I got into a bit of an online argument the other week.
After the whole furore over the Ministry of Absorption’s commercials, I became upset with the way that some American friends felt it was okay to stereotype Israelis. They were having lots of fun laughing at how rude, gauche, arrogant, and loud-mouthed Israelis are. It bugged me.
I used the ‘r’ word. I said their jokes were racist. Oops.
I got told off. I was asked to explain myself, since “Israeli” is not a race.
I was also told I was being over-sensitive “because, frankly, your job is to defend Israel”. (It was the “frankly” that did my head in. He was being careful not to offend me. You know, like someone might say, “because, frankly, you smell like crap…”)
I stopped myself responding straight away, and sat back to think.
1. WHAT’S RACISM?
Maybe I shouldn’t have called their jokes “racist”. I should have been more specific. I should have mentioned that they were perpetrating generalized, exaggerated and offensive stereotypes of people based solely on where they were born. I don’t know, if that’s not racist behaviour, it’s certainly holding hands with it.
I remember once being on an anti-racist seminar while working in the social services in the UK. We were given a standard equation. Racism = Prejudice + Power. The equation made me extremely uncomfortable even then. How can you judge who has power? It would seem that all a racist needs is to prove that s/he is less powerful than the person they are abusing, and hey presto, they’re all cool. In particular aware of past Jewish experience in Germany (who would have defined Jews as powerless in the early 30s?) I felt the definition was insidious.
I think expressions of prejudice are bad news, whether or not you call them racist.
I’m not saying that there aren’t some rude and boorish Israelis around. Of course there are. But there are fewer than there were. Israeli society is capable of developing.
Just as in right-on Britain the only racism allowed (okay – nasty national stereotyping) was against Americans, so in the Jewish world the acceptable face of racism is to ridicule Israelis’ sense of dress and decorum.
It still bugs me.
2. WHAT IS IT THAT I DEFEND?
Bearing in mind that I don’t even defend Man United when they’re playing crap, I was struck by this comment. Is it my job to defend Israel? Not sure. I imagine there are people in my organization who would say so, though I don’t tend to listen to them. Anyway the point is that what I feel free to write on my facebook or my blog is different from what my job expects of me.
But Dan’s comment led me to ask myself – what is it that I defend? In what do I so fully believe that I will defend it no matter what?
It’s not Israel, and it’s certainly not my job…
I believe that the world is destroyed by absolutes. I believe that violence and oppression emerge from absolutes. I believe that it is a moral imperative for us to break down absolute understandings, assumptions, and faiths. Absolute faith leads to war.
The constant search for the undermining argument, the unexpected ‘other hand’, the deflating witticism – these are the tools of peace.
Theodore Zeldin taught me:
“The fact that the world has become fuller than ever of complexity of every kind may suggest at first that it is harder to find a way out of our dilemmas, but in reality the more complexities, the more crevices there are through which we can crawl.”
I defend the need to constantly search out, and even chip out, crevices through which we can crawl.
That’s why the stereotyping jokes bug me. They smooth over crevices.