Wednesday, September 05, 2007

The taxi ride during which nothing happened

'Yediot Aharonot' claims Israel is a racist society.

I say it doesn't know the meaning of the word


Last Tuesday night I gave in to fatigue and took a taxi home from The Jerusalem Post building. I told the driver where I was going, he clarified my destination - in perfect Hebrew - and off we drove.

As I settled into the back seat, I heard a melodic recitation of the Koran playing low on the radio. Along the way my driver conducted a brief conversation in Arabic. For all I know he might have been saying, "OK sweetie, I'll pick up some feta cheese on the way home," but the fleeting thought crossed my mind that he could be arranging my kidnapping and that I wouldn't be eating supper at home that night. Yet here I am to tell the tale.

I wouldn't even have recalled this non-incident but for the fact that a few days later Israel's main tabloid, Yediot Aharonot, devoted its front page, plus the first four inside pages, to an "exposé" of Israeli racism.

"Racist Country" the headline lamented. "Discrimination in Israel 2007: This is what we're like," ran the intro, which continued: "We sent an Ethiopian, a Russian, a Moroccan, an Arab, a haredi, and an Ashkenazi throughout Israel to search for work, rent a flat, sign up a child in kindergarten..." - and, lo and behold, the newspaper unearthed the startling revelation that Ashkenazi Israelis faced virtually no discrimination, while Arab Israelis encountered lots of it.
That, in the eyes of Yediot, makes the country "racist."


And I suppose Yediot would label me racist because of the neurotic scenario I played out in my head during that evening taxi ride. Or is Yediot confusing prejudice, which is both understandable and mostly curable, with racism, a scourge that is essentially untreatable (think Ahmadinejad) and could lead to genocide?

I'm not being picayune. But if everything is "racism," then nothing is "racism." The term loses all meaning - which only serves the interests of genuine racists.

My gut instinct tells me that Israel isn't "racist" relative to other Western societies, and that the problem Yediot "exposed" was wrongly diagnosed.

YEDIOT HAD six Israelis of similar age and educational background approach a total of 400 restaurants, cafes, rental apartments and kindergartens in 22 cities, from Kiryat Shmona in the north to Eilat in the south in search for work, apartments or play-school slots for their children.
The Ashkenazi candidate received overwhelmingly positive feedback, with the Moroccan (Sephardi) applicant not too far behind. In third place came the haredi, followed closely by the immigrant from the former Soviet Union.


But - and here is where the tabloid thinks it uncovered our "racism" - the Ethiopian immigrant and Israeli Arab candidates lagged far behind. Doors open to the other applicants were slammed shut in their faces. (The Arab was rejected 66 percent of the time; the Ethiopian 44%.) An inexperienced Ashkenazi was invariably taken over the qualified Arab; ditto for the Ethiopian.

When he applied to be a barman, one cafe demanded a "certificate" from the Ethiopian certifying that he could operate a "complicated" espresso machine. The inexperienced Ashkenazi was invited to come down for an interview.

The so-called racism, incidentally, went both ways: Some places preferred Russian speakers over native-born Hebrew speakers.

Strikingly, Yediot's sample group didn't include a "settler." It would have been interesting to see what chance a youth from a community in Judea or Samaria would have had of landing a barmen's job in, say, the trendy Sheinkin neighborhood of Tel Aviv.

In his adjoining comment on the admittedly unscientific survey, columnist Yair Lapid, a quintessential north Tel Aviv yuppie, concluded that Israel had gone astray. Then, quite unselfconsciously, Lapid went off at a tangent, ranting against settlers, haredim and politicians who attend (Moroccan) Mimouna festivals.

I give more gravitas to the newspaper's in-house analyst Sever Plocker, who pointed out the obvious: Four of the participants could not have encountered "racism" because "there is no such thing as a haredi race" or a "CIS immigrant race," or Ashkenazi and Sephardi races.

Haredim, Plocker argued, themselves have a history of intolerance (in housing, transportation, education), so it wasn't shocking that there were cases where they got what they gave.
Plocker's conclusion: "So are we racists? Very much so toward the Arab minority [and], to a troubling extent, toward immigrants from Ethiopia. [But] only to a small extent toward other sectors... in Jewish Israeli society. This is a consolation of sorts."


ACTUALLY, PLOCKER can take greater consolation than he imagines. Because Israelis aren't "racist" toward Arabs either, and the idea that we're "racist" toward Ethiopians is ludicrous.

Need I point out that the Ethiopians got here in the first place because we rescued them from starvation and discrimination? And isn't it at all relevant that Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel - "Israeli Arabs" - have all the rights Plocker and I enjoy despite their (communal, theological and political) affinity for the Palestinian Arabs, who happen to be engaged in a century-long war with the Jewish population of this land?


I'm not saying I would want to switch places with an Ethiopian immigrant or a Palestinian Israeli. But the bias they face needs to be understood for what it is; and what it's not.
Yediot has conflated racism with prejudice and discrimination - of which, alas, there is plenty in Israel. But get the diagnosis wrong and addressing the problem becomes impossible.


Hit the dictionary and this is what you'll learn: Racism, a term first coined by Ruth Benedict in 1942, is a doctrine or teaching - without scientific support - that claims to find racial differences in character or intelligence. It asserts the superiority of one race over another, or seeks to maintain supposed racial purity of a race or of the races.

WHO KNOWS? That Tel Aviv cafe manager who demanded a diploma in espresso machine operations from the Ethiopian job applicant might well be a latent racist - or he might be a garden-variety putz. And no, I don't kid myself: If the Falashas were a white African tribe - all other things being equal - they would integrate a lot more easily. But the fact that we Jews are a people and a civilization, and not a race, means that, with time, today's discriminated-against Ethiopian Jews (assuming we invest smartly in their education and social advancement) will become tomorrow's Moroccans.

Prejudice can dissipate. Racism is largely incurable.

And while prejudice dissipates too slowly, let's understand what it really is: a judgment or opinion formed before the facts are known. It's unreasonable bias, suspicion, intolerance or irrational hatred of other groups, races or creeds. Thankfully, personal experience and proper socialization can alter people's prejudices. You can learn that Moroccans - or Ethiopians - are as good as anybody else.

So my argument is that while Israelis may be biased - meaning that they have mental leanings in favor of or against some group - this isn't at all analogous to being racist. Closed-mindedness and intolerance may be all too prevalent, but time and proper socialization can cure the disorder. That's largely been the case in the West when elites encourage inclusivity and upward mobility.

I am not saying there are no Israelis who subscribe to theories of blood superiority or inferiority - but these people are on the fringes of society, just as they are in the US or Europe. They don't exemplify "what we're like."

I SPENT a good chunk of Sunday in the out-patient department of Hadassah Hospital on Mount Scopus. Let me suggest that any fair-minded observer wanting to test the canard that Israel is a racist society observe the goings-on at an Israeli hospital. Haredim, Russians, Arabs, Ashkenazim, Sephardim - even native-born New Yorkers - receive (and give) identical, and mostly compassionate, care. Not only is there no "racism," I've never seen even a vestige of bias or favoritism.

Besides, and this is no small matter, it's hard to conceive of Arabs and Jews as being separate races. A race, and here I hit the dictionary again, is distinguished by "form of hair, color of skin and eyes, stature, and bodily proportions." Many anthropologists now consider that there are just three primary racial groups: Caucasoid, Negroid and Mongoloid, each with its various subdivisions.

Arabs and Jews are Semitic peoples. In fact, both traditions maintain that Arabs and Jews are the children of Abraham. Trying to understand what divides us on racial grounds is not only foolish, it's mean-spirited and deceptive.

Oh, and for the record: I really don't like taxi drivers. Never have. Not here, or back in New York City. Call me biased, prejudiced, closed-minded, street-savvy - whatever - but don't call me racist.

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