An in-depth analysis of the reasons and motivations leading to the wave of violence, anger and hatred in each of the cases described above can indicate a number of points of similarity, but perhaps most important of all, important differences in the circumstances and factors. The same is true with an in-depth analysis of the different incidents in the Racism Report of the Coalition against Racism in Israel.
Nevertheless, in the Israeli public arena as in the international arena, the term “racism” is increasingly deployed to describe a wide range of different manifestations of discrimination and violence against different groups in society. Thus, there were attempts to connect the murder of Shira Banki at the Gay Pride Parade, despite its explicit connection to homophobia, also to racism.10 Politicians, journalists, public figures, and academics have used and continue to use the term, although few of them clarify just what they mean. It appears that the majority starts with the assumption that the target audience they are addressing understands the term in the same way and with the same meaning as they do. At the same time, there are cases in which the speakers maintain a deliberate vagueness in order to promote political or other objectives.
Racism is not a new subject for discussion in Israeli society. In the first decades after the establishment of the state, racism, in its social – not necessarily biological – meaning, was a relatively marginal phenomena and the term “gizanut” (Hebrew for racism) was hardly heard in public debate. The Jewish-Arab conflict was described in national terms, and the internal cultural disputes, mainly between Mizrahim and Ashkenazim, were described as “an argument within the family.” The entire debate was based on social and sociological differences and not on a biological basis.11 That said, it is interesting to note that beginning in 1971, a group of young Mizrahim, angry at the discrimination against them, organized into a political protest movement and called themselves the Black Panthers (HaPanterim HaShhorim in Hebrew). The fact that they appropriated the name from the anti-racism African-American group suggests that they did perceive the discrimination against them as racism.
The majority of researchers identify the late 1970s as a turning point in the discussion of racism in Israel, when a stormy public debate broke out after the Kach party, headed by Rabbi Meir Kahane, ran in the elections for the 11th Knesset (1974), calling, among other things, for the transfer of Arab residents out of the State of Israel. Ahead of the elections, the Central Elections Committee disqualified Kach, but the party appealed and the High Court of Justice accepted its arguments.12 In the course of the trial, the court related to the movement’s racist positions.13 In the wake of this public debate in July 1985, it was decided that special measures should be taken to protect the character of the state and its fundamental values.
At around the same time, two Knesset bills were drafted with the aim of eradicating racism: an amendment to Basic Law (the Knesset, Article 7a) by which a list of candidates may not participate in Knesset elections, and a person may not stand for election to the Knesset “if the objectives or actions of the list, or the actions of the person, as applicable, explicitly or implicitly incite to racism”; and Amendment 24 to the Penal Code, presenting a definition of racism: “persecution, humiliation, content, expressions of enmity, hostility or violence, or causing contention against a public or parts of the population because of color or racial affiliation or national-ethnic origin.”14
Amendment 24 is, in fact, Israel’s only official definition of racism. It should be noted, in this context, that in 1965, Israel joined and signed the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.15 This charter defines racial discrimination as “any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, color, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, or any other field of public life.”
In 1986, public debate around the term “racism” came to the fore once again. Discussions in the media emphasized the meaning given to the term racism by the Israeli public – an extreme form of nationalism, contempt, and hatred of minorities. In public discussion, the term was used in the same way to describe actions or attitudes that had been defined or considered up to that point as “ultra-nationalism.”
In 1988, when giving his ruling in the second Neiman case,16 the president of the Supreme Court at the time, Meir Shamgar, rejected Kach’s claim that racism relates only to distinction and segregation on a biological basis. Based on Israeli and international law, Shamgar wrote: “This argument is unfounded. As we have seen, the definition in the Penal Code also relates to prohibited actions, as defined there, upon a background of different ethnic origin. The same is true of the definition in the International Charter with regard to elimination of all the above forms of racial discrimination, and also in the laws of many countries… persecution in all its forms, on national grounds, is included nowadays in the accepted meaning of the phenomenon of racism.”17
During the early 1990s, immigrants from the Former Soviet Union and Ethiopia arrived in Israel en masse. That same period also saw an intensification of the public debate about racism in Israel. Two competing definitional frameworks were advanced: 1. Racism without race, focusing on the socio-political dimension (as suggested by MK Avraham Burg in December 1992. The definition proposed by Burg expands the concept of racism so that it also encompasses different typologies of social inequality); 2. An attempt to return to the narrower, biologically-based definition.18
In a 1996 Supreme Court ruling (Elba v. the State of Israel), which addressed incitement to racism, Justice Matza, following in Justice Shamgar’s footsteps, wrote, “In determining the scope of the concept of “racism,” we must be careful not to restrict ourselves to technical, scientific, or pseudoscientific ideas about humanity’s origins. Racism no longer consists merely in adherence to the infamous racialism doctrine. Racism is any form of groundless hatred of the other due to his being other, whether against a background of racial or of national-ethnic difference.”19 During the period in question the racism debate expanded and the term came to encompass a variety of phenomena, including xenophobia, demonization, and the disenfranchisement of minority groups. These usages gained currency through a number of judicial mechanisms and political negotiations.20
When the Second Intifada and the Temple Mount riots erupted in late 2000, the concept of racism gained yet another dimension in public discourse. “Institutional racism” – discriminatory legislation – appeared on the public agenda. Despite the gradual disappearance of the biological definition of racism from global discourse, Israel still concerns itself with both biological distinctions and expressions of ultra-nationalism.