We often do our shopping at a local street market, a couple of blocks from home. Until a few years ago, it used to be the central bus station of Tel Aviv. The station moved, and what remained became an urban niche populated almost exclusively by a cosmopolitan community of foreign workers. Jewish Israelis tend to avoid that market, and so one walks there, among workers from Thailand, China, Romania or Ghana, Palestinians and some working class Jews, in a weird no-man's land where, in the heart of Zionist Israel, Jews form a minority.
Miraculously, that demographic composition changes the daily rules of conduct. The much noticed paranoia of Jewish Israelis usually directed at others seems to mellow, even disappear. Humour is substituted for the textbook fear or hatred; a kind of plebeian communality is substituted for nationalist division. In dealing with the market vendors (consisting of Jews and Arabs) this international community, in its capacity of market customers, has developed an idiom of cosmopolitan solidarity, transcending nationalities or class. It is catching. In front of us, at the counter, an Arab worker, half joking, tried to negotiate down the price of a pack of baby diapers. "Stop bringing a multitude of babies in your refugee camp, if you can't pay for handling them," said the Jewish vendor, teasingly. The Palestinian customer, smiling as the vendor, corrected the name of the refugee camp, paid and went away amicably. The discrepancy between the text and their friendly conduct was striking. Racism was so conspicuous, so open, so self-conscious, that its offensive subtext was totally neutralized and annulled. Conscious plebeian solidarity got the better of racism, just by turning it into a joke. One couldn't but be reminded, again, that the source and essence of racism was elitist: take out the presence of the hegemonic classes, and the multitude will rephrase and re-endorse its pacts of solidarity in no time, transcending any national, religious or other separating boundaries.
"Upon coming home, straight from the market, I was transported into a different world. I read a mail of indignation by Dr Ghazi Falah, an Israeli-born Professor of Geography teaching at the University of Akron, Ohio. Falah was arrested a couple of months ago while photographing an antenna near the Lebanese border, on suspicion of spying. If it is a military installation, it is unmarked. No doubt a host of innocent tourists are daily taking photos at the same spot or nearby. But they are not Palestinians. Dr Falah was detained for 23 days by the Israeli security forces, and was held without trial in despicable conditions. The security services having no evidence of belligerent intentions (and, most probably, Dr Falah's having a Canadian passport), he was eventually released, without charges. Now he demanded, through his Israeli lawyer, an apology from the Israeli authorities for his unjustified humiliation."
Dr Falah's letter was posted by my colleague Ilan Pappe on the circuit of our University's faculty. A response from our learned colleagues promptly arrived. A geography professor from U of Haifa. Dr Arnon Golan, wrote (I have corrected spelling mistakes, since they are not the issue here): " Falah got most of his education, from elementary to MA in the Israeli education system. Had not it been for Israel, Falah, although his name [sic!] born and raised in a Bedouin village, would have been herding his sheep on the slopes of the mountains of Galilee rather than teaching geography in Ohio. Falah, yet an Israeli citizen, showed his gratefulness to Israel by becoming an anti Israeli propaganda agent. I do not know the real circumstances of his arrest, we have only his version presented by Ilan Pappe. Nevertheless, regarding his record of anti-Israeli activism, and the fact he was taking pictures in an area close to the Lebanese border, his arrest for 23 days for interrogation seems reasonable. Falah was released and one can assume there were no valid evidence found in his case. It seems as a rather fair treatment in accordance with Israeli law. His accusations are no more than a part of his anti Israeli crusade." Thus my learned colleague.
The respectable Professor of Geography found some loud supporters among the University faculty members, who, like him found his 23 day detainment "reasonable." They did, however, find a major point incriminating Falah: his letter was posted by Dr Pappe. Yes, the same guy who, only a few years ago the now Rector of the University demanded his tenure to be revoked. Only a couple of my colleagues pointed out the racism underlying his text. One of them put it very clearly: " rather than suggesting Prof. Ghazi-Walid Falah should be grateful to the state of Israel for not shepherding his herd... they should be grateful morning noon and night to the State of Israel that it has made them one of the Ethnic Elite, sanctioned their ideology as the only legitimate one, and given them the opportunity to rationalise the oppression of an ethnic minority in the way that we Jews suffered for centuries."
The roaming silence of the utmost majority of the faculty speaks for itself. Ask them about the dialogue between the Palestinian and the vendor in the Tel Aviv street market, and they will label it racist; although I have rarely noticed such a friendly exchange, devoid of any malice, as this jocular exchange in the market, whose subtext, if I'm allowed the presumption to read it in the spirit of a Brechtian gestus, was "we both know this world is shit, and we both belong to the underdogs of the economic system running it; let's play it by the rules: I have the diapers, you need them, the price is reasonably cheap - let's play out our racist joke in the open, shake hands and part as friends." Yet ask my learned colleagues about the texts urging Dr Falah to thank Israel for allowing the Bedouin a proper education which saved him from herding his sheep on the slope of the mountain, and they will fail to see what is racist about it. Isn't it a fair factual, indeed academic description? If this is what they will say in class,no Minister of Education will ever demand their suspension!
Where is this racism, as well as its blind denial, coming from? The recent events in the Middle East gives one a clue. A war was fought here, which was not ours - neither Israelis, nor Palestinians or Lebanese. None (but a few lunatics on the fanatic fringe of each national group) really wanted it. Every single friction could be solved by negotiations, as it had been done in many cases over the past years, and everybody knew it. Our politics, our military machine, was working, more openly than ever before, in the service of foreign economical interests. The instrument whereby the necessary ideology mobilizing the public consciousness to accept an unnecessary war as inevitable, a trap into which many of my colleagues in academe and in the arts have fallen into, was very much along the same lines of the Haifa geographer argument: here are we, having moved, on our own accord and without consulting anyone, out of the Gaza strip; proclaiming our will to evict SOME settlement on the West Bank (of course of our own, unilateral choice, for who are the Palestinians to interfere even in our withdrawal from their occupied lands?), and where's our gratitude? Yet more belligerent acts?Our public was told we were hated, and therefore we should hate. Since the war failed to achieve its proclaimed objectives, the public is now confused and frustrated. Our economy has suffered a blow. Our social services, which were allegedly supposed to improve following the recent elections, are in worse conditions than before the elections. Education, on all its levels, is going to be cut further, to pay the price of the enhanced spending on the military. The only defence against a total collapse of the existing ideology on which Israeli politics rests is enhancing the myth of mistrusting the other, on the basis of racial difference.
Otherwise, there can be no explanation to the fact that when the Syrian leader is publicly announcing that it was time for peace negotiations, the Israeli government insists that there is no partner for peace. Why? because he is an Arab? There can be no explanation to the fact that the Palestinian leader is constantly pledging himself to all the agreements and pacts signed with Israel, the Israeli government is saying he is no partner, since he cannot deliver the goods. Why?Because he is an Arab? And while demanding the Hamas government to recognize the State of Israel as a prerequisite to recognizing it, the bulldozers are working full steam to build more housing units in the West bank settlement, which the Israeli government is claiming will remain Israeli even after it withdrawals, in the long run, from other parts of the West Bank. What about the many thousands of Palestinians who live among those settlements? Will they be offered at least an Israeli citizenship, which the Jewish settlers, their forced neighbours, already maintain? Of course not: they belong to a different race. They will either have to leave, in an act of ethnic cleansing, or live in a newly created no man's land. The spirit of Apartheid will reign, either way.
Racism as subtext to all political and economic moves thus operates constantly, perhaps the one factor of constancy throughout the upheavals tearing the region. I wish there were ways in which policy making could be relegated to the spontaneous community inhabiting the cosmopolitan, plebeian street market near my home. Its open racism, blended into an amicable gestus, is the only ray of hope I can see around these days. In its air of total estrangement I feel more at home than in my university. Perhaps we should move our academic campuses, our labs and studios, there.
For better days,
Professor Avraham Oz
Department of Hebrew and Comparative Literature
University of Haifa
Mount Carmel, 31905 Haifa, Israel