first published in Mondoweiss February 21, 2019
The ongoing national conversation on the wearing of blackface by prominent politicians, ironically occurring during Black History Month, is part of a critical examination of racism, institutional and personal, now unfolding in the U.S. A recent poll revealed that 20 percent of Americans have seen blackface in person, most whites would forgive the practice if it were in the distant past while most African-Americans are understandably far less forgiving. Blackface, sometimes linked with Ku Klux Klan imagery, is a very visible example of a profoundly endemic bigotry that has poisoned our society well beyond the yearbooks of some middle aged Virginia politicians. These racist attitudes are grounded in our history of enslavement of Africans, Jim Crow, red lining, miscegenation, and a host of other injustices, and the efforts (both conscious and unconscious) of white people to both mock and dehumanize black and brown people. In progressive circles, grappling with these issues is understood to be critical for an enlightened society interested in moving the slow wheels of justice forward. I suspect that for most Jews in the U.S., the value of these discussions is obvious.
So what are we to make of our double standard when it comes to racism and Israel, a society that liberal Jews frequently tout as “the only democracy in the Middle East?” I recently became aware that Israel’s ministry of tourism is touting a program for foreign Jews (that would be us) to find love in Israel in 2019 for Tu B’Av, a minor Jewish holiday on August 15, that is often referred to as the holiday of love, the Israeli version of Valentine’s Day. The Electronic Intifada reported Likud member, Sharren Haskel, told Yisrael Hayom, “Young [Jewish] men and women from all over the world will arrive and form relationships with local young men and women, in order to prevent assimilation and strengthen the connection to Judaism.” Preventing assimilation can be viewed as a form of anti-miscegenation, a desire to keep the Jewish people, (are they thinking Jewish race?) untainted by the non-kosher gene pool of the goyim, to keep us Jews, (by whatever definition) pure. As soon as someone starts talking about racial purity, I get nervous. The Jewish only mixers features performances, a wine tasting, folk dancing and camping under the header of “back to the Palmach and the Irgun,” two Zionist paramilitary groups that were involved in ethnically cleansing 750,000 indigenous Palestinians in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. The messaging is not subtle.
The subtext to this announcement is the ongoing governmental attempts to encourage Jewish marriages and to prevent romantic alliances between Jews and non-Jews, in Israel and internationally, (ie. us). These policies are actualized through racist laws like the rabbinical prohibition on “mixed marriages” between Jews and non-Jews through the Orthodox rabbinate’s control of personal laws, and the ban on civil marriage. This is made even more real by the inability of a Palestinian Israeli citizen (perhaps married to a Jew) to rent or buy a home in the 43 percent of Israeli towns that have a residential committee that assesses “incompatibility with social and cultural fabric,” read Arab. This only contributes to the highly segregated realities in Israel where there are barriers erected to prevent people who are from different backgrounds from ever meeting each other as social equals or living in the same neighborhood.
Then there are the interventions of anti-miscegenation groups such as Lehava (Preventing Assimilation in the Holy Land), Hemla, Yad L’Achim, Lev L’Achim, Derekh Hayim, and the The Jewish Voice. They spew racist propaganda and patrol public spaces in Israel, harassing “mixed couples” and protesting Jewish Palestinian wedding ceremonies with hateful chants, extolling racial and religious purity. The focus of these right wing extremists is often the beating of Arab men seen with Jewish women, described by Haaretz as “lynchings.” With echoes of U.S. slavery and Jim Crow, the groups talk of preserving “the honor of daughters of Israel,” saving (innocent, passive) Jewish women from seduction (by hypersexualized, conniving, violent Arab men), that theoretically then leads to abduction, mixed marriages, and assimilation. These racist activities have reached the level of sympathetic hearings in the Knesset and are often just ignored as criminal behavior by law enforcement agencies. This kind of racist ideology, perhaps in a less violent form, is also part of more liberal as well as LGBT Israeli society, as in, “I can accept your male lover, but not, God forbid, an Arab lover.”
Another feature in the campaigns to get Jews to marry other Jews are the international programs like Birthright, founded in 1999 during a panic about rising intermarriage in the U.S.. Between 2010 and 2015 the Israeli government transferred more than $250 million (NIS 942 million) to an international birthright company, which operates the Taglit-Birthright Israel program, a free 10-day trip for young Jews. The program is supported by wealthy private donors like Trump’s favorite Sheldon Adelson, Michael Steinhardt, Charles Bronfman, and Ron Lauder, and the Israeli government, with the stated aid to prevent assimilation and build an international and literal love affair with Israel. While promoting Zionism and emigration, the free trip has been described by one participant-reporter in Vice in 2012 as a “free sex vacation to Israel” and an “all-expenses-paid orgy in the desert,” sponsored by the Israeli government in the hope that “young Semites will meet, marry and procreate, yielding little mini Jews.” Since 2004, the state along with the Jewish Agency and Jewish Federations also has funded MASA Israel Journey, a program that supports Jews 18 to 30, coming to Israel for internships, education, and volunteering. And falling in love.
Clearly, many liberal minded Israelis are dismayed by these kinds of attitudes and there are mixed marriages in Israel; it is estimated that 10 percent of marriages are between Jewish men and non-Jewish Russian women, and a tiny fraction between Jews and Palestinians. Hence the wedding overseas, often in Cyprus. Nonetheless it is the institutional racism that is most disturbing. The Jewish Home party and its leader, Naftali Bennett, has led the charge as education minister, recommending removing films and books about mixed relationships from high school curriculums. The education ministry has also funded moving religious Jews into mixed areas such as Jaffa to Judaize neighborhoods and harass the local Palestinians, particularly condemning mixed relationships. “When there are mixed marriages in almost every building in Jaffa, we must strengthen Jewish identity.” In 2018 also as Diaspora Affairs Minister, Bennett expanded his vision, talking about spending $1 billion a year to promote “the future of the Jewish people” abroad (ie.us). This is the guy that described mixed marriages as a disaster comparable to the Nazi Holocaust. Not to get too complacent, Isaac Herzog of the so called left wing Zionist Union and Labor parties and new head of the Jewish Agency, also “called mixed families ‘a plague.’”
Which brings us back to Valentine’s Day, miscegenation, and white supremacy. In 1966 the U.S. Supreme Court accepted the Loving v. Virginia case and overturned their convictions unanimously the following year. We still have a long way to go, especially with a racist in the White House and his enabling of white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups. The good news is that a more honest conversation about race and racism is now more front and center in our discourse. Racism, which is all about power and resources and the prejudices required to maintain control, is also alive and well in Israel. It is no longer acceptable for progressives and liberal minded Jews to ignore the kind of policies and practices in the Land of Israel that are increasingly unacceptable here.