Sunday, April 27, 2008

Racism and Israel

A Jewish woman in the United States has sent a question to the Zionism and Israel Information Center. She is planning a visit to Israel and asks: "How would I be treated if I decided to make Israel my home?" She describes herself as an African-American convert to Judaism, active in her local synagogue.

She expressed concern about discrimination and asked what the Israel government is doing to combat racism.

Here is a response.

Dear ____:

How would you be treated as an immigrant to Israel? No one can answer with certainty, but I'll tell you two things I have learned in 25 years of life here.

1) Israel is not the United States. The two societies are very different from each other. U.S. terms and concepts often do not apply to Israel. If you want to use them, you need to append lots of footnotes and clarifications to explain why they don't really mean the same thing.

Discrimination exists in Israel, but it is not what Barack Obama was talking about in his celebrated speech about race in the United States. He spoke of "the complexities of race in this country that we've never really worked through -- a part of our union that we have yet to perfect."

The concept that people belong to different races is foreign to Israel. The Israel government doesn't issue forms asking us to identify ourselves by race according to six official racial classifications, as is done in the states. Israel has no background of segregation based on race, nor of laws forbidding miscegenation, nor, above all, of chattel slavery.

2) Israel's population comprises scores of different ethnic and national groups jostling one another to attain their place in a society that still hasn't developed a unitary Israeli culture.

Prejudice and discrimination in Israel express themselves in Israeli terms. These reflect the society. The biases are mainly ethnic, cultural, religious, economic and political. Ethnic humor is acceptable, and ethnic slurs often go unpunished. To the extent that a person's skin color matters in Israel, its only significance is that it may point to their ethnic or cultural affiliation. It does not signify that anyone is racially inferior or superior.

My guess, from what you have related about yourself, is that people in Israel will not readily know how to apply the standard Israeli categories to you, and this could give you a good shot at defining yourself.

Israelis often don't know what to make of Americans. Popular stereotypes see Americans as naive, unduly square or easily manipulated. Quite a few Israelis can quote "ask not what your country can do for you" from John F. Kennedy's inaugural address but seem never to have heard the part where JFK said "civility is not a sign of weakness." Our media know about U.S. identity politics but insist on using the discarded term "Afro-American."

What is the government doing about racism? As noted, Israel has many internal problems but they don't involve race. The solutions to social welfare problems generally depend on which political parties are in power.

Unfortunately, anti-Israel racism is a problem, and the government does have to deal with it internationally.


Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors. Originally posted at Please do link to these articles, quote from them and forward them by email to friends with this notice. Other uses require written permission of the author.


  • Thank you for your prompt and very candid response. I appreciate that you took the time to help me learn more about Israel. Yes, America is a very racist country....and being a Black female in America, I know up close and personal about bigotry and discrimination.

    In America, it is very easy to categorize people and to stay segregated. Whether by race, skin color, religion, or economic status, Americans have developed the “us” versus “them” mentality. My hope is that one day, the entire world as a whole will no longer uphold racism and prejudice. I am very much looking forward to visiting the land of Israel!! :-)

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At April 28, 2008 at 8:15 PM  

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