Friday, July 6, 2012

On Miri Regev and racism and xenophobia in Israel

I wrote this piece one month ago, in early June. It has since been overtaken by events such as the deportation of a group of Africans living in Israel.

The recent racist comments by Israeli MK, Miri Regev, about Africans living in Israel have spawned much passionate debate online and offline. They have certainly got me thinking about the unique place of the state of Israel in modern history, and about racism and xenophonia in broader terms.

To me, racism, xenophobia, and other forms of hatred directed at those who are different must be condemned. At the same time, I think it is important to understand why exactly it is that people hate others. Hatred, like all other things human, does not just spring into existence fully-formed. It develops over time, and is reinforced by certain ways of thinking and of remembering the past. I am not naive enough to think that we will someday be able to eliminate all forms of hatred. But I do think that understanding the motivations that prod us to hate and to hurt others will go a long way towards defusing the violent potential of our actions.

I want to clarify that, to me, Israel is a modern state, not the ancient kingdom whose glorious past has been chronicled in the Bible. I don’t subscribe to the notion that the Jewish people were chosen by God to fulfill a unique part of His plan for the earth. Regardless, I was raised in a Christian context, so I am very much aware of this mythology surrounding Jewish people, and the hold that it has on Christians worldwide.

A chosen people

To me, the belief that the Jewish people are a “chosen people” contradicts the very idea that the God of Christianity is a universal God. Furthermore, it reminds me of the history lessons I sat through during my primary school years, when I learnt about the myths of origin of various Kenyan ethnic groups. The one constant in every group’s beliefs about its origins was the idea that it was a special group, God’s favored.

The Maasai believed that they had a special place in their God’s plan that made them superior to members of other ethnic groups, as did the Kikuyu, the Luo and others. In other words, it was the norm for any people’s religion to claim that that particular ethnic group was superior to other groups. The ancient teachings that came down to us in the Bible have never been unique in this.

A universal God or a tribal God?

The rise and spread of Christianity rearranged things. Over time, Judaism was no longer just the religion of Jewish people. A version of Judaism expanded to become the religion of Jews and non-Jews alike. That version of Judaism was the precursor for what we call Christianity today.

The development of Christianity involved the wholesale adoption of certain chunks of Jewish thought and philosophy by an ethnically heterogeneous audience, and a simultaneous failure to historicize them. Thus, Christians through the ages have had to wrestle with the uncomfortable thought that their God, in whose eyes all humans are supposed to be equal, has put Jewish people on a pedestal.

The 2 extremes in Christian thought

The efforts of some Christian thinkers to fight the inherent contradiction between a universal God and a tribal God has given rise to some of the extremes within Christian thought. On the one hand, there are anti-Semitic ideals, developed to undermine the special place granted to Jewish people in the Christian worldview. These have been adopted in different times and places to justify the violence directed at Jews living in Europe over the centuries: the Spanish Inquisition, pogroms, the Holocaust.

On the other hand, there is the tendency to elevate Jewish people to some superhuman status: The idea is that they can do no wrong because every action on their part is consistent with God’s plan for the universe. This is the tendency that has informed many Christians’ blind idealism on all matters concerning modern Zionism and the actions of the state of Israel.

Systemic racism

Earlier this week, as I read the controversial remarks made by Miri Regev, I couldn’t help thinking about these historical complications and the role they had played in shaping the national Israeli psyche. To me, it was heartbreaking, but not surprising, that systemic racism was part and parcel of the Israeli experience. The rationale for the creation of modern Israel was largely based on the systematic violence that Jewish people were subjected to in Europe by their fellow Europeans, violence that began even before Hitler appeared on the horizon.

The Jewish individuals who first popularized the idea of modern Zionism had in mind a secular nation, based on Communist or Socialist ideals. They had no intention of recreating the ancient kingdoms of Israel and Judah, or of fulfilling some apocalyptic prophecy. On the other hand, the European Christians (nominal or devout) who, in one way or another, facilitated the formation of Israel were, to some extent, inspired by perceptions of Jews as superhuman beings or sub-human beings who had been shaped by religion.

Drawing parallels

Jewish people have been granted a special place in modern history and geopolitics thanks in large part to Christianity. However, this does not change the fact that Jewish experiences are human experiences. We can learn some valuable lessons about trauma, racism, and xenophobia  by thinking of Israelis and Jewish people, more broadly speaking, as human beings. This means we need to stop adopting different standards from the ones we generally use to discuss our own societies when we speak of Israel. Israel is a modern state, peopled by human beings. To even begin to understand it, we have to be able to see parallels between the Israeli context and other contexts globally.

A cursory glance at history makes it clear that any group of people that has endured systematic, large-scale violence does not just "get over" that violence in a matter of decades. In fact, perhaps they never do.  Think about all the peoples who have been victimized by states and empires in recent centuries. Australian aborigines, Native Americans, Native Hawaiians, First Nations people, African Americans, indigenous South Africans, Palestinians, and European Jews are among these groups.

Every single one of these groups has struggled with historical and contemporary trauma. In some cases, this struggle has resulted in generations of poverty, disenfranchisement, addiction, and epidemic levels of intra-communal violence. In those cases where political autonomy and certain degrees of enfranchisement have resulted, hatred and violence towards inside groups and outside groups alike are present.  Cases in point include South Africa and Israel, where various forms of hatred remain alive in the forms of racism and xenophobia. 

A lot more must be said about South Africa, Israel and the other societies I've named above to do the subject justice. However, it is not possible to do so within one article. So I intend to write more on the subject in the future. This piece is meant to simply get the ball rolling.

Before I sign off, I want to return to the thoughts with which I opened this article: I think it is important to think about racist and xenophobic policies and actions within context. It allows us to condemn the violence and dehumanization that result from them and, hopefully, to develop strategies for keeping them in check.

This work is licensed to Rose Kahendi under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

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