Language as a Tool for Change

Although many of the incidents that today’s media portray as racist do fall within the category set forth in the Penal Code, the present definition does not delineate clear boundaries. It is a frequent cause of confusion and inconsistency, and hampers the formulation of commonly accepted criteria for quantifying the phenomenon and assessing its scope. Moreover, it could potentially cause real damage to Israel and its citizens on two planes – international and domestic:

1. On the international plane – defamation of Israel in the eyes of other peoples and of Diaspora Jewry.

Many of those involved in the study of racism agree that “racism” is not an objective term with clear boundaries, but rather a vague, emotionally and politically-charged term that is frequently used to censure, to shape policy and public opinion, and to construct social relations. The term’s power in political discourse is not connected merely to historical memory, but also to other aspects of the discourse, including human rights and social inequality.21 Racism is an illegitimate phenomenon, one that contradicts democratic and liberal values; it cannot be justified. The main argument is that racism discourse oversimplifies the complex problems that shape Israeli reality and, in the hands of certain organizations, serves as a powerful tool for de-legitimizing Israel in the international arena.
The change in the discourse on racism in Israel has been influenced both by internal trends – the internal Israeli debate on the phenomenon of racism in Israel, and by external trends – the international debate on the racism attributed to Israelis, which traces its lineage at least as far back as 1975 and UN Resolution 3379 (although this resolution was rescinded 16 years later, it had already become embedded in UN discourse) – the public and the establishment – toward various groups in the population.22

This change in internal Israeli discourse was deeply influenced by the global discourse, which in those years also widened. However, while in many other countries the discourse served mainly in the internal sphere, in the same terms in which the organizations that adopted the Israeli discourse thought – that is to say, with the aim of advancing democratic and liberal values – in Israel, which has been in an existential conflict for many years, this discourse also served as a deliberate strategy and as an additional tool to undermine and damage Israel’s legitimacy, values and the fact of its existence.

Various entities hostile to Israel throughout the world have acted to exploit the inherent vagueness of the term “racism” and its great political power to broaden the phenomenon beyond reasonable and normative proportions as part of a wider campaign to damage Israel’s moral image.
Conjecture that this is a deliberate strategy, is confirmed by the words of the Fatah’s representative in Lebanon, published in September 2010 in the Al-Hayat Al-Jadida newspaper: “Israel will not be defeated in one blow, but through the accumulation of Palestinian achievements and struggles – like in South Africa – to isolate Israel, tighten the noose around its neck, threaten its legitimacy, and present it as a rebellious and racist state” [our emphasis].

Thus, racism is not a neutral term but one that carries a powerful charge, with an embedded ideology, worldview, and political agenda. Its power derives from its use as a code word for colonialism and the exploitative power dynamics that have been part and parcel of relations between privileged main cultures (white colonizers) and minority groups (colonized people of color). Ultimately, its truck is in its associative power, its implicit historical reference to institutionalized involuntary servitude and subservience, and its subversive binary reduction of human beings into two classes: masters and slaves, oppressors and victims.

Racism is an especially loaded opprobrium to American ears because of the centrality of racial narratives in U.S. history (both in terms of African-Americans and Native Americans). American Jews take pride in their historical association with the civil rights movement, and their liberal credentials generally. Much discussion has been given to what some have called a “distancing” of American Jews from Israel (particularly the younger generation). While the nature of this “distancing” phenomenon is still very much tied to conjecture, we would suggest that the conflation of America’s ongoing racial difficulties with the Israel-Palestine conflict has exacerbated it. The plight of the Palestinians was highlighted in the recent racial protests in Ferguson, New York, Baltimore, and elsewhere. (See the chapter “U.S. College Campuses and Israel De-Legitimization – in Perspective” in this Annual Assessment.)
In contrast, the concept of “prejudice,” which according to the classic definition of American psychologist Gordon Allport describes very similar, sometimes even identical phenomena, is a softer term, which assumes that the phenomena described are correctable, and that circumstances – in the Israeli context, for example, the continued struggle with the Arab world, have a great influence on it.

The comparison and identification of Zionism and Israel with the sins of the 20th century, among them colonialism and racism, may appear to match the values accepted in the entire Western world, including in Israel where voices of denunciation are also heard, and where there is also a broad public prepared to accept the discourse proposed from outside, even when racism isn’t actually involved.

2. The Internal Israeli Debate

The debate in the international arena is not the only one in which, because of careless use of the term racism, the damage is greater than the benefit. In the domestic arena too – in the internal Israeli debate, this discussion has important ramifications. Referring to a wide variety of phenomena under the heading “racism” empties the discussion of meaning and specificity. In many cases it prevents us from reaching the root of the phenomenon under discussion, and thus hobbles the complexity of a specific incident, or the factors and motives that led to it. Grouping different cases, regardless of both causation and target, under the imprecise linguistic umbrella “racism,” leads to merely cosmetic or partial solutions.