In the early 1990s, my best friend Joel and I both moved out the apartment we shared in New York’s West Village. He was a photographer and artist, and I was a bit lost and trying to figure out what to do with my life. I moved to Saudi Arabia to live with my parents and teach at a Saudi girls’ school, while Joel moved to Israel and joined the Israeli army, a first step towards gaining Israeli citizenship. I was politically naive then, though I was vaguely aware of the way the Israeli state treated Palestinians because my father had told me about the time he traveled from Jordan to Israel and, crossing the Allenby Bridge, decided to go through the side of the checkpoint reserved for Arabs, instead of going through the tourist side. My dad told me about how he saw first hand the way the soldiers verbally and physically abused Palestinians, while on the other side it was all welcoming cheer. “Welcome to Israel! Have a great visit! Want to stay on a kibbutz?”
So I didn’t think much of Joel’s decision to move to Israel and join the Israeli army, but I didn’t see it as a young man’s political statement; I saw it as a longing to simultaneously inject some military discipline into his bohemian life, escape the reach of his parents, and find his imagined roots (though none of his relatives were Israeli and as an Ashkenazi Jew he traced his heritage back to Eastern Europe).
Since there were no direct phone lines between Saudi Arabia and Israel, we really had to work hard to be able to talk to each other on the phone, but through some strange procedures that I don’t even remember, we somehow managed. I remember once I called him and I asked him how his attempt to learn Hebrew was going. He told me that it was going well, and that he was even learning some Arabic. I asked him what he had learned. He said, in Arabic, “Show me your identity card!” and “put your hands up!” and “Drop to the ground!”
“Is that all you’ve learned?” I asked him. “You haven’t made any Palestinian friends? You just order them around?” Yes, he told me. The only Arabs he knew were some dirty cheating people who ran a hummus shop in Jerusalem. They weren’t the sort that he wanted to hang out with.
I thought of this incident when I read about Rahm Emanuel’s repudiation of the remarks his father made to an Israeli newspaper when it asked the senior Emanuel about his son’s likely influence on American foreign policy in the Middle East. News outlets are widely reporting that the elder Emanuel said to the Israeli newspaper Ma’Ariv, “Obviously he’ll influence the president to be pro-Israel. Why wouldn’t he? What is he, an Arab? He’s not going to be mopping floors at the White House.”
Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s new White House Chief of Staff, subsequently responded to outcry from the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, saying, “From the fullness of my heart, I personally apologize on behalf of my family and me. These are not the values upon which I was raised or those of my family.”
Setting aside the absurdity of Emanuel’s saying that these are not his family’s values in response to outcry over something that his father said (since who knows? perhaps Emanuel was raised by his mother), and assuming in good faith that the racist remarks of Emanuel’s father represent neither Emanuel’s own position towards Arabs nor that of the fledgling Obama administration, I want to pause and reflect on what it means to be able to publicly say something like that to a national newspaper. It reminded me of my conversations with my friend Joel, in which he could say, without any embarrassment or shame, that Arabs were dirty cheats.
Joel is a good person. He’s also not the sort of person who would ever have said a disparaging remark about African Americans, Latinos, or any of the other minorities living in New York City. So there must have been something structural about going to Israel and joining the Israel army that had shaped his consciousness to the extent that it became thinkable to toss around ugly slurs and think of an entire group of people as there to be ordered to fall to the ground in the face of his petty bit of military authority.
I have a dark skinned Egyptian-American friend who once told me, speaking of Egyptians’ notorious prejudice against black Africans, that she preferred the open racism in Egypt to the hidden racism in the United States. At least you knew what you were up against when people felt like they could express their prejudice openly. In the U.S., people might be racists, but they knew they had to hide it most of the time, so it might inform their actions but you’d never know for sure.
I see her point. And yet there is something very ugly about a society in which it is seen as reasonably acceptable to publicly characterize a group of people as janitors or dirty cheats.