credit: Tslil Zalt
Speech by author Sami Michael,
President of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, to the Conference on Racism and the Education System in Israel hosted by ACRI and the Kibbutzim College, March 17 2013.
The Racism Epidemic
Mother Nature has always strived diligently to cultivate means of survival in order to protect living creatures from lurking danger. Take, for example, the chameleon’s method of changing colors. Its skin changes color in accordance with its environment, temperature, and proximity of danger. This skill of blending into the background gives it a chance to live. This mechanism also serves the human need to survive. The saying that the best defense is a good offense was certainly a phrase coined by aggressive types, eager for battle, and likewise the saying that if someone comes to kill you, you must rise and kill him first. Hitler and all the monsters who came before him and those who came after claimed that they were taking preventative measures and responding to the evil intentions of their victims. But nature reasons otherwise. Sophisticated defense is the most prudent and best way to protect life, as opposed to getting embroiled in fatal adventures. Camouflage is the mechanism that affords the animal kingdom continued existence in a hostile environment. The human’s light-skinned face in the dark deep jungle is an easy target for any attacker, unlike dark faces which blend in with the surroundings. In addition, a brown shade allows a desert-dweller to blend in with the sand, while a white body can go almost unseen in the lands of snow and autumn.
Exploiting this wonderful survival mechanism as an excuse for discrimination, exclusion, hatred and racism is reprehensible, and unnatural. The last century will go down in history as the century with the most widespread and raging epidemic of racism in the history of humanity, which claimed tens of millions of victims. The most horrifying thing about this epidemic is that its source was not in the failed regions of human settlement. It bloomed in the heart of Europe, the most enlightened continent on Earth, and found echoes and offshoots from Scandinavia to South Africa to North America. The most shameful factor of this epidemic was the sheer number of people of culture, scientists, and in particular historians who, like a plague of locusts, mobilized in the service of this accursed racial doctrine.
Throughout history, we Jews have been one of the foremost targets of this epidemic. During the last century, we paid a terrible price with a third of our numbers slaughtered, poisoned and burned with no savior or protector in sight. As a young Jewish man in Baghdad in the 1930s and 40s, I saw, to my horror, that even the democratic countries and the supposedly enlightened and liberal world remained silent. It seemed to me then that from a cultural perspective this racial hatred dominated the current fashion from one end of the earth to the other. A binge of classification based on race, origin, skin color, sex, and different culture and tradition, brainwashed humanity.
Particularly disturbing is phenomenon in which, among the victims of the Nazi racial classification, including both Arabs and Jews, impure voices rose in support of that same illegitimate doctrine. Moreover, they even demanded its implementation within their own nations. I remember the graffiti on my way to school in Baghdad, “Hitler is exterminating the germs.” It was so painful to see that the hands of some Arabs – noted in Mein Kampf as sub-human hands – also adopted the monstrous doctrine. Later, I would discover several fathers of Zionism were also disgracefully infected with this epidemic. One of them, after whom a street is named in Haifa, a street dear to me which connects my home on Mount Carmel to my former home in Wadi Nisnas, is named after Arthur Ruppin, who strove for “racial purity.” This gentlemen doubted that Mizrahim belonged to the “Jewish race” and believed that the Yemenites were not Jews, because there are no black Jews. Ruppin also demanded that mixed marriage between Ashkenazim and Yemenites (then called “blacks”) be banned. To me, Ruppin Street in Haifa is one of the most beautiful streets in the world. I would drive on it every day and even climb up the road on foot to my house in which my dear Ashkenazi wife and two mixed children lived. Even today, after 60 years, I do not know how to deal with the gap between Ruppin’s doctrine and the wonderful outcome of my offspring, who are educators, hard workers, and highly accomplished individuals.
I cannot manage to comprehend how victims of racism can themselves be racist; how the remaining two-thirds of the fatal epidemic of racism could establish a state in which racism holds a chilling grip, from the soccer stadiums to the political world, and on to all forms of culture.
The United States was the last Western power to outlaw the slave trade. It was the largest Western country to continue to conduct racism policy toward black people. Even after the defeat of Nazi Germany, the U.S. did not abandon its racist policy. In the 1950s and 60s, it was necessary to conduct a heroic struggle in order to provide black Americans with the right to sit with white people on the same buses and study together at the same schools. How is it that half a century later, a country with such a racist past elects a popular and admired black president? I remember the black characters presented in American films until the late 1950s. Black women were always servants, almost always with monstrous dimensions and an infantile look on their faces. Black men were shoeshine boys and ignorant farm workers.
Certainly, Obama was not elected president one bright day as if by magic, but rather before his election, a long time before it, a revolution took place. Actually, it happened in those very same movie studios that were so racist in the dark days. It was precisely American art and culture which formed the vanguard of profound change in public consciousness, and ultimately led to the election of a black man to the highest office in the entire world. Black characters in American film changed gradually and became honored judges who hand down the law in courtrooms, leading scientists, gifted professors of philosophy, military leaders with the rank of general, and brilliant scholars and intellectuals. Literature, music and theater went hand in hand with American film. Obama owes much to the world of culture which shaped a different image of black people. The success of American films was so great that even many Israelis were willing to support the election journey of a black man as the leader of the United States – but not of Israel.
Has something so fundamental changed in Israeli culture, from the preaching of Ruppin and Frankenstein who described the Mizrahi Jew as greedy, to the repulsive character of Salah Shabati, to the literary dressing of this approach expressed in the Mizrahi character of the novel Black Box who sucks the blood of the white man in Israel? Not long ago, a journalist stated publicly that Mizrahi music is intrinsically violent. It escaped him that the Rolling Stones were born in enlightened Britain and hard rock’s judgment day drums emerged in the United States and conquered the Western world by storm. Since when is the popular song “A Sea of Tears” and music full of sadness a cause of violence?
In Israel and the U.S., racism and profound social disparities have been present since the beginning of the countries’ existence. The U.S.flies the flag of its egalitarian Constitution, while Israelis proud of its egalitarian Declaration of Independence. Both countries have committed great sins with regards to equality and civil rights. Unfortunately, with the passage of time, a different process has taken place in Israel than in the United States. Among enlightened Israelis, and especially in the strongholds of culture and government, the stubborn tendency to cling to racism continues. In the leadership of the political parties, in the Knesset, among government ministers, in theater halls and courtrooms, both in terms of personnel and content, there is still a clear under-representation of a variety of Israeli citizens: women, Mizrahim, immigrants and Arabs. If a separation fence was built in a schoolyard to prevent contact between children of different colors or origins in a different place, far from Israel, no doubt Israelis would be the ones raising a hue and cry. We would be making noise around the world if Jewish students in London or Paris were relegated to the other side of a separation fence. But this happened right here in Israel during the 21st century. The color black has become red in the eyes of the racist Israeli bull.
Because of poor access to the education system and the cultural and artistic field in particular, victims of racism have become sworn racists against weaker groups in Israeli society: a member of the Tel Aviv city council from the Shas party demanded separation between Israeli children and children of refugees and foreign workers in schools and kindergartens. The same city council member also demanded that the Transportation Minister allocate special buses, meaning separate ones, for foreign workers and refugees. This abominable demand, when it was heard in the American south, aroused the ire of brave civil rights activists including blacks and Jews, some of whom lost their lives in the struggle against racist segregation in schools, public transportation, and more.
Even in Israel today, a person with brown skin, and certainly if he is black, is not guaranteed to be allowed in a nightclub. A Muslim soccer player suffers abuses and insults even when scoring a goal for his supposedly “pure” Jewish team.
The racism directed against Jews from Arab-Muslim countries, against immigrants from Ethiopia and Russia, against refugees and migrant workers, against the gay and lesbian community, and the list goes on – are relatively mild cases of the general racism epidemic. Racism against Arabs is more severe, both in its extent and in the violence by which it is expressed. Cries of “death to Arabs” and “Arabs get out” are malicious.
“What do I want?” asked an important Israeli author about Arabs, “not to see their faces.” In today’s Israel, Palestinians are transported on segregated buses, because of the belief that the other must be separated from us, distanced and hidden from our eyes as much as possible. Arabs who innocently enter the public sphere are attacked physically with stones, with sharp weapons, with fists and racist cries. Even the Police Chief has warned against this despicable crime. The main soccer field in righteous Jerusalem, not far from the Knesset, government ministries and Supreme Court, displays an infamous sign, “Keep Beitar pure forever.” The main culprit is not the one who flies the racist sign, not the one who kicks Arabs, not the one who throws stones at them, not the one who lynches them. The education system is the guilty party, because it reduces the study of world history to just twenty percent, because the Education Ministry confiscates copies of history textbooks published by the Zalman Shazar Center in order to prevent students from being exposed to the point of view of the other, and because when schoolchildren from Ar’ara participate in a human rights march carrying signs for equality and against racism, the school is reprimanded by the Education Ministry on the grounds that this contravenes regulations.
The education system is guilty because it has not acted sufficiently to convey the message that we all belong to the same wonderful race, the human race. There is no superior race, there is no inferior race, there is no pure race, and there is no impure race. The political parties with their demagogic representatives are guilty, the rabbis who preach hatred and racism are guilty. I feel great shame about the signatures of 300 Rabbis on the Jewish law ruling banning the sale or rental of apartments to non-Jews. The Jewish religion has never been as disgraced and toxic as it appears today, particularly in the occupied territories and “holy” Jerusalem and Safed. These Rabbis act as if there is no God. Worse than that, they act as if they themselves were God. Woe be such a distorted God.
The level of racism can also be measured in other ways, for example, by testing the denial mechanism. We raised an outcry when the UN decided that Zionism is racism. Why are those same voices silent today? In 1966,Israel signed the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, but we have not fulfilled our duties towards women, immigrants, Arabs, and others.
Whoever adopts the denial mechanism should please volunteer themselves and spend a day posing as a Palestinian in the occupied territories, an Arab in Jerusalem or Safed, or a black person knocking on the door of a nightclub. In a racist atmosphere, it is not only the preacher of racism who is responsible for sowing the seeds of calamity. Those who deny the existence of racial injustice are also responsible, those who are not partners to racial injustice but have a finger in the pie and remain silent, whether out of fear or indifference. They may well find themselves victims of a racist regime tomorrow. They may lose their freedoms and their liberal way of life. It happened not long ago in enlightened and humanistic Europe, and if we do not pull ourselves together and shake off the affliction of the racist epidemic, it will happen here tomorrow to us too.