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The origins of Israeli racism lie in our hyper-militarized society

Israel was established and continues to exist in a mentality of constant war. Our racism is only a symptom.

Illustrative photo of Israeli soldiers arresting a Palestinian man in the West Bank, June 23, 2018. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)

Illustrative photo of Israeli soldiers arresting a Palestinian man in the West Bank, June 23, 2018. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)

One of the most influential institutions in Iranian politics is the Guardian Council. Among its many roles, the Council filters out presidential candidates, deciding who can and who cannot run in the elections. It even has the power to disqualify former presidents, such as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, from running again. And as befits a religious dictatorship, its considerations are far from democratic.

And yet, after Ehud Barak announced his return to Israeli politics last week, I couldn’t help but envy the power of the Guardian Council. While the Iranians have a turnover of their own failed or corrupt leaders, we seem to be stuck in the endless loop with our own figureheads.

Barak’s re-entry into politics helps clarify the choice that Israelis are facing in the upcoming elections: militarism or racism. On the one hand we have a right-wing camp headed by Netanyahu, who over his 10-year rule has institutionalized racism against the Palestinian public. On the other hand, we have the “anyone but Bibi” camp, headed by the generals of Blue and White and Ehud Barak’s new party, respectively.

It is true that both camps are rife with militarism and racism: much of Netanyahu’s political capital was built on the back of his brother, Yoni, who was killed while commanding an elite IDF unit during Operation Entebbe in 1976. On the other hand, the general’s camp derides Palestinians, and its refusal to join forces with the Palestinian parties has contributed to the incitement and delegitimization of the Arab public writ large.

The difference between the two camps is the ratio between the two components and the kind of discourse with which they are associated: Netanyahu is seen as promoting a kind of shameless, folksy racism, while the generals peddle a hawkish security-based discourse.

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak attend a press conference at the PM's office in Jerusalem, November 21, 2012. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak attend a press conference at the PM’s office in Jerusalem, November 21, 2012. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

We intuitively tend to scorn the blatantly racist discourse more than the militaristic one, perhaps because the latter is more transparent to us. But in my view, Israeli society’s entrenched militarism is actually the more difficult disease to treat, both in terms of diagnosis and prognosis.

The truth is that in the current Israeli reality, the two seem to us indistinguishable. Israeli children get a healthy dose of both racism and militarism from a young age, from the moment they are drafted into the ranks in kindergarten, preparing care packages for soldiers before they can even read. It is around this age that they first hear and internalize anti-Arab racism. Eventually, years down the line, they will attend a pre-military boot camp and pretend they are soldiers for a few days. Before they know it, they will be joining the IDF to fight the “terrorists,” a term that has always been used as a euphemism for “Arabs.”

Yet despite the deep reciprocal relationship between militarism and racism in Israel, the former precedes the latter, and therefore is the more dangerous of the two. After all, militarism is precisely the point from which this vicious cycle springs.

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Israel was established and continues to exist in a mentality of constant war. War has always been a matter of fate here, and it is precisely this state of mind that creates a totalizing victimhood mentality that suppresses any moral instinct we may have and lays the groundwork for the oppression of another people. Should that people rise up against its oppression, we will use even more severe violence in response. To justify that oppression, we must delegitimize the so-called enemy and develop a racist mentality toward anyone who resists.

Of course, this requires Israelis to unquestioningly worship the army as the main instrument that sustains the entire system. It is precisely this kind of worship that creates a blind admiration for generals; of course we trust them when the army is the foundation upon which our very existence here depends. Our blind trust in those who wear the uniform is then translated into the realm of politics. If our security is in their hands, why shouldn’t they also be the ones to determine our policies?

Former Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon (left) and former IDF Chief of General Staff Benny Gantz. Both went on to form the Blue and White Party in the run-up to the 2019 elections. (Photo by Activestills.org)

Former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon (left) and former IDF Chief of General Staff Benny Gantz (middle). Both went on to form the Blue and White Party in the run-up to the 2019 elections. (Photo by Activestills.org)

We decry military coups in neighboring countries yet continue to flock after the next savior who dons a uniform. Meanwhile, we debate whether to support the general who boasts of sending Gaza back to the Stone Age or the one who trampled over whatever remained of the trust of Israel’s Palestinian citizens during the Second Intifada, allowed for the murder of Palestinian demonstrators, and introduced the notion that Israel has “no partner for peace” into our national lexicon.

The Israeli peace camp is pinning its hopes on white men in uniforms with lots of blood on their hands. We manage to convince ourselves every time that they will bring about a change. It must happen this time around, we say.

But it won’t happen this time either, since we have no reason to put an end to our mentality of eternal war. Until this happens, the cycle will never cease. This is not a matter of fate or a force of nature — it is a conscious decision we make every single day. The moment we decide to change our fate, the change will come easy. That choice, however, is nowhere on the horizon — all we see is Netanyahu, Gantz, and Ehud Barak.

This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.

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    COMMENTS

    1. Bruce Gould

      “Israel was established and continues to exist in a mentality of constant war.” For some historical analysis people might be interested in a recently published book, “War Over Peace: One Hundred Years of Israel’s Militaristic Nationalism” by Uri Ben-Eliezer. From the back cover:

      “Brilliantly demonstrates how the very cultural foundation of Israel has stood in the way of its pursuing peace. Israel’s leading sociologist of the military, Uri Ben-Eliezer, reveals the destructive effects of the country’s particular brand of nationalism and its penchant to solve political problems by military means….”

      Reply to Comment
    2. Lewis from Afula

      What about a critique of the racism of the so-called “fakestinyans” ?
      As I see it, there are two political parties – FATAH moderates & HAMAS extremists.

      The moderates are run by a guy with a doctorate in Holocaust Denial. As a plus, he also organized the 1972 Munich OLympics Massacre (& live castration) of our athletes.
      Then, you’ve got the extremists. These nice folk are all into Gay-murdering, Apostate-burning, stoning to death of adulterous wives, honor killing stuff. Additionally, they are now busy digging terror tunnels, releasing incendiary balloons, sending exploding kite-bombs and firing rockets into Israel.

      Umm…….any feedback on THEIR racism, Orly ?

      Reply to Comment
      • Rivka Koen

        > As I see it, there are two political parties – FATAH moderates & HAMAS extremists.

        You just proved you lack any understanding whatsoever of Palestinian politics. Suffice to say there are more political parties than that, and you’re embarrassing yourself by claiming otherwise.

        > moderates are run by a guy with a doctorate in Holocaust Denial

        Keep preferring confident liars who never admit they made a mistake (Netanyahu, Trump) over intellectuals who admit that they were wrong (Abbas). Watch where this takes you long-term. Your foundation of chauvinist bullshit will not hold your house up for long.

        > These nice folk are all into Gay-murdering

        Israel and America aren’t into this because the queer community fought for our rights, not because Israeli and American straights are generous and compassionate and moral people. In fact, Israel continues to murder, blackmail, entrap, and extort Palestinian queers, and its bombs don’t distinguish between gay and straight.

        Reply to Comment
        • Lewis from Afula

          Rivka:
          Do you consider David Irving, David Duke and Fred A. Leuter, as “intellectuals” too ?
          Or does Abbas (the Munich Butcher) deserve this acolade alone ?

          Reply to Comment
      • Mark

        These guys aren’t “white” so they cannot be racist, can they?

        Reply to Comment
      • Bruce Gould

        @Lewis: “Israel surveils and blackmails gay Palestinians to make them informants…Israel has sold itself internationally as a gay Mecca. (Here, here, and here, for instance.) This freedom is regularly cited by advocates for Israel in the west, making stark comparisons to Muslim societies that repress gays. Well here’s a new spin on that claim: reports that Israeli intelligence pried into Palestinians’ phone calls and internet activity so as to identify and blackmail Palestinian gays and turn them into informants against other Palestinians.”

        https://mondoweiss.net/2014/09/blackmails-palestinian-informants/

        Reply to Comment
    3. Jaap Bosma

      Military force was the means by which Israel was established, at the expense of the indigenous Palestinians. Zionist racism requires military force to reach its goals. Military force serves racism.

      Reply to Comment
      • Lewis from Afula

        Re: “Military force was the means by which Israel was established….”

        Given that the Arab League denied Israel the right to exist and declared a war, that is obviously true. Military force was the means by which Israel was established.

        Jaap’s small brain needs a reboot !

        Reply to Comment
    4. Some-one.

      Orly Noy is by far the best of the regular contributors here so this article comes as a great disappointment.

      Firstly Iran is not a Religious dictatorship, it is a democracy that is limited on Religious grounds. All democracies are in one or other limited and the way the Iranians go about limiting theirs is preferable not only on the grounds of being up front to how the West limits our own.

      Militarism unless you are going to be a principled pacifist is in itself neither right or wrong, it is the racism that Zionism problematic to put it mildly.

      Also given she is Mizrahi I am stunned that she sees that the main bulk of Zionist Left is less racist than the Zionist Right, or at least the secular Right as represented by Bibi. The Revisionists have historically been less racist than the Labour Zionists. Of course the Left is more careful some of the time in how it comes across because it does not want to upset too much Europeans and American Jews.Ehud Olmert, Tzipi Livni and Ehud Barak have been even a lot more blood thirsty when it has come to the indigenous population than Bibi has.

      From the standpoint of the Palestinians the best of that they can hope for is for Bibi with all his venial greed to return rather than have Gantz, Barak and Liberman proving that they are hard and tough. A Bibi victory would give the indigenous population some time in which things could change on the outside bringing pressure on the Zionist project to reverse it’s trajectory.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        @Some-One: I question a few of your assertions here.

        Firstly, I don’t think Iran is justly described as a democracy limited on religious grounds unless we stretch the term democracy out of meaningful proportion in a direction some blithe “Jewish popular democracy” advocates (Feiglinists) stretch it. Noy’s use of “religious dictatorship” is closer to the truth.

        Second, I reread Noy here and do not see where she says, or suggests, that “the main bulk of Zionist Left is less racist than the Zionist Right, or at least the secular Right as represented by Bibi.” Her main statement is about how the right-wing camp headed by Netanyahu has *institutionalized* racism against the Palestinian public. Incontestably true. Nor has anything Orly Noy has written that I can recall ever been an apology for left wing racism—quite the opposite.

        Third, the Revisionists may have historically been less racist than the Labour Zionists, but their successors in politics today sure aren’t.

        Fourth, you say a Netanyahu victory “would give the indigenous population some time in which things could change on the outside bringing pressure on the Zionist project to reverse it’s trajectory.” While it is true—and a point well made by this Magazine—that a Blue and White Ganz victory would have served mainly as a fig leaf and a time-buying for the Israeli status quo—and yes, the so-called “left-wing” generals and Liberman would have fallen over themselves to prove how “tough” they are—it seems to me that the last thing the Palestinians should depend on is more status quo time secured by yet another Netanyahu reelection and a complacent (at best) Israeli Jewish public. Sights should be set higher than your prescription for “the best the Palestinians can hope for,” which sounds curiously like another way of putting Netanyahu’s haughty “they will have to lower their expectations” overlordism.

        Reply to Comment
        • Some-one.

          @ Ben. Iran is Iran, for instance alcohol is illegal there but if anything there is a lot of over drinking and they make marvelous vodka for which they are justly proud. There have been Jewish members of the Parliament there so non-Muslims are not banned from political expression. There is the problem that officially it is illegal to leave Islam even though during my two visits there I witnessed the growing through conversion Christian communities so this law like the law against alcohol exists- but is not enforced unless it comes to things like Pentecostalism which is heavily linked with the CIA. The country is majority Shia, the majority of people, Shia and non-Shia are loyal to state and see it is as a democracy. Of course it is not a Liberal democracy- however it has arguably a lot more Liberality than a lot of the Liberal democracies.

          “it seems to me that the last thing the Palestinians should depend on is more status quo time secured by yet another Netanyahu reelection and a complacent (at best) Israeli Jewish public. Sights should be set higher than your prescription for “the best the Palestinians can hope for,” which sounds curiously like another way of putting Netanyahu’s haughty “they will have to lower their expectations” overlordism.”

          Hamas have said that they would be okay living with the Zionist state within the 1967 borders, do you think they should go back on that? Do you think they liked coming out with that? Of course the current situation for the Palestinians is horrific and unjustifiable however things can always get worse.I think the only hope is BDS- and a Bibi victory will buy BDS time to work. A victory for Gantz/Barak/Libermann “Left” on the other hand will undermine BDS because it will be seen that the Zionist state is turning over a “new leaf”.

          Reply to Comment
          • Rivka Koen

            I mean, I had a Baha’i coworker and he recalled being interrogated and tortured, accused of being a spy for Israel simply on account of his religion.

            Iranians are decent people with a rich history and culture, whether Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Baha’i, no matter who they are. I’m not a fan of states though, least of all states based on religious or ethnic supremacy. Even minority religious representation in Iran’s parliament (granted only to religions that aren’t “heresies against Islam”) is heavily weighted away from those minority religions.

            Let’s not fetishize countries with different problems than our own any more than we excessively condemn those countries.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            ‘A victory for Gantz/Barak/Libermann “Left” on the other hand will undermine BDS because it will be seen that the Zionist state is turning over a “new leaf”.’

            Certainly, on this we agree.

            “things can always get worse”

            And they probably will and maybe they need to.

            Reply to Comment
          • Eliza

            Some-One: Interesting comment. I know very little about the internal workings of Iran but all governments have to operate within the space given by the notion of the consent of the governed. Clearly all governments, to varying extents, limit that consent by coercion, whether by laws designed to limit expression (as in recent anti-BDS legislation) or violence. I think we in the west underestimate the democractic mechanisms that operate in states like Iran and overestimate the importance of universal franchise rights and freedom of association. Not saying that we shouldn’t aspire to continued universal franchise, but we see that this is not sufficient to ensure that citizens are treated equally under the law; only have to have a quick look at the rates of incarceration of minorities in the USA for example.

            And yes, I agree re Netanyahu. Replacement of Netanyahu with Blue & White party will give a bit of oxygen to peace fakery process by way of a shiny new fig leaf for Liberal Zionists and western governments to hid behind. The trajectory of Zionism will not change as a result of internal Israeli forces. The BDS movement, including growing revulsion at the punitive acts against BDS supporters by pro-Israel groups, will turn the tide of public opinion. The space within Zionism can operate will grow narrower – or so I think.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            We live in an age where the term “democracy” is bandied about to describe systems where we are a long way from the precisely articulated concept that emerged from the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787. In Israel’s case it loudly touts itself as an American-style democracy when in fact it is much closer to, and wants to be and aims to be much closer to what Tomer Persico describes as a Feiglinist “popular (Jewish) democracy”:
            https://972mag.com/a-truly-jewish-democracy-on-the-ideology-of-likuds-moshe-feiglin/62170/

            Reply to Comment
    5. Ray

      Israel’s faults lie, not in its stars, but in itself.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Ben

      “We should have warned them. We should have told them that the homeland being offered to them is one of the most racist countries in the universe, overflowing with religious, nationalist, ethnic, genetic and gender racism.
      Some people console themselves with the belief that this racism is one of the ravages of the occupation. Some aspect of colonialism has crept into us, along with several other despicable attributes of a criminal regime of oppression.
      The truth, alas, is otherwise. Israeli racism wasn’t born on the other side of the Green Line. It was born on the day they established a state here whose definition is an oxymoron, a state that lacks a bill of rights as well as an iron wall separating religion and state. In such a country, racism is an inevitable by-product. It’s not the daughter of the occupation, but almost its mother.
      On the other hand, the unbearable lightness of shooting human beings (excluding settlers, the ultra-Orthodox and pale-faced Jews) is something we definitely imported from the territories….”
      https://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-we-should-have-warned-the-ethiopians-about-israel-s-racism-1.7485931

      Reply to Comment