Forward Thinking

Can a Government Video Fight Racism in Israel?

By Renee Ghert-Zand

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A new anti-discrimination video campaign by Israel’s Ministry of Justice sends an important social message and packs a powerful emotional punch. But that doesn’t mean it’s enough to do the enormous job of eradicating racism in the Jewish State. Still, it’s a start.

Discrimination on the grounds of race, religion or religious group, nationality, country of origin, sex, sexual orientation, political views, party membership, personal status or parenthood is a violation of a law passed by the Knesset in 2000.

There is no mistaking what statement the video is making. Filmed in an edgy, ominous style and with a soundtrack that wails a heavy metal-style acoustic version of Hatikvah, it shows various instances of the discrimination against minorities that happens on a daily basis. Children on a basketball court tell an immigrant boy to go home to Russia. A white mother stops her preschool-age son from playing with a black boy on the playground. A Jewish woman prevents a Muslim woman and her daughter from sitting next to her on a bus. A bouncer won’t allow a black young woman to enter a nightclub with the cool kids.

The text accompanying the images warns that one kind of discrimination can lead to another, often worse, kind. A refusal to play with a boy could lead later on to preventing him from going to school, or refusing to give him a job. Not making room on a bus for a girl could lead to eventually refusing to rent her an apartment.

These scenarios have not been pulled from thin air. These kinds of things really do happen daily in Israeli society. It’s rather astounding — not to mention maddening — to think that Jews, who suffered not so long ago from the Nazis’ Nuremberg Laws, would need reminding as to where discriminatory behaviors can lead.

It’s enough to make you cry, which is exactly what Israeli feminist scholar Elana Sztokman did when she saw the video. “It made me cry because it reflects real pains that people experience on a daily basis… It’s hard for me because I live in Israel and I want to see Israel do better,” she says.

In fact, Israel has done better — at least according to some recent headlines. The massive wave of Russian Jewish immigration to Israel two decades ago is seen as a success story. The tall and gorgeous Ethiopian-born Titi Aynaw was crowned Israel’s first black beauty queen last year. The latest Technion medical school valedictorian, Dr. Mais Ali Saleh, is a Muslim woman.

However, balancing out these positive stories are many negative ones. Among them are hate-filled demonstrations and violence against migrant workers and African asylum seekers, moves to keep Arabs from moving in to predominantly Jewish neighborhoods, and a decrease in years of mandatory Arabic language studies in Jewish Israeli schools.

Sztokman is encouraged by the fact that this new “More Tolerance — Less Racism” campaign emanates from the Ministry of Justice. “It says that someone in a position of power is paying attention and working towards change,” she says.

Ami Kaufman, a founder of the left-wing +972 Magazine, is less enthusiastic. While he likes the video and is in favor of anti-racism education, he finds a commercial funded by a government ministry somewhat surprising.

“It’s a bit absurd when elements of the same exact government either promote racism or do nothing to stop it,” he contends. “For example, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman once pushed for a bill requiring new non-Jewish citizens to swear an oath of allegiance to Israel as a ‘Jewish and democratic state,’ a slap in the face to gentiles in Israel.”

Kaufman also cited a Jewish legal ruling issued by Chief Rabbi of Safed Shlomo Eliyahu forbidding Jews from renting apartments to Arabs. “Nothing was done [in response by the authorities]. So, when this commercial deals with such issues, how can we take it seriously?” he wonders.

“And, of course, one needs only look over the Green Line and see how the occupation denies one population basic civil rights and grants full protection and liberty to another, including the almost non-existent prosecution of price tag perpetrators,” he added, making reference to repeated attacks carried out by extremist Israeli settlers against mosques, churches, homes and military bases in reprisal for Israeli government action against illegal settlement activity.

Time will tell whether this public service announcement will make its intended impact. It’s hard to ignore the wounded looks on the faces of the victims of discrimination on the screen. The question is whether, in real life, Israelis will prevent the discrimination that leads to those wounded looks…and to the far worse things that can follow.


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