David Sheen, a journalist living in Tel Aviv, recently attended a Tel Aviv rally in support of Egyptians struggling for democracy, with a camera and microphone. The event took place outside the Egyptian embassy, which is located in a salubrious, tree-lined area of northern Tel Aviv. Most of the demonstrators were Palestinian citizens of Israel who chanted in Arabic, among other chants, for the freedom of the Arab people. Sheen did not simply cover the protest; he asked Israelis in the area what they thought about the chants, the symbols (specifically the Palestinian flags which many protesters waved) and the sentiment expressed by the protesters. According to official press reports and quotes of high ranking Israeli officials, Israel is one of the few countries in the Western world that supports the dictatorship of Mubarak. This video gets to the heart of the reasons underlying that support, which can be boiled down to racist attitudes against Arabs.
What Sheen demonstrates in this video is how ingrained our racism has become and what role apathy toward the occupation plays in its perpetuation. I am not talking about the blatant racism of settlers or the rhetoric that is used to convince our young soldiers to humiliate Palestinians on a daily basis, both of which have violent overtones. In fact, I am not even addressing the racism of mainstream right political parties like Likud. Instead I am addressing the racism which comes from the liberal sectors of our society and allows the society to maintain its constant aggression towards the Palestinians and its antagonistic approach to the Middle East in general. Since Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are hidden away behind a myriad of checkpoints and walls, most Israelis have little direct contact with them. This physical disconnect adds to the preconceived and, sometimes racist, notions about Palestinians.
Among the lovely cafes lining the streets of north Tel Aviv, where one can find the latest Hebrew translation of Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project or buy designer clothing from France, liberalism is constructed to allow a brand of national exclusivity a place in the Western world. Our society understands that the freedom and rights of Jews in Israel are paramount especially over the freedom and rights of Palestinians whether they are citizens of Israel or the West Bank/Gaza. In this way, the hijacking of liberal thinking is used to allow for racist understandings of Arabs. Using Western liberalism to rationalize racism for the Other is not special to Israeli society and can be found in virtually every Western society in the world. However, given the history of the Jews as the ultimate Other in Western society, it is tragic to see the Jewish state engaged in similar vilification of Arabs as the Other in Israel.