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Tel Aviv University
Sociology Professor Hanna Herzog teaches that Israel is Racist


Racism and the politics of signification: Israeli public discourse on racism towards Palestinian citizens
Authors: Hanna Herzog - HANNA HERZOG is Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology and Authropology at Tel Aviv University and Senior Research Fellow at Van Leer Jerusalem Institute;  Smadar Sharon - SMADAR SHARON is PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology and Authropology, Tel Aviv University; Inna Leykin - INNA LEYKIN is a graduate student in the Department of Authropology, Brown University, RI. USA
DOI: 10.1080/01419870701692583

This paper explores the phenomenology of racism using the Israeli
situation as a case study to examine if, when and how the concept of 'racism' is employed in local media discourse on policy towards
Palestinian citizens.

Our central argument is that racism, as a signifier of policy, can be located in the dialectic between denial and affirmation of the category of race, while we link the scope and meanings of practices marked by the media as 'racism' to contingent cultural, social and historical
conditions. The article proposes the periodization of the relevant discourse into three primary phases: from 1949 to the late 1970s, when the category of racism was 'prohibited' in Israeli discourse in the aftermath of the Holocaust; the mid-1980s, when this taboo was broken and the phenomena included in the category of racism expanded accordingly; and the 1990s to 2000, during which racism became an institutionalized,
all-encompassing discursive term.



RACISM AND THE POLITICS OF SIGNIFICATION: Israeli Public Discourse on Racism Toward Palestinian Citizens
This lecture is based on a shared research conducted by Hanna Herzog, Inna Leykin and myself. The results of the research are about to be published in Ethnic and Racial Studies.
“…The Jewish racist draws a distinction between Jewish blood and Arab blood. The typical Jewish racist is the worst of them all, because he’s a Jewish racist. The rioters must be stigmatized and cast out of society. This is our basic obligation as human beings, as Jews schooled in
suffering and as victims of racism…’
So states Shevach Weiss, a Holocaust survivor and former Knesset member and Speaker of the Knesset, in response to the October 2000 protests. The entire article is written from the perspective of a Holocaust survivor. His closing sentence in effect hints at two intra-Jewish reasons for opposing racism: the fear that the violence will ultimately be turned against Jews, and the insult to the memory of those killed in the
In Israel’s Declaration of Independence—a document that with the absence of a Constitution came to symbolize the country’s core values —it is asserted that the state ‘will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its citizens, irrespective of religion, race or sex’. This promise of full equality runs counter to the continuing reality of social, economic, and political inequality among Palestinian citizens of Israel (hereafter: Palestinian citizens). This led in turn to the accusations both in Israel and in other places on the existence of a racist policy towards Palestinian citizens.
Our research was primarily motivated by the fact that immediately after the founding of the
State of Israel, in the shadow of the Holocaust and with survivors of the inferno streaming to
Israel, the term racism was taboo in describing the attitude toward Palestinian citizens of the
state. However, in the early 21st century, the idiom of the Holocaust and its memory serve as
a springboard for discussing racism toward this same group. Moreover, racism has broadened
Our paper explores the phenomenology of racism using the Israeli situation as a case study to examine whether and how the concept of ‘racism’ is employed in media discourse on policy toward Palestinian citizens. Our empirical analysis is based on a sampling of different events, during which political decisions were made regarding Israel’s Palestinian citizens. These decisions generated intense public debate, as manifest in the many commentaries appearing in the press in the aftermath of a certain event. We have chosen the press as a research field due to the importance of the media in contemporary society and the integral role they play in structuring our political world. For each event analyzed, we examined all editorials and commentaries in the daily Hebrew press spanning the entire political spectrum over a period of approximately six weeks from the occurrence of the event.
It is our theoretical position that race is a socially and historically constructed category, yet it derives power from its imagined existence as an innate, natural social signifier. Though race is perceived as a given category, it is distinguished by its elasticity in narrowing and widening the range of phenomena defined as racism. The fundamental questions we pose are: When and under what circumstances does the category of racism enter into public-political discourse in Israel? What are the frameworks of signification that allow us to broaden and/or narrow the range of phenomena included in this category? And what are the social, political, and historical conditions that play a role in the organization of these frameworks?
Our attempt to investigate the historical evolution of the use and meanings of the
category of racism in political discourse is rooted in the notion that the language with which we speak of events, and the categories through which we structure and interpret reality, are part of the political process, both in the broader sense of knowledge/power proposed by Foucault (1969), and in the sense of the social-ideological struggle through which
collective social understandings are forged—the ‘politics of
signification’, to use Stuart Hall’s phrase.
Thus we claim that signification does not take place in a vacuum but in economic, political, gendered and ideological contexts. For meaning to be established, it must achieve credibility and legitimacy, and/or be perceived as self-evident. This process involves the exclusion,
devaluation or delegitimation of alternative frames of interpretation. The process of signification forms a struggle over the shaping of reality . This theoretical point of departure, which sees racism as a discursive category that emerges, being transformed and contested through the politics of signification, guided our empirical field research.
The multidimensional relations toward racism make the Israeli case a challenge for
sociological analysis. The foundation of the state of Israel is intimately related to Nazism. In
the nation-based regime of justification that guides the United Nations, Israel was recognized
in 1947 as a haven for Holocaust refugees who had survived an explicitly racist policy. The
protracted Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the long period of occupation and military regime
enforced by Israel on Palestinians in the occupied territories make Israeli case intriguing
since, as we will show, the Holocaust continues to be a reference point both for those who
save the term ‘racism’ for anti-Semitism, as well as for those who regard the discriminatory
policies towards the Palestinian citizens as an instance of racism. In the following I will talk about a historical periodization of using the term ‘racism’ and the evolution of different interpretive frameworks that this term contains. Three
interpretive frameworks regarding racism were highlighted in the printed media in Israel: the biological meaning; racism without race; and
institutional racism.
Racism as an interpretive frame appears only twice in the texts from 1949, that were examined in two-month period at random. The early discourse on relations between Jews and Palestinians is highly cautious in its use of the term racism, which carries echoes of the Holocaust and Nazi racial theory. Hence, racism as a concept to describe Jewish-Palestinian
relations is virtually a taboo. With the establishment of the state, nation and nationality became the prevailing frames of discourse. Within the state discourse the Arab citizens of Israel are defined as a national minority.
One such case is an editorial in the left-wing newspaper Al Hamishmar, in response to an incident in Jaffa where a group of Jewish soldiers burst into a coffee house to ‘rescue’ a Jewish girl who was sitting there with a young Arab man. This altercation, the paper states, ‘demands special attention since it was a brawl with “racist” motives’.
The specific situation in which this brawl erupted in Jaffa reminds us of …the Ku
Klux Klan and the lynchings in America—an approach that replaces a healthy, positive national feeling with barren, distressing racism. But while it may yet be
possible to somehow understand the members of the Ku Klux Klan, who are opposed to intermarriage between whites and blacks, there is something absurd in a
“racial” approach that seeks to distinguish between Jews and Arabs. For in fact
according to “racial” theory, there is no difference in “blood” between the two
peoples, and it would be difficult to develop an “ideology” that would safeguard
our “racial purity” against the other “Semitic” people…
The writer differentiates here between two alternative interpretations: one, the national frame (‘a healthy and positive national feeling’); and the other, the classic racist interpretation 4
of the incident, which is “scientifically” invalid. By means of this distinction, the writer defines the boundaries of the dominant
interpretive frame for the period in question.
An editorial in this same paper ten days later of the young woman’s ‘rescue’ event, refers to it among cases in which the authorities abused Arab citizens, but did not associate it with racism, rather with the need for inclusive citizenship. The avoidance of the term indicates the power of the taboo against racism as an interpretive category.
In 1962 the concept of racism is mentioned explicitly only twice in our data sample of articles. The public debate was over the Knesset bill to revoke the military government imposed on Palestinians who had remained in Israel since 1948. Once, with reference to the biological aspect of the definition of racism, saying: ‘The Arabs belong to the same race as the Jews…but in any event, the Arabs constitute a separate national entity’ and the second time in the context of discrimination and segregation anchored in law. In the latter the argument is against comparing the military government in Israel with the racist state of affairs in the United States and South Africa, since the security considerations are different. In all the other articles about the military government, the discrimination is framed in national or security terms. As part of the politics of signification, Arabs and Jews are presented in the discourses of 1949 and 1962 as two different nations belonging to one race, and discrimination against Arabs is portrayed as civil inequality resulting from belonging to the non-dominant national group.
In our third discursive event in 1976 racism is still a taboo. On 30 March 1976, Palestinian citizens of Israel declared a general strike in protest over government plans to expropriate land in the Galilee as part of the growing efforts to ‘Judaize’ the Galilee. The protest escalated into a violent confrontation between police and military forces, and the
demonstrators culminating in six dead and dozens of injured among the protesters. What came to be known as the ‘Land Day’ sparked a wide-ranging public debate regarding the possibility
of peaceful coexistence between the two populations in future. The event is still framed in terms of civil inequality and of Jewish nationalism as opposed to the newly emergent Palestinian nationalism among Arabs in Israel, with no reference to the land expropriation policy as racist, nor to the easiness in which the security forces shot the Palestinian
Further confirmation of our argument for the existence of a taboo against the category
of racism with reference to Palestinian citizens can be found in the Communist press coverage
of Land Day. Despite its unambiguous stance regarding the events
themselves, and even as it
condemns them in such harsh terms as ‘murder’, ‘crime’, and ‘pogrom,’ the term racism is not
The almost total absence of the term racism in describing the policy toward Palestinian citizens, even in the brutal context of Land Day, indicates both that the concept is still narrowly defined and that the taboo persists regarding its use in the discourse on Jewish-Palestinian relations.
The continuing taboo against racism as a discursive category whose cultural resonance is ingrained in the experience of the Holocaust, is apparently reinforced by the equation of Zionism with racism. The delay in ‘expanding’ the use of the term is actually connected, in our opinion, with the fact that international organizations adopted the Palestinian movement’s definition of Zionism. The condemnation of Israel led to a ‘closing of ranks’ within the national discourse, with commentators refraining from interpreting entrenched discrimination as racist.
Various scholars have pointed to the 1980s as a turning point in the political history of Israeli society. Scholars are in disagreement about the ways in which changing policies have affected the status of
Palestinian minority. However, all approaches point to the 1980s as a watershed in social and political discourse in Israel.
The debate during the eighties over what constitutes racism and who is a racist took place in the courtroom, the Knesset, and the media.
We examined the discourse on three events, all from the mid-1980s: the return of what was known as Area 9; the law against incitement to racism; and the resolution on differential tuition in universities. Due to the lack of time, I will focus briefly on each one of them.
The plot of land known as Area 9 (in the Galilee), most of which was Arab-owned, was expropriated in 1942 by the British Mandatory regime. In 1948, after thousands of Arab residents were expelled from the region, the land was expropriated by Israeli military government, and the area was declared a military zone and turned into a training area. After 1967, the army effectively relinquished the region, and the area was designated for Jewish settlement. The announcement of the expropriation of 20,000 dunam (5,000 acres) and the closure of the area to its residents was the immediate cause of the Land Day protests in 1976. The fate of Area 9 arose sporadically within the context of discussions on the issue of land expropriation. In 1986, a ministerial committee headed by Shimon Peres decided to restore 75% of the land to its owners. This decision set off a public debate. In particular, it is interesting to compare this debate with the one on Land Day, since both incidents relate to the issue of land and the right of Palestinian citizens to have expropriated lands returned to them. Whereas in the discourse on Land Day, the term racism is
mentioned explicitly only twice, together with scattered indirect
references to obviously related markers (anti-Semitism, apartheid, blacks, whites), in the debate on Area 9 this number rises to eight direct or indirect references, and the meanings attributed to the term are expanded. In the context of this incident, racism is interpreted (primarily by the political Left) as the hatred of minorities and foreigners. It appears in tandem with ‘nationalism’, in contrast to the earlier period when these terms appeared as two separate interpretive frames. Racism is now used as a label and an instrument of political struggle. As part of the politics of 7
signification, even the opponents of expanding the term find themselves addressing these additional meanings. Therefore, it is the debate itself that brings the new interpretations of this category to the fore.
Joining the markers of racism in the expanding Israeli discourse is Kahane, who takes on the same status as the earlier signifiers: apartheid, Nazism, and the Ku Klux Klan. Racism is presented as an extreme form of nationalism and hatred of minorities, and concurrently, a debate erupts as to whether institutional discrimination that impinges on civil rights constitutes racism.
During the mid 1980s the Knesset passed several amendments in an attempt to thwart the objectives of Kahane’s ‘Kach’ movement. One of the bills drafted in early 1986, which sparked a public uproar, was the law against ‘racist incitement’. The bill, submitted by then-Justice Minister Moshe Nissim, ‘garnered’ criticism from both Political Right and Left.
The debate about the legislation against incitement to racism enriches and broadens the boundaries of the discourse regarding the term, which hereafter encompasses several meanings concurrently; alongside its biological definitions, racism emerges as a form of discrimination built into state apparatuses.
In May 1987 a government resolution to institute two levels of university tuition designated the lower level for those who served in the military, led to a public outcry, accompanied by student demonstrations protesting the decision, which was interpreted by various groups as racist and unjust. Criticized as a vote-getting tactic, it is framed by politicians on the Left as a racist move reflecting a discriminatory policy toward Palestinian citizens while hiding behind the category of ‘army veterans’—a euphemism for excluding Arabs. The press of all political stripes engages in discussing the meaning of racism and whether this constitutes a racist resolution. The term racism is broadened in these discussions to include severe discrimination against other national groups, with nationalism being
interpreted as racism. The use of the term is now broader, more fluid, taking on several meanings simultaneously. Even those who do not support defining the policy as racist, and they are many, take part in the public discourse concerning the meaning of racism. In other words, in the discussion of university tuition, racism is interpreted as discrimination grounded in law, that is, institutionalized discrimination.
The occupation of the Palestinian territories after 1967 war as well is represented as a racist act, with the sense of racial superiority
trickling down into the expanding discourse. The author David Grossman uses the term ‘yellow wind’ to refer to the twenty years of occupation: ‘The yellow wind spawned the yellow plague of racism and violence’. At the same time, the narrow biological interpretation of the category does not disappear but is offered once again by both supporters and opponents of the argument that the tuition resolution is racist. Moreover, the
discussion of racism as discriminatory policy now expands to include other groups, in particular ‘mizrahim’ (Jews born in Arab countries) living in development towns and slum neighborhoods.
In the debate about tuition in the late 1980s, one can observe how the barriers to political discourse on racism are beginning to waver, with the latter becoming a vessel for discrimination and oppression of weaker social categories. This trend is to intensify in the coming decades. In the discourse of the 1990s, racism is transformed into a social problem. The first discursive moment we shall examine is a survey
initiated by Knesset member Avraham Burg in December 1992, while chairing the Knesset’s Education Committee, examining the public’s views on the subject of violence and its attitude toward Palestinian citizens of Israel. According to the survey’s findings, 40 per cent of Jews in Israel identified with violence toward Arabs, and 60 per cent of the public believed that xenophobia and racism in Israel are similar to the situation in Europe and the U.S. The findings, and their interpretation, sparked a 9 stormy public debate. In response to the survey’s findings, Burg defines racism as ‘a doctrine of hatred with stereotypes’. The discourse in the media illustrates the struggle between two interpretive frames: one, that of so called ‘racism without race’, proposed by Burg in his interpretation of the views of the Israeli public; and the other, the attempt to return to the narrow biological definition of racism that emerges from the heated reactions elicited by Burg.
The debate over the grounding of racism in law (i.e., institutional racism), whose roots we identified in the discourse moment of university tuition in 1987, intensifies and expands in the present discourse, with racism growing to include not only discrimination for ethnic or cultural reasons but a system of inequality capable of exercising legitimate power as part of existing laws.
Moreover, there is an intentional breaching of the taboo against
mentioning the term racism in the aftermath of the Holocaust: As Aryeh Caspi writes in, Haaretz, 18 December 1992 :
‘Nazism degraded racism. It brought matters to the point where any moderate racism appears by comparison to be the embodiment of love of one’s fellow man…’. The writer does not mince words in describing the policy of inequality in Israel as racist:
‘Hebrew racism has many faces. There is white-collar, elegant, polite racism…There is well-reasoned racism, cloaked in slogans of justice…And there is brutal racism. We’ve become so accustomed to our own racism, to the justifications and excuses, and the defense mechanism we’ve developed, that it seems natural to us…The Arab has become a demonic figure in our culture…’.
In the 1990s, then, the category of racism encompasses xenophobia and the demonization of a weakened group, rationalized by state mechanisms such as the legal system, political bargaining, and so forth.
The second discursive event of the last period of our inquiry is the public debate
following the October 2000 protests of Israeli Palestinians after the outbreak of the second Intifada. In clashes at several locations lasting between 1- 8 October, thirteen Palestinian citizens and one Jew were killed, and dozens of demonstrators and several policemen were injured. The incidents sparked an intense public debate, leading to the
establishment of the Orr Commission of Inquiry.
B. Michael’s article in Yediot Achronot illustrates the spirit of the debate: “What did you think? [That] fifty years of racism, whether latent or overt, dormant or active, legislative or practical, do not etch bitter, painful scars in the gut?…Then came the guns of the police and taught us that an Arab is an Arab. Irrespective of religion, sex, or identity card” An article describing the police behavior as racist, simultaneously proposes several interpretations of racism. First, it is hatred of the other on national grounds. Secondly, it is institutional racism, which creates a legislative distinction between national groups, and finally, racism in the biological sense. A different commentary on the same incident adds an explicit and far-reaching interpretation in which all aspects of discriminatory policy against Palestinians since the
establishment of the state fall under the category of racism based on national origin.
Exploring how the content of 'racism' has been transformed throughout the existence
of the state of Israel, we have shown three primary forms of racism as it has been expressed in
the Israeli public discourse throughout the time: the classic biological sense, in which the key
representation of the hatred of the other is based on the biological signifier; racism in the form
of xenophobia, what one might call ‘racism without race’, in which biological signifier is
replaced by the sociological one and in which "culture can also func'tion like a nature"; and
Crucial to our analysis is that these different meanings do not mutually exclude each other but rather coexist and operate both as a mechanism of political justification, blocking the broadening of the discourse on discrimination toward Palestinians; and as a strategy presenting various expressions of the Israeli policy toward Palestinians as a discriminatory one.
Thus, paradoxically enough, in the first years after the foundation of the state of Israel,
when the policy towards the Palestinian minority was the most
discriminatory in the history of
the Israeli state – expulsions, massive land expropriations, limitations on freedom of
movement and work – policy was hardly ever referred to as ‘racist’ within the public
discourse. Inversely, at a time when the conditions of the Palestinian citizens improved –
obviously it still leaves much to be desired – the use of the term racism reaches its peak. As
this example demonstrates, the sign ‘racism’ derives its meaning from wider socio-historical
and political context much more than from ‘facts on the ground’.
‘The danger lies specifically in what this racist attitude arouses in the Arabs of Israel themselves’, warns journalist Negbi, referring the reader to Albert Memmi’s work on racism. Memmi (1994) analyzes how the majority’s fear of ‘the other’ leads it to abuse the latter, which in turn provokes a counter-reaction, causing society to degenerate into an endless cycle of mutual hatred and violence. His explanation of the phenomenon stays relevant to the Israeli case, as to the US after 11 September or ethnic and religious confrontation in Europe: ‘These people whom we fear, these suspects whom we condemn in advance, whom we thoroughly dislike—how can they not respond in kind? ‘ (1994: 150).




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