Whilst the following news story (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/jul/21/henry-louis-gates-jr-arrest-harvard) is not directly related to the Middle East I have decided to post it anyway because of a recent debate about racism and as it provides a convenient excuse to revisit the topic on this site. What this short news story suggests is that even though institutional and legally enforced racism is less pervasive today than in previous eras where the slave trade and European colonialism produced racist doctrines premised on the superiority of the white race, there is still a resilience to racial stereotyping and more subtle forms of racism in the US, at least. I would argue that subtle and insidious forms of racism remain pervasive in the modern world more widely than just in the US . The harsh reality is that racism is as pervasive internationally as it was a century or so ago when W.E.B. Du Bois suggested that the issue of race relations would be a defining motif of the twentieth century. The events of the twentieth century have shown us how prescient Du Bois was and how relevant his comments remain as we enter into a new millennium. Today, racial differences (ethnic and religious differences as well) continue to shape the world we live in.
Israeli forms of racism are not unique and the tragedy of the discrimination and violence that Israeli state and society visits on the Palestinian people is that it has happened all before, and that the Israeli state exists today as a response to European discrimination and violence against European Jews. Israel is also a colonial-settler state, very much modelled on the European example and that is why countries like Australia, Canada, the U.S. and the former apartheid state in South Africa have had , or still have, such affinity with Israel. These states, with their own unreconciled issues of the conquest, domination and dispossession of indigenous peoples choose not to face the reality of Israeli policy toward the Palestinians for doing so would raise many questions about the legacies of colonial-settler history for Australians, Canadians, Americans, etc. Instead they prefer to ignore the problem as much as possible and with it overlook Israel’s own settler-colonial foundations (re:Rudd on the 60th anniversary of la-Nakbah). (N.B. the unresolved issues of racism in Australia, Canada, and the US are the main reasons that these countries should have attended the recent UN conference and unfortunately for minorities, especially indigenous minorities, that still face discrimination in each of these states, Israel was a convenient excuse not to attend and address their own balance sheet of racism).
Britain and France (of course South Africa has as well, but SA is a very specific case) are two countries that have had to examine their colonial history and for the most part have renounced the colonial-settler-racist paradigm. For this reason these two countries, on the whole, are more uncomfortable with the settler colonial mentality and policies in Israel, and this is partly why they tend to be more critical of the excesses of Israel’s mistreatment of the Palestinians. This does not mean that they have renounced racism, not in the least, but at least the concept of a hierarchy of races and foreign domination are no longer permitted in these societies. One only has to look at the difference between the acceptance of the justification for the occupation of Iraq in the US (bringing civilization and democracy to the Iraqis) and the contrasting unease in the UK with what was widely perceived as neo-colonialism to understand the way that the end of empire has shaped English perceptions of these issues.
In saying this, racism in Israel is just one example of what Edward Said and others have shown are international perceptions of Palestinians and Arabs more widely. Israeli racism towards Arabs is deeper than elsewhere, except maybe some parts of the US since 9/11, due to the political benefits accrued to the ruling elite from utilizing the tools of racial fear. Antisemitism in Arab states is used in a similar way by ruling elites utilizing Israel for domestic political mileage. From this vantage point racism against Arabs in Israel is now in a dialectic relationship with antisemitism in Arab states.But there is also an economic dimension.
The turning point in terms of Israel’s racism and discrimination towards Arabs comes not from security concerns per se, but with the end of the Cold War and the replacement of cheap Arab labour with Jewish migrant labour from the former communist states. It is no surprise that it is the new migrant groups who are in direct competition with Arab labour for low paid and un-skilled employment are at the forefront of intensifying the campaign of anti-Arab racism and discrimination against non-Jews. Part of the rationale for the blockade of Gaza, I would argue a major part, is that Gaza was potentially a site for cheap labour and cheap goods which threaten the interests of Israeli labour and capital, while providing further legitimation for the dominant military- intelligence structure that rules Israel. Segregating the Arabs of the West Bank has a similar purpose and the Wall is hated in the West Bank not only because of the political symbolism and the incredible callousness of that structure but because it signifies an economic barrier for desperate Palestinian labour.
Similar issues of racism and economic competition are evident in Egypt, Sudan and Libya (which I have written about earlier) and in western industrialised countries now facing unemployment and a shortage of labour supply for the first time in almost two decades. So, Israel is not alone in having to deal with the issue of racism but is faced with a large group of insiders who are increasingly being excluded from the state, even more than they had been before, i.e. Israeli Arabs who are now becoming even more marginalized and humiliated than before.
In summary, racism is complex and deeply political. Racism, if defined as a form of discrimination determined by the dominant group in any society against minorities on the basis of race (and also ethnicity and religion, which are all historically constructed and difficult to define ) is deeply entwined with history, power relations (both domestic and international) , economic relations (both domestic and international) and the practices of everyday actors carrying out mundane tasks. This last practice is the most difficult to quantify but sadly continues to shape race relations, as illustrated by the arrest of the eminent Black US historian Henry Louis Gates Jnr.