Racism in Israeli Society: Winning Elections, Spewing Hate

When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu played the race card in a final attempt to get out the vote last month, it displayed to all the world how such bigoted rhetoric has deep appeal in Israeli society: The effort was successful and swept him to yet another term as head of state.

As voters were going to the polls, he said on Israeli television that Palestinian citizens of the state (“Arabs” in Israeli terms) were “streaming in droves to the polling stations” and “right-wing rule [was] in danger.” At the time, surveys showed his rival Isaac Herzog leading, but the final tally gave Netanyahu a decisive victory.

Here we have a topic worthy of inquiry: How is it possible that the leader of a democracy can make such an openly racist appeal to voters? And what is it in Israeli society that responds to this kind of incitement?

The New York Times has reported Netanyahu’s words, adding that “opponents accused him of baldfaced racism,” but it has failed to go beyond these brief remarks. Times articles tell us, for instance, that Netanyahu’s remarks “appear racist” or were criticized as being racist, but they stop short of acknowledging that Israeli society has a problem with ethnic bigotry.

Times readers never learn, for instance, that Israeli buses are segregated by ethnicity, that nearly 50 percent of Israelis want Arab citizens of the state transferred to the Palestinian Authority, that Israeli youth recently marched through the Old City of Jerusalem chanting “death to Arabs” (just the latest example of such displays) and that more than 50 Israeli laws discriminate against non-Jews.

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz, reporting on a recent Hebrew language book on Israeli school life, notes that “ethnic hatred has become a basic element in the everyday life of Israeli youth.” The book quotes students who boast about their eagerness to kill Palestinians. “I’m ready to kill someone with my hands,” a 10th grade girl says. “I wish them death.”

After more of this kind of example, the article states: “One conclusion that arises from the text is how little the education system is able—or wants—to deal with the racism problem.”

In the Times, however, we find no talk of a “racism problem” in Israel, even though this bigotry goes beyond hatred of Palestinians to encompass other non-Jews. The state has been imprisoning and deporting asylum seekers from Africa, for instance, and Africans in Tel Aviv have faced throngs of violent protesters demanding their expulsion.

But even as the newspaper has been silent in the face of all this, it has promoted discussion of anti-Semitism. In recent weeks, the Times has run two overblown stories about complaints of anti-Semitism on American college campuses (see TimesWarp here and here), a David Brooks column on how to combat the phenomenon internationally and an editorial about soccer fans in Europe. It also made much of the anti-Semitism issue after gunmen took over a Jewish market in Paris and left four dead earlier this year.

The Brooks column ran just as the conversation about the election was at its peak, as Netanyahu was backtracking from his remarks about Arab voters and fudging on a claim that he would never allow a Palestinian state. This was a perfect time to dig more deeply into the troubling signs of racism in Israel.

Instead, readers were offered the Brooks piece, which appears to rely heavily on sources such as hyper-alarmist press releases from the Anti-Defamation League to support evidence of growing anti-Semitism.

When the Times ran an editorial about racist soccer chants in Europe last week, it had nothing to say about a notable example out of Israel—the openly racist Beitar Jerusalem team, which refuses to sign Palestinian players and is noted for its fans’ racist chants and banners. Its supporters also made news when hundreds staged a walkout after a non-Jewish team member (a Chechen Muslim) scored a goal.

Segregated bus lines, the racist chants of Israeli youth and public opinion that favors the transfer of minorities from the state are eminently newsworthy topics, but the newspaper shows little interest in informing readers of such things. The Times would have us believe that Israelis are the victims—but not the perpetrators—of ethnic violence, and it gives short shrift to news that fails to support this script.

Barbara Erickson

[For a full and close-up look at Israeli racism, see Goliath by Max Blumenthal.]

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