Israel doesn’t have a race problem

Okay, this one is admittedly stretching it a bit

Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu has criticised rabbis who issued a statement saying it is a “sin” for Jews to rent or sell property to non-Jews. About 40 rabbis, many employed by the state, signed the statement, citing concerns about potential mixed marriages and falling property values.

I have purposefully avoided commenting on the situation in Israel/Palestine. Setting one foot in that conflict is opening myself up to a whole host of criticism, which I do not have enough factual background to defend myself against. There exists in that region a maelstrom of political, historical, religious, and racial narratives that are so intertwined that I find it impossible to come down on one side or another of an issue. However, in this case I am happy to suspend my cautious equipoise and dive into this one as a clear-cut situation where there is a clear right and clear wrong.

Any time anyone uses the word “sin” in an argument, they’re wrong. The concept of “sin” makes a whole host of assumptions for which there can be no evidence whatsoever:

  1. That there is a supreme being
  2. That the supreme being is consciously aware of human activity
  3. That the supreme being cares about human activity
  4. That the supreme being has a list of “naughty” and “nice” human activities
  5. That this list is available to humans
  6. That your particular list is the correct one

None of those assumptions can be demonstrated with any kind of compelling evidence. To an independent observer, there is no good reason to assume the truth of any of those claims, let alone all six of them in succession. While it may be overwhelmingly true that the speaker doesn’t like the activity in question (whether that’s buttsecks or pork or renting to people of a slightly different ethnicity), it does not necessarily follow that partaking in the activity in question is wrong in and of itself. What is required is a discussion of the necessary consequences of that action; I make that specification to separate it from people who make ridiculous claims like “homosex is wrong because some gay men are promiscuous”.

This one hits home for me particularly, since race-based housing discrimination is one of the primary reasons (in my opinion) that racism persists today. The problem with the conservative approach to race is that it wants to skip right to the end. To be sure, the liberal approach to race skips a bunch of intermediate steps too, but in a different way. Conservatives make the assumption that once you remove legal barriers to access, then all the work is done; consequently, any continuing problems experienced by a formerly-oppressed group are their own fault. After all, once you take your foot off of someone’s neck, it’s his own fault if he doesn’t immediately leap to his feet. Or, to put it another way:

“You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, `You are free to compete with an the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.” – Lyndon Johnson

Of course conservatives disagree with the idea that a) human beings should be in the business of creating fairness, or that b) there is any unfairness to begin with. However, when we look at the consequences of housing disparity, we see that de facto segregation necessarily has negative consequences in terms of income inequalities and a persistent attitude of “us” and “them” that starts in the schools and lasts through generations.

This seems to be what is happening in this Israeli case. These rabbis have a hate-on for Arabs (for reasons that I’m sure don’t stretch credulity) and have cobbled together some post-hoc justification for their hatred, branding the practice as “sin”. Unlike yesterday’s example, however, these religious leaders don’t have much influence outside their own conservative community, and cannot claim any sway over state power:

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel has called on Mr Netanyahu to take disciplinary action against the chief municipal rabbis on the list, whose salaries are publicly funded. Religious edicts are often ignored in predominantly secular Israel.

However, this edict is perhaps a useful red flag for the simmering racial climate that defines much of Israel’s domestic policy (and a great deal of its foreign policy too). It also serves an example of how a country that is essentially founded on religious grounds can still model secularism and restraint from going full-on God crazy.

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  1. Alex Goldberg says

    Ian – it’s no secret that there is prevalent racism in Israel; there are plenty of examples and statistics which demonstrate that there is a great deal of racism, not only in mainstream Israeli society, but also to some degree in some government policy (disparities in funding to predominantly Arab v. Jewish municipalities).

    You correctly identify the “maelstrom of political, historical, religious, and racial narratives,” and his issue highlights but one of the many causes of racism in the region: a religious/ideological battle for the land. It’s not just the Israelis either – a Palestinian court ruled that sale of Palestinian land to Israelis is punishable by death. (Yes, you could argue that this isn’t as much of a race issue as it is nationalistic, but I think it boils down to the same thing).

    But as I see it, the racial issues that Israel faces are constitutionally different than those in North America. In Israel, the racism observed in the mainstream (aside from that which you describe above) has a lot to do with the fact that Israel has been at war with Arab nations since the first day of its existence. How Israel treats its Arab citizens is an extremely delicate issue; the paradox of having a state that is both Jewish in character, while remaining democratic is one of the most pertinent challenges facing Israel in the coming decade.

  2. says

    Agreed, and as I say in the body of the post I am often loath to discuss this conflict because I lack the full contextual understanding of the situation (and I would be surprised to learn that anyone fully understands it). In this particular case, however, the argument is being made on religious grounds, and is fallacious as a result. It is an attempt to use religion to prop up an underlying racist ideology – the origin of which may be, as you say, distinct from what we experience here in North America. However, the results will be similar – Arabic citizens will face systemic discrimination in housing that will echo into the future.

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