Amusement park case shows Israel’s growing racism
One incident of racism, though small in relation to decades of institutionalised discrimination against Israel’s Arab citizens, has triggered an uncharacteristic bout of Israeli soul-searching.
Superland, a large amusement park near Tel Aviv, refused to accept a booking from an Arab school on its preferred date in late May. But when a staff member called back impersonating a Jew, Superland accepted the booking.
As the story went viral on social media, the park’s managers hurriedly offered an excuse: they provide separate days for Jewish and Arab children to keep them apart and prevent friction.
But government ministers led an outpouring of revulsion. Tzipi Livni, the justice minister, called the incident a “symptom of a sick democracy”. The defence minister, Moshe Yaalon, was “ashamed”. Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister, demanded that the “racist” policy be halted immediately.
Such sensitivity appears to be a reaction to an explosion of popular racism in the past few months against the 20 per cent of Israelis who belong to the country’s Palestinian Arab minority. Some Israeli Jews have started to find the endless parade of bigotry disturbing.
Israeli TV recently revealed, for example, that a group of children with cancer who had been offered a free day at a swimming pool were refused entry once managers discovered that they were Bedouin.
According to another TV investigation, Israel’s banks have a secret policy of rejecting any Arab customer who tries to transfer an account to a branch in a Jewish community, even though this violates banking regulations.
Settlers, whose violence was once restricted to setting fire to the crops of Palestinians or rampaging through their villages in the West Bank, are now as likely to attack Arab communities inside Israel. Torched mosques, offensive graffiti on churches and the torching of cars in “price-tag” attacks have become common.
Similarly, reports of vicious attacks on Arab citizens are becoming a news staple. Recent incidents have included the near-fatal beating of a street cleaner, and the case of a bus driver who held his gun to an Arab passenger’s head, threatening to pull the trigger unless the man showed his ID.
Also going viral were troubling mobile-phone photos of a young Arab woman surrounded by a mob of respectable-looking commuters and shoppers as she waited for a train. As they hit her and pulled off her hijab, station guards looked on impassively.
However welcome official denunciations of these events are, the government’s professed outrage does not quite wash.
While Mr Netanyahu and his allies on the far right were castigating Superland for racism, they were busy backing a grossly discriminatory piece of legislation the newspaper Haaretz called “one of the most dangerous” measures ever to come before the parliament.
The bill will give Israelis who have served in the army a whole raft of extra rights in land and housing, employment, salaries and more. The catch is that almost all of the country’s 1.5 million Arab citizens are excluded from military service. The benefits will be reserved for Jews only.
Superland’s offence pales to insignificance when compared to that, or to the decades of officially sanctioned discrimination against the Arab minority.
An editorial in Haaretz this month said Israel is “two separate states, one Arab and one Jewish”.
The segregation is enforced in all the main spheres of life: land allocation and housing, citizenship rights, education, employment.
None of this is accidental. It was intended this way to guarantee Israel’s future as a Jewish state. Legal groups have identified 57 laws that overtly discriminate between Jewish and Arab citizens, with a dozen more before lawmakers.
The wave of popular prejudice and racist violence is no accident either. It has been unleashed by the increasingly inflammatory rhetoric of politicians like Mr Netanyahu, whose constant fearmongering casts Arab citizens as disloyal, a fifth column and a demographic threat.
So why, if the state is so committed to subjugating and excluding Arab citizens, and the government so determined to increase the weight of discriminatory laws, are they decrying Superland’s racism?
To make sense of this, you must understand how desperately Israel has sought to distinguish itself from apartheid South Africa.
Israel cultivates, as South Africa once did, what scholars call “grand apartheid”. This is segregation, largely covert and often explained by security or cultural differences, to ensure that control of resources remains fully with the privileged community.
At the same time, Israel long shied away from what some call “petty apartheid” – the overt, symbolic, but far less significant segregation of park benches, buses and toilets.
The avoidance of petty apartheid has been the key to Israel’s success in obscuring from the world’s view its grand apartheid, most obviously in the occupied territories but also inside Israel itself.
This month South Africa’s departing ambassador to Israel, Ismail Coovadia, warned that Israel was a “replication of apartheid”. The idea that the world may soon wake up to this comparison deeply unnerves Mr Netanyahu and the right wing in Israel’s politics.
The threat posed by what happened at Superland, and the coverage of it, is that such incidents of unofficial and improvised racism may one day unmask the much more sinister and organised campaign of “grand apartheid” that Israel’s leaders have overseen for decades.
Jonathan Cook is an independent journalist based in Nazareth