The Paradox of Israeli Discrimination
In the last three weeks, two ostensibly contradictory rallies were held in Tel-Aviv.
First, on May 23rd, more than one thousand Israelis gathered, calling for the expulsion of African migrants from the country. Many African asylum seekers, primarily from South Sudan, Ethiopia and Eritrea, were beaten in the streets. Politician Miri Regev from Likud, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s political party, referred to them as “infiltrators” and “a cancer in our body.” Subsequently, the Israeli Knesset passed a law permitting authorities to detain migrants without charge for up to three years. In response, a Human Rights Watch official said that “Israeli officials are not only adding rhetorical fuel to the xenophobic fire, but they now have a new law that punishes refugees in violation of international law.”
Two weeks later, in the same city, tens of thousands marched in Tel-Aviv’s annual Gay Pride Parade. The event attracted LGBT tourists from around the world. Earlier in the year, Tel-Aviv was rated the world’s best destination for gay travelers. In a blog post for the Huffington Post, Sharon Segal of the Israel Project wrote that “Israel has become one of the most progressive countries in the world and is recognized as the most tolerant country in the Middle East in legislating equality for sexual minorities and ensuring their civil and personal rights.”
This obvious asymmetry of civil and human rights begs the question: how can Israel be so progressive in its relations with the LGBT community yet so discriminatory to its racial and ethnic minorities?
In examining this phenomenon, it’s helpful to examine the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. In its Declaration, Israel’s founders promoted a vision of a “Jewish and democratic” state. This conflict between Jewishness and universal equality has been embedded in the fabric of Israel’s political culture ever since.
This dichotomy is enormously ambitious. To create a state that must, by definition, give preference to one religious and ethnic majority (Jewish) while maintaining equal rights for its minority citizens (democratic) requires a delicate balancing act on par with a tightrope walker.
Lately, the Israeli state and, arguably, many of its citizens, have been performing this balancing act with the grace and subtlety of an elephant. Not only are members of the Prime Minister’s party referring to African migrants as “a cancer,” but a majority of the Israeli Jewish public feels the same way. A third of Israeli Jews condone anti-migrant violence. The priority of maintaining equal rights for ethnic and religious minorities has been subjugated to the professed urgency of protecting Israel’s Jewish character and majority.
It is the preeminence of Jewish Israel over Democratic Israel in the Declaration’s dichotomy that explains why Israel is the most gay-friendly countries in the Middle East even while it coterminously espouses quasi-fascist rhetoric towards African refugees. It explains how another Likud MK can say that “an enemy state of infiltrators was established in Israel, and its capital is south Tel-Aviv,” the same city that was overwhelmingly voted the gay capital of the world.
To date, Israel has succeed in creating a society with a free market and a free press, but failed to engender true equality for its racial and ethnic minorities. In another recent event, Neve Shalom~Wahat al-Salam, the binational Israeli-Palestinian village in which I lived for six months, was attacked by right-wing Jewish settlers, who spray painted slogans such as “Death to Arabs” and “Kahane was right” on homes, schools and cars.
Supporters and lovers of Israel the world over need to ask themselves some serious questions: why have Russian Jewish immigrants been welcomed into Israeli society much more than Ethiopian Jewish immigrants? Why is it OK for Israel to grant citizenship to any Jew who wishes to make aliyah while it continues to build settlements—against the opposition of the United States, European Union and United Nations— on occupied Palestinian land, disenfranchising 3.5 million people?
Why has discrimination in Tel-Aviv against the LGBT community been successfully eliminated, while racism against Palestinians, Ethiopians Jews and African migrants is mainstream and ubiquitous? Quite possibly, the Israeli LGBT community would not be accepted with the same openness if its members weren’t Jewish and white.
The extreme polarity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict often prevents supporters of Israel from seeing the State’s shortcomings, and critics of Israel from seeing the State’s genuine accomplishments. It’s important to realize that the two events in Tel-Aviv—the ethnocentric and xenophobic treatment of African migrants and the open and progressive Gay Pride Parade—are equally prevalent threads of Israeli political culture.
The balanced vision of a “Jewish and democratic state” has yet to be realized; Jewish Israel is trumping Democratic Israel. The status quo in Israel today is closer to an ethnocracy, or in other words, “a democratic state just for Jews” and it’s time to correct this before Israel’s reputation as a liberal democracy is completely eroded.