to pay a condolence call on a Jewish colleague while wearing the hijab is to implicitly reject invisibility and impotence and assert her right to be and act as an individual and an Arab in the public sphere.

The idea that appearances create reality explains why Tel Aviv-Jaffa’s City Council voted against adding Arabic to the city’s logo, or why the mayor of Upper Nazareth refuses to build an Arab school in the city established to “Judaize the Galilee.” Symbols matter in the on-going battle to maintain Jewish sovereignty over the Land of Israel, as does the question of who is permitted to shape the public sphere by appearing in it through word and deed.

The Zionist vision of a national homeland for the Jewish people is a legitimate one. Israel must remain a Jewish state, a place where Jews can openly express their identity, free from humiliation, prosecution and the pressures of assimilation. But Israel must also remain a democratic state. Jewish political independence should not come at the expense of equal respect for the basic human rights of its non-Jewish citizens. Zionism does not justify the exclusion of Israeli Arabs from the public sphere, nor is it compatible with the racism and fear that underlie this exclusion.

Zionism is fundamentally opposed to essentialism and passivity. It is an ideology of individual and national transformation through action, aimed at creating a “new man” and a “new society” in Israel. The idea that there is a fixed Jewish or Arab “nature” is alien to Zionism, as is the idea that we are powerless to improve a bad situation.

Zionism begins by taking responsibility for reality as it is and as we wish it to be. To dream of making things better takes courage, optimism and openness. In the case of Jewish-Arab relations in Israel, it requires that we stop regarding ourselves as (past or future) victims and take a chance on the “other” as individuals.

Avoidance was never the Zionist answer to fear.

Separating “us” from “them” is the solution of those who are not strong enough to realize the dream and the challenge of an Israel that is both Jewish and democratic.

It is the solution of those moved by fear. It is time to break free of this fear and the racism it promotes, starting now, on Independence Day.

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