Friday, June 20, 2008

Refugee week: Africans fleeing genocide

I have fallen behind on my Refugee Week series...

Most people in the global North think refugees (and migrants in general) come from "there" to "here". In fact, most of them go from one place "there" to another: places like Cairo, Nairobi, Mexico City and Lahore are home to the majority of the world's displaced people.

People fleeing intolerable lives in Africa understandably head North (or South, to relatively prosperous South Africa, where they have of course recently been greated with treatment the BNP can only dream of emulating).

For many, that means heading to Eygpt, as a route to Europe or to Israel, which is understood to be an outpost of the global North.

Israel, because of its history entwined with the need for sanctuary from genocide, is placed in a difficult position. However, despite the racism of Israeli society, large numbers (perhaps a majority) of Israeli citizens clearly want their land to be more hospitable to African refugees, as these stories show:
Bob says: Israel, take them in!

Also read:


The Contentious Centrist said...

"despite the racism of Israeli society"

This is the second time I have read you state this, as though it were an acceptaed, uncontested, fact. On what grounds are you basing this certainty? Racism towards whom? Israeli society is bedevilled by any number of cultural problems but racism, as the preference of one race of people over another, is simply not one of them.

bob said...

(Just wrote a long reply, from an internet cafe. The computer crashed as I posted it. Probably the Elders of Zion...)

I do not believe that Israeli society is exceptionally racist. British society is certainly racist too. (Would you have batted an eyelid if I mentioned the racism of British society?)

First, Israeli society is racist against Arabs. This does not mean all Israelis are racist against Arabs, but that the Jewish nature of the state structurally discriminates against Arab citizens, who can never be wholly Israeli, and that many, if not most, Israelis are casually racist against Arabs on a day to day basis, whatever their political views. My evidence for the second half of this claim is purely anecdotal: almost all of the Israelis I know have expressed casual anti-Arab racist comments in my hearing. To be sure, I have heard plenty of British people express casual racism against Arabs, South Asians, Muslims, blacks and others. But my sample of Israelis is precisely the most liberal sections of the society, who (whom?) one would least expect to come out with such comments, whose English counterparts would have been unlikely to say such things. (Although, of course, their English counterparts regularly make casual racist comments against Americans, against certain Europeans (Germans especially, sometimes French) and, to a much lesser extent, against Israelis.)

Second, there is racism internal to the Jewish population. There is racism of the Ashkenazim against the Mizrahim. Maybe you don’t call this racism, but you can’t deny it’s there? And there is the racism of Ashkenazim and others against Ethiopian and other African Jews, and indeed against Africans in general. (I am thinking of the Mayor of Hadera describing the town as the dumping ground for trash, referring to various kinds of Africans.)

Don’t get me wrong: I am not singling out Israelis as uniquely racist. I know it is a pluralist multicultural society. And I know that Germany is a racist society, Holland is a racist society, the United States is a racist society, etc etc.

The Contentious Centrist said...

Your answer is unsatisfactory.

Racism, to me, is such an odious accusation that I would need a great deal more than just anecdotal examples of someone shooting off his mouth to colour an entire society with such a broad brush stroke.

Racism is the label of last resort. I repeat, Israeli society bristles and riven with inter-communitarian friction, but is innately decent and fair-minded. The jousting between the Sephardim and Ashkenazim, especially during the first years of statehood, is a tragedy, grounded in too many other tragedies and people licking their wounds and trying to regain some semblance of belonging to humanity. It is not a crime of racism. You might say it is a more severe case in a pattern of competing sub-cultures, such as existed between Lithuanian Jews and Litvaks, Yemenite and Adenic Jews, Istanbul Jews versus “Izmerlies”, Leningrad Jews against Riga Jews, British Jews against Polish Jews, Hungarian Jews against Rumanian Jews, Older Russian immigrants against newer Russian immigrants, I can go on and on, I’ve been a witness to them all, growing up and having lived in Israel for the greater part of my life, but you get the point.

“Israeli society is racist against Arabs.”

The question you must ask yourself is this: What is the more likely motivation for Israeli Jews to view Arabs with some fear, suspicion and scorn? Is this feeling based on Jews feeling superior to Arabs, or on some other, accumulated experience and memories?

Are Israeli Jews unjustified in having formed certain opinions about Arabs? Is it due to Israelis’ sense of supremacy or Israelis’ sense of self-preservation? All you need to do is take a brief tour at MEMRI and read some of the stuff Israelis are bombarded with, daily, from Arabs, to get an idea of why Israelis would view Arabs negatively.


As soon as a peace agreement was signed with Egypt, Israelis poured into Egypt, seeking to establish friendly connections with their Arab neighbours. Was that out of racist sentiments? To show those Arabs how superior Israeli Jews were?

He who got burned by boiling water, say the Wise Rabies of the Talmud, is extremely cautious around cool water…

You need to measure your terminology more judiciously when you speak of a country that wants nothing more than to live in peace and friendship with its Arab neighbours.

As for Britain or other European countries being racist, you are right, I wouldn’t bat an eye. They have the historical credentials to deserve this epithet, and the current policies that justify it being still applied.

This link may illustrate some of my points:

TNC said...

I’m so used to the word “racism” being tossed around these days that it is practically meaningless. At one time for someone to call me a racist would have really bothered me (am I, really?). Today, it doesn't phase me in the slightest.

Not that I'm running around saying offensive things (I'm actually quite polite) but liberals describe most conservative domestic policy proposals things as racist.

On the immigration issue, if you support tighter border controls, you are a racist. On education, if you support cutting back funding for undocumented immigrants you are racist. If you point out the prevalence of black children growing up without fathers, you are racist. And so it goes.

Individuals are called racists, organizations are categorized as racist, and entire states and polities are identified as racist.

I suspected Bob was using the term in the last context, a polity where one ethnic or racial group is preferred at a structural and institutional level while others face discrimination.

I agree this applies to Israel but it applies to every democratic state. And in non-democratic states this sort of discrimination is generally even worse because people don’t have recourse through courts, civil-society, etc.

I am often reminded by Mizrachi Jews that many of the elite positions in Israeli society are dominated by Ashkenazim. It’s very difficult for them to attain these high positions due to disparities in education, higher rates of poverty, and other socio-economic factors. Is this racism? Similar disparities exist in the U.S., U.K., France, Canada, and all over the planet. Using this broad of a definition, all of these states are racist. Some do better than others but they are all on a continuum rather than being “racist” and “not racist”.

This sort of definition with racism being determined by power relations is commonly used in colleges and universities but not in daily vernacular, the mainstream media or online. Even papers with an educated readership (NYT) use the term in the personal sense, i.e. “David Duke is racist” meaning he has KKK robes in his closet (he does).

I think when most of us hear “Israel is racist” it is coming from people (anti-Zionists) who think similarly about Israel. It is meant to be a tremendous insult rather than a sober evaluation of all democratic societies.

On the individual level (more properly identified as prejudice) I find many Israelis to be less prejudiced and more open-minded than other people from the Middle East. After all, Israel is the most multi-cultural polity and society in the region. On a more personal level, my in-laws claim the U.K. is the most racist place they have ever lived. They’ve lived in Chennai, London, Chicago and Los Angeles and have bitter memories of the racism of London.

The relationship with the Palestinians is more problematic as many have declared allegiance to neighboring states/armies and political movements that are dedicated to overthrowing Israel. Israel has fought multiple wars against these adversaries. Any government in this sort of situation must adapt and adopt procedures which would not be necessary in a state of peace.

It may not be a satisfactory explanation for cosmopolitan internationalists but I think CC covered it well in the reply above. In terms of government-sponsored demonization of “the other,” look no further than Palestinian media and education. There is nothing comparable taking place in Israel. The government of Israel does not sponsor hate speech against Arabs or Muslims in general. When polled, Israelis routinely say they want peace (with security) while Palestinians want Tel Aviv and the rest of Israel. Sad but true…

And on that depressing note, enjoy your trip and have a look at my reply to your dis of “rockism” when you have a chance.

bob said...

Israel racism

1. Of course ‘racism’ is an odious label, but there are degrees of racism – from casual everyday forms to genocidal, ideologically developed forms. I repeat, I am not saying that the racism of Israeli society is the equivalent of that in the Jim Crow South, in apartheid South Africa or in Nazi Germany. Racism, in my view, need not be accompanied by any (thought out or unthinking) idea of the superiority of one’s own “race”. Many antisemitic motifs are based on the intelligence and power of the Jews, not on their inferiority.) It is possible, CC, that we basically agree, but have different ideas of what “racism” is; I obviously set the bar a little lower!

2. Israel is “innately decent and fair-minded”. I would love to believe this, but don’t think it is true. Sure, the dominant mode might be more decent and fair-minded than many places, but I don’t think this is any more innate in Israel than anywhere else. If Israel is “innately” anything, than by defining itself as a Jewish state it is innately exclusive, however decent its inhabitants might happen to be.

3. I completely agree that the roots of Israeli racism against Arabs is tempered by several generations’ experience of evil actions perpetuated against Israeli Jews by some Arabs, from the pogroms that greeted the Second Aliyah to the post-48 stated desire to drive the Arabs into the sea. (And, of course, the racism of Arab society, not just in Palestine, against Jews is tempered by generations’ experience of repression that originated in response to this.)

4. TNC’s characterisation of my position is more or less right, although I think there are also extensive casual racist attitudes in Israel. My central concern is with the exclusiveness of the Israeli polity, by which one group is structurally disadvantaged. Yes, this is a feature of the nation-state – as the excellent recent Alexander Yakobson piece on Engage which Noga linked to shows. But it can play out in different ways. In Britain and even more in the US and Canada, for example, the “nation” is defined in a very un-ethnic way, so it is possible for other groups to become included. Yes, Israel as a democratic state, has a thriving culture of human rights lawyers and so on to reduce the ill effects of the structural disadvantage, but it is much more firmly in place than in most other liberal democracies. And, of course, what makes it worse is that the Palestinians come from there – they are not immigrants.

5. Having said all that, the main point I take from both CC and TNC is the political danger of contributing to a discourse of “Israel is racist”, which is not the same as contributing to a discourse of “Britain is racist”. I will think more about this, but perhaps I was unwise to do so.

The Contentious Centrist said...

"And, of course, the racism of Arab society, not just in Palestine, against Jews is tempered by generations’ experience of repression that originated in response to this."

Well, no. Not really. Not unless you completely discount the findings of Matthias Kuntzel (you can find a few of his articles and reviews on Engage, if you are not familiar with him):

"The death cult that became a hallmark of modern jihadism was laced with Jew-hatred from the very beginning. Moreover, this attitude sprang not only from European influences; it also drew directly on Islamic sources. First, Islamists considered, and still consider, Palestine an Islamic territory, Dar al-Islam, where Jews must not run a single village, let alone a state. At best, in their view, this land should be judenrein; at the very least, Jews there should be relegated to subservient status. Second, Islamists justify their aspiration to eliminate the Jews of Palestine by invoking the example of Muhammad, who in the 7th century not only expelled two Jewish tribes from Medina, but also beheaded the entire male population of a third Jewish tribe, before proceeding to sell all the women and children into slavery. Third, they find support and encouragement for their actions and plans in the anti-Jewish passages of the Koran."

As for the importance of frugality in the usage of such terms as "racist", I wrote about it here, apropo this discussion:

The Contentious Centrist said...

BTW, I'd much rather Israel defined itself as Jewish (or "Hebrew" if you don't like the religious connotations of "Jewish") and be a decent and fair-minded democracy, than it be transported (is there an atheitic equivalent for "God forbid"?) into a bi-national state in which Jews will soon become dhimmi, if not completely extinct.

If the difference lies between such linguistic perversions that reagrd a healthy Jewish Israeli democracy as "racist" and a sick, violent, "secular/Islamic" Palestine deemed more "just" (to whom? by whom?), I will opt any day for the former, even at the risk of being smeared as "racist".

bob said...

The racism of Arab society has roots far deeper than 1948. I am familiar with Kuntzel’s important work, and with Benny Morris’ recent revision of his revisionism, as well as other research in this area, and accept those arguments completely. My point is that this racism has been honed in response to repression which began in 1948, and that this repression has intensified in response to the violence of the Arab response, which in turn has sharpened the antagonism, and so on. We urgently need to find a way to escape this cycle, which can only end in the annihilation of one or another of the two peoples that have a claim to the Land. Heaping all the blame on one or another of the two peoples, or claiming the utter innocence of one side or the other will not help escape this cycle; only an honest facing up from both sides will.

I too would prefer a Jewish state in Israel, decent or not, to dhimmitude or extinction. However, I don’t think these are the only options. I believe that a one-state solution, though utopian at present, is still the best possible final horizon, as part of a pluralist, secular Mediterranean/Middle East. Though utopian and “unrealistic”, the alternative realities are simply too grim to be sustainable.

A precondition for the possibility of a one-state solution is clearly an end to Islamist and annihilationist politics on the Arab side, and until such a point cannot be considered as even a medium-term option. There is no sense in which an Islamist or annihilationist “Palestine” as the sole state in the Land could be considered just, and anyone who so considers it is either completely deranged or not acting in good faith. In the short term, Israel’s relatively healthy Jewish democracy needs defending.

My support of a one-state solution is about a long-term horizon, an escape from the politics of mutual destruction. Working towards it requires thinking hard about what would make it possible, and what makes it impossible now, including the virulent Jew-hatred endemic in Arab society, and also the structural racism implicit in the idea of any mono-ethnic (Jewish or Arab) state.

Finally, I have no problem with “Jewish” over “Hebrew”, because I see the Jewish people as a people, an ethnicity, as well as a religion.

I’ll go and read the posts on CC now!

bob said...

Just written more here at The Contentious Centrist