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Unpacking anti-Arab racism in Israel

A new law aiming to silence the Muslim call to prayer is just one manifestation of efforts to erase Palestinian culture and identity. But language and heritage aren’t so easy to disappear.

There is a building on Michelangelo Street in Jaffa, near where I used to live, which for a while featured the sentiment “We have no other country” graffitied in both Arabic and Hebrew, side by side. One day, the Arabic was painted over, presumably by the municipality, leaving only the Hebrew. Almost immediately, someone restored the Arabic. It was painted over again. This pattern continued until a friend publicly asked the municipality why her taxes were being used to such obviously racist ends; by the following morning, both languages had been painted over.

Graffiti in Jaffa, which reads "We have no other land" in Arabic and Hebrew, after the Arabic had been painted over and then restored. (Natasha Roth)

Graffiti in Jaffa, which reads “We have no other land” in Arabic and Hebrew, after the Arabic had been painted over and then restored. (Natasha Roth)

This sad waltz, and all that it signifies, is a useful parable in light of the so-called muezzin law’s reappearance in Israel’s parliament this week. The bill, a noise restriction policy carefully designed to partially silence the Muslim call to prayer in Israel, took another step forward on Sunday when a Knesset committee voted to advance the legislation toward becoming law.

Although the intended target of the law is tucked away in the Trojan Horse phrasing of “noise caused by loudspeaker systems in houses of worship,” the bill specifies that the restrictions only apply between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. As Adalah — The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel points out, mosques are the sole places of worship that broadcast calls to prayer during these hours.

This rubbing out of Arabic — and above all Muslim — culture, language and memory in the Israeli public space is as much part of the assault on Palestinian history and presence as home demolitions, expulsions, occupation, and siege. It may be the quieter arm of the enterprise, but it works just as effectively to undermine the foundations of Palestinian society.

The effort to dismantle Palestinian national identity and memory takes various forms. At the government level, alongside recurring attempts to pass some version of the “muezzin law,” initiatives seeking to demote Arabic from its status as an official language of Israel surface every year or two. The so-called “Nakba Law” gives the state authority to reduce its funding for any institution that treats Israel’s Independence Day as a day of mourning. Culture Minister Miri Regev has threatened to pull funding for institutions that she deems to be giving a “platform” to Palestinian narratives.

At the municipal and social level, road signs pointing to Jerusalem often appear without the city’s Arabic name, Al-Quds, instead featuring the hybrid word “Urshalim” in Arabic letters. It is not uncommon to see road and street signs throughout the country on which the Arabic lettering has been defaced or obscured entirely. Tourist maps have recently appeared in Jaffa and Jerusalem that reduce Palestinian heritage and culture in both to the barest minimum.

An Israeli roadsign that omits Jerusalem's Arabic name ('Al-Quds'), instead using the Hebracized Urshalim.

An Israeli road sign that omits Jerusalem’s Arabic name (‘Al-Quds’), instead using the Hebracized Urshalim.

The cultural vandalism at work here — whether systematically at the hands of the government, or randomly at the hands of a certain subset of Israelis — is unabashedly racist. But as with any prejudice, it’s worth going below the surface to interrogate it a little further; to that end, one recent episode is particularly instructive.

Last summer, Israel’s Army Radio broadcast an educational program about the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, featuring one of his most noted poems, “ID Card” (which contains the famous line, “Write it down! I am an Arab”). Right-wing populists such as Miri Regev and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman immediately lashed out with threats of defunding, sackings and more, the latter throwing in a parallel to “Mein Kampf” for good measure.

To a certain extent, this was Regev and Liberman doing what they do, but there is more that informs such knee-jerk reactions. Darwish and his work haunt the Israeli imaginary; his status as Palestine’s de facto national poet aside, the themes in Darwish’s writing — exile, trauma, dispossession and the longing for return — are searingly resonant for Israeli Jews. But they are presented as part of a narrative that places responsibility for those experiences at Israel’s feet. This is unconscionable for most Israelis, because it threatens the state’s founding mythology of total national unity and tireless heroism as a response to near-obliteration. This fantasy, which has been preserved for nearly seven decades, elides the expulsion of Palestinians — the Nakba — that was integral to Israel’s state-building project; Darwish’s work restores it front-and-center.

Road signs on which the Arabic writing has been deliberately defaced by settlers point towards the Israeli settlements of Ariel and Qedumim, Salfit District, West Bank, January 24, 2008. (Keren Manor/Activestills)

Road signs on which the Arabic writing has been deliberately defaced by settlers point towards the Israeli settlements of Ariel and Qedumim, Salfit District, West Bank, January 24, 2008. (Keren Manor/Activestills)

This fear is not limited to concerns over the legacy of Israel’s founding. For many Israeli Jews (and Jews in the Diaspora), acknowledging the existence of a Palestinian collective consciousness is part of a zero sum game, one in which allowing Palestinian memory to be seen and cultivated would deal a mortal blow to Jewish-Israeli society and its own narrative. Sociocultural territory is, for the dominant Jewish majority, as fraught and existential an issue as physical territory.

The allergy towards signs of Arab presence extends beyond Palestinians. The institutional racism faced by Mizrahim, even if it is not codified to the extent that anti-Palestinian racism is, marks the intersection of two discrete, but related, fears held by the Ashkenazi hierarchy: that over their security, and that over the integrity of their (white, European) identity.

There is also an acute fear among the powers that be that these two groups — Palestinian and Mizrahi — will bond in solidarity, a fear that provokes some of the most irrational reactions of all: look no further than a recent Israeli movie awards ceremony, during which Regev — herself Mizrahi — went into orbit after Palestinian rapper Tamer Nafar and self-identified Arab Jew Yossi Tsabari performed on stage together, with the latter reciting lines from Darwish’s “ID Card.” The sight of an Israeli Jew standing next to a Palestinian and proclaiming, “Write it down! I, too, am an Arab,” was apparently too much to bear.

For now, the attempts at erasure continue, and the Knesset will vote in the coming days on whether to silence a song of this land. But for what it’s worth, the graffitied Hebrew and Arabic slogans, “We have no other country,” remain dotted here and there throughout Jaffa, bilingual, side by side. And that’s the second part of this parable: that a language, alive as it is, the linchpin of national and cultural identity, cannot be disappeared so easily. You can try and cover it over, but — like the identity it channels — it will re-emerge, in new ways, and in new forms. Write it down.

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    1. Bruce Gould

      Time for some culture-jamming: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Culture_jamming

      The Palestinians need to mass convert to Judaism and demand to exercise their right of return.

      Reply to Comment
      • AJew

        Hey Bruce why did you not answer my question to you on the other thread? You know where I addressed you as “Another Jew” which is how you refer to hourself every time you post to me. My question was regarding your post in which you presented a link which talked about “a land without a people for a people without a land…”

        I know: you didn’t see it right? Or was my question a bit inconvenient? And you just wanted to avoid it?

        Reply to Comment
        • AJew


          So, according to the author of this article it is racist to deny the Arab name of Jerusalem. Fine.

          But that begs the response. Surely then the recent UNESCO resolution which was drafted by the Arabs (I think it may even have been by Palestinian Arabs but I am not sure) was racist too?

          That UNESCO resolution denied (by ommission) that Jerusalem is a holy place for both Judaism and Christianity. It pretended that Jerusalem is solely holy for Islam. Surely by the logic of the author that was racist to?

          Reply to Comment
      • i_like_ike52

        I can’t believe you want to wish that on the Palestinians. The penalty for converting out of Islam is DEATH and public opinion polls in Egypt and other Muslim areas show wide-spread popular support for this punishment.

        Reply to Comment
    2. AJew

      Correction: the PA praised the UNESCO resolution which was drafted by other Arab countries.

      Reply to Comment
    3. carmen

      The question about genocide– yes, it’s an incremental genocide. And I think that’s a word that gives a lot of people pause and it certainly should. We don’t see the absolutely mass slaughters, although in Gaza I think we’ve seen something very much like it that we usually associate with genocide. But– the attempts to erase a people, to just erase them, to erase their history, I think follow a logic that can only be called genocidal. I mean, every time someone says– and people say it all the time, I get it on twitter all the time– “There’s no such thing as a Palestinian,” or “There was nobody there when the Zionists arrived”– these are genocidal statements, these are attempts to erase a culture, erase a history, decimate a people and I think they should be recognized as that.

      Moderator Colm Toibin, the Irish novelist, pushed back, saying, that’s a very very loaded thing to say from the Israeli side, and difficult to accept, in the context of the Holocaust and European genocide. “I’m very uneasy about letting this go without questioning you one more time… I wonder if there’s another word you could use. I’m just uneasy about it.”

      Ehrenreich elaborated:

      You should be and we all should be. It’s an especially painful thing to talk about, given the history of the Holocaust, and as someone with a Jewish background, it’s extremely painful for me to use that word. It’s more painful to see those realities, and those historical ironies are brutal. I mentioned the Balfour Declaration because I think this always has to be put into a colonialist context. Israel is a settler colonialist society, and the one things that settler colonialist societies have in common is that they follow a genocidal logic. The one we’re living in right now. Every single one of them– South Africa, Canada, the United States, Australia, and Israel: places where settlers came in and declared the land theirs and did everything they could to either remove the people who were already there or so erase their history that they could pretend that they weren’t there.
      – See more at: http://mondoweiss.net/2017/02/palestinian-incremental-ehrenreich/#sthash.65H8rfY5.dpuf

      “At the municipal and social level, road signs pointing to Jerusalem often appear without the city’s Arabic name, Al-Quds, instead featuring the hybrid word “Urshalim” in Arabic letters. It is not uncommon to see road and street signs throughout the country on which the Arabic lettering has been defaced or obscured entirely. Tourist maps have recently appeared in Jaffa and Jerusalem that reduce Palestinian heritage and culture in both to the barest minimum.”

      Not to take anything away from the 972 article, which stands on its own merits quite strongly, but adding to it. Incremental genocide has been the norm for +70 years. It’s easier to hide, to dismiss, to deny and by force if necessary, particularly around Nakba day but its a 365-day per year process with peaks and valleys. the jokers who claim there’s no genocide wrt palestinians is just that, a joker. Genocide in its starker forms such as the armenian genocide, the holodomer, the holocaust, the reign of pol pot, the rwandan genocide, etc., happened over short periods of time. what happens here is done on a much slower scale with the same objective, but the slow methodology employed by the zionist state is what might fool people into believing it’s not the same thing. it is.

      Reply to Comment
      • AJew

        “these are genocidal statements, these are attempts to erase a culture, erase a history, decimate a people and I think they should be recognized as that.”

        What about when Palestinian Arabs say the same thing about the Jews of Israel?

        Reply to Comment
      • i_like_ike52

        If you want to talk about “genocide” in the terms you are using, there is no bigger genocide than what the Arabs/Muslims began with their massive imperialist invasion coming out Arabia in the 7th century, continuing on to today, in which millions were killed, particularly in India and in which entire cultures were destroyed, and the Arabic/Muslim religion, language and culture was imposed by coercion or outright force on the populations there and the existing religions and cultures erased. That explains the massive decline in Christian, Jewis and other religions in the Arab countries within the last century and which is, if anything, accelerating even today. At this very moment, we even see intra-Muslim genocide, where in Syria and Iraq, Sunni populations are being massacred and Shia populations being brought in to replace them. If you don’t like the word “genocide” (even though the “progressives” here are using it against Israel) you can call it “ethnic cleansing”.

        Reply to Comment
    4. carmen

      Palestinians fighting their occupation, which as an occupied people is their right and their duty, cannot be confabulated with a slow genocide of zionists although it has had the mind-numbing stupefaction effect on zionists, reducing almost all of them to ‘what about’ statements and ‘they did it first’ arguments of 3-year-old overfed, overindulged, monstrous brats. Maybe you can sue them for revealing zionists are jackasses?

      Reply to Comment
      • AJew

        Confabulating? Ah ok.

        Before there was occupation, in 1948, the Palestinian Arab leaders openly promised to drive the Jews into the sea. Their footsoldiers who massacred Jews whenever they could, chanted Itbach al Yahood (butcher the Jews).

        Today, in many demonstrations overseas and in Arab countries, Arab mobs chant Kyber Kyber Ya Yahood, referring to a historic massacre of Jewish tribes in the Arabian peninsula by Muslim warriors. In effect the mobs threaten to do the same again.

        Then there is that infamous recent UNESCO post which denies all connection of Jews to Jerusalem.

        Want me to go on Carmen? I can if you want me to. Occupation my foot. Way before Israel even existed, Arab racism existed towards Jews. All Arabs? No. All the time? No. Many Arabs were decent towards Jews sometimes. There is no denying that but to claim that the Arabs were always non racists and always treated Jews well is a LIE! A LIE! Get it Carmen?!

        Reply to Comment
    5. i_like_ike52

      This is a prime example of “progressive” nonsense, conflating all sorts of “progressive” obsenssions in to one big “victimization” piece.
      For example, the claim that “Mizrachim and Arabs” are both “victims” of some sort of Ashkenazi conspiracy. We see the use of “progressive” jargon about “intersection” of “white” identity, as if most Israelis have copied the new neo-Apartheid “progressive” obsession with classifying everyone by race and spending their time thinking about it. The writer also brings in the non-sensicle creation of a mythological “Arab Jew” when, in fact, no Arab ever considered his Arabic-speaking Jewish neighbor a fellow Arab, nor do the Edot HaMizrach Jews consider themselves Arabs, even if they speak the language, just as French-speaking Jews in Israel do not consider their nationality to be French.

      Regarding the Muezzin noise-reduction bill, it is PREPOSTEROUS to claim that this is some sort of infringement of the religious rights of the Muslims. I am sorry but the Muslims have NO RIGHT to impose their religion on non-Muslims and wake them up in the middle of the night. For heaven’s sake, Muslims countries like Iran have noise-restriction laws on their mosques. I realize that many Muslims, due to some sort of inferiority complex, get grossly offended if they see some non-Muslim practice his faith within their presence (e.g. the onerous restrictions on building Christian churches in Muslim countries like Egypt or if non-Muslims are seen eating in public during the Ramadan fasting month) but they are just going to have to accept the fact that they are a minority in Israel and can not force their religion on everyone else, as much as they may like to.
      Finally, regarding the road signs…I can read Arabic writing and there are PLENTY of road signs that identify Jerusalem as “Ursalim-El Quds”, including one near my house in a suburb of Tel Aviv.
      If you want to talk about people trying to eradicate other religions and cultures, it is the ARABS who have been doing this for centuries, which explains the precipitous decline in Christian, Jewish and other non-Muslims religions and non-Arab cultures in the Arab Middle East. Enough hypocrisy.

      Reply to Comment
      • Mark

        Seems to me that Jews in Europe, Asia and Africa did best when under Ottoman rule, and nothing to do with residence in Arab lands per se. Things started to go wrong with the Tanzimat reforms in the 19th century.

        As an import from Europe, this was ostensibly to promote greater equality between members of different faith groups within the Empire. Instead Tanzimat seems to have created conditions for the growth of ethno-religious nationalism in the Balkans and in Arab lands. It’s been downhill ever since.

        Palestinians are the only Arabs who have claimed any benefit from this, and from the subsequent Sykes-Picot agreement. Without these there would have been no Palestinian identity separate from a general Arab one.

        Reply to Comment
    6. Itshak Gordin Halevy

      Why from 23 to 7 only? In Switzerland (from where I came to Israel) and in many other European countries it is strictly forbidden to use loudspeakers outside to call for prayers. I do not understand why Israel does not follow the European countries.

      Reply to Comment