Thursday, 31 May 2012

Two faces of a coin

My childhood, more heavily influenced by the Jewish rather than the gentile (or perhaps I should say ‘goy’) side of my family, taught me horror at any kind of racism.

After all, though I never knew them, it was shocking that ninety people to whom I was related had been murdered for no better reason than they belonged to the wrong ethnic group – and that I would have been one of the victims had I had the misfortune to be living at that time and in that place.

That however also made it much more shocking when I heard racist views from Jews themselves. And I did: friends and family criticising the behaviour of ‘that Paki bus conductor’ or complaining about the ‘noisy West Indians’ next door.

It's got a lot worse since. For instance, last Friday an Arab Israeli was killed by a shot to the head in Jaffa. And a Sudanese migrant was stabbed in the head in South Tel Aviv, where many African immigrants live. 

That second attack is particularly worrying given that a right wing Israeli parliamentarian, Miri Regev, recently told a violent anti-immigrant rally that ‘the Sudanese are a cancer in our body’. The rally took place in South Tel Aviv, and some protesters went on to attack some of them in street and to loot shops.

Miri Regev:
no need for mere reason to get in the way of healthy bigotry 
It’s true that Regev later apologised for her comments. She apologised to Cancer sufferers. She also apologised to Holocaust survivors, who had been themselves described as a Cancer in another context. She did not apologise to the African immigrants.

She was careful to condemn the violence but added ‘I understand the rage and hurt of the residents, of the families that live there. They tell us: ‘Help us. We are being humiliated, look how we live, we are afraid to leave the house.’’ 

The implication that the humiliation and fear are being inflicted by the African immigrants is interesting since Israeli police sources confirm that members of that community are less likely to be involved in criminality than members of the general population. But, hey, no-one who’s attacked immigrants they don’t like has ever worried about whether they were being strictly accurate in the charges they made against them.

Of course one wonders how Regev would react if someone said something similar about Jews. 

What if someone who was keen to drive Jewish immigrants out of his country wrote ‘one must not promote individual Jews as minority citizens, or some such status, within a non-Jewish people, but rather move Jews out to build their own people.’

As it happens, someone did write those words. It was Dr Johann von Leers, one of the Nazi theorists of anti-Semitism. That was at a time, in May 1933, when the final solution (extermination) was a long way off and the Nazis were still trying to ‘solve’ the ‘Jewish problem’ by forcible emigration rather than murder.

One feels that the existence of such documents should make Jews, in particular, careful about how they deploy their rhetoric against minorities and their demands to drive them away.

Strangely enough, though, I don’t draw a negative conclusion from all this. I’ve long believed that anti-racism doesn’t proclaim the superiority of a downtrodden people, but the refusal to accept that any human being is either superior or inferior to another by reason of ethnicity. Those Jewish relatives or friends who cite Kafka or Freud to me as examples of the great qualities of Jews seem to me as misguided as the von Leers who want to prove that Jews are lesser beings.

No, it seems to me that Jews are neither better nor worse than anyone else. Regev’s behaviour proves the point powerfully. Jews, like the Sudanese, Europeans, Americans or any other people, are as capable not just of the highest flights of nobility but of the vilest baseness.

Which is why it’s such a pleasure, but no surprise, to discover traces of noble reason too, among the vileness infecting some areas of the Israeli body politic. In this case they are expressed by the Israeli journalist turned politiciam, Yair Lapid:

‘I support arresting and expelling infiltrators, completing the fence and preventing their entry into Israel, and I think the human rights organisations need to think first of all about the residents of the neighbourhoods, because charity starts at home. But when I see a pogrom in the State of Israel… I wonder how these people have the gall to call themselves Jews."

Yair Lapid: reason as the antidote
Well, quite.

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