Mother Nature has always strived to cultivate survival mechanisms to protect living creatures from lurking danger. Take, for example, the chameleon’s changing colors. Its skin changes color in accordance with its environment, temperature, and proximity of danger. This skill of blending into the background gives the chameleon a chance to live. It also serves the human need to survive.
The saying that the best defense is a good offense was certainly coined by aggressive types, eager for battle. Hitler, all the monsters who came before him and all those who came after claimed 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 effective way to protect life. Camouflage is the mechanism that affords the animal kingdom continued existence in a hostile environment.
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 – one that 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 South Africa to North America.
Throughout history, we Jews have been one of the foremost targets of this epidemic. During the last century, we paid a terrible price – a third of our numbers were 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 liberal world remained silent.
Particularly disturbing was the phenomenon by 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, these voices even demanded the doctrine's 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 – had also adopted the monstrous doctrine. Later, I would discover that several fathers of Zionism were also disgracefully infected with this epidemic. Men like, Arthur Ruppin, who strove for “racial purity,” 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.
Testing the denial mechanism
I cannot 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 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?” an important Israeli author asked, before answering his own question, “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. 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, and not even 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.
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 Halachic edict 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.
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 called Zionism racism. Why are those same voices silent today?
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.
Adapted from a speech by author Sami Michael, president of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), to the Conference on Racism and the Education System in Israel hosted by ACRI and the Kibbutzim College, March 17 2013