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General Articles
"Racism in Israel", a new book edited by [Tel Aviv U, Sociology] Yehouda Shenhav and [Ben Gurion U, Education] Yossi Yonah


Last update - 14:15 09/12/2008
Israel studies
Racial test
Gizanut beyisrael (Racism in Israel), edited by Yehouda Shenhav and Yossi Yonah. Hakibbutz Hameuchad and the Jerusalem Van Leer Institute, 484 pages, NIS 96

Read the description of the following case - taken from real life - and answer the following questions:

Two Israeli women want to have a child. They apply to a sperm bank. Due to the shortage of sperm currently available at public stocks, they choose a private bank operating out of Rishon Letzion. For a fee of several hundred shekels, they are allowed to browse a catalog of donors. The first detail they learn about an anonymous donor is his parents' ethnic origin. Subsequent details in the entry include height, weight, hair color, skin tone and eye color. The catalog the couple received by e-mail lists the details of 22 donors. Among their 44 parents, 38 are of Ashkenazi origin (mainly Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union) or are sabra (native-born) Israelis. There is no donor on the list both of whose parents are of Mizrahi origin (Jews of Middle Eastern origins). That is, the donors are all Ashkenazi, sabras or mixed. There also is not a single donor of Ethiopian origin on the list.
1. Does the fact that the Rishon Letzion sperm bank has no Mizrahi donors disturb you? Is this, in your opinion, a racist catalog that assumes that most women seeking sperm donations would prefer Ashkenazi donors?

2. What is your opinion of the following argument: The very fact of the designation of the donor's ethnic origins and the importance that is afforded it constitutes a kind of "racialization" and is inherently racist.

This can be inferred from the introductory remarks by the editors of "Racism in Israel," Yehouda Shenhav and Yossi Yonah. Racialization, they write, is a process whereby "the biological (i.e., skin color and the length or width of the nose), the social (i.e., poverty, country of origin and social status) and the cultural (i.e., religious observance, way of life, family size and attitude toward technology) become natural, that is to say, characteristics that testify to the unchanging innate character of the group in question."

According to Shenhav and Yonah, there is no race without racism. The invention of race - the perception that different groups share innate characteristics that distinguish them from others, a perception that is zoological, is the root of racism, and it makes no difference whether this entails arrogance or an egalitarian approach. In order to stop racism, one might conclude from their remarks, it is necessary to uproot the idea of race itself. What do you think? Is this possible?

3. Is it desirable, in the framework of the fight against racism, to prohibit by law the mention of donors' ethnic origins at a sperm bank? Or is this ridiculous, in your opinion? Is it possible to select a sperm donor without knowing his origins, or is this, rather, an essential parameter that should not be left out? In this context, what is your opinion of the extensive genetic data that is routinely gathered in tests during and before pregnancy? Is genetic selectivity morally preferable to racial selectivity? Is it neutral? Or could it be, in any case, that reproductive policy in Israel is submerged up to its neck in eugenics - the attempt to improve race by means of selective childbirth - and that it is difficult to think in any other terms?

Free-market racism

"Racism in Israel" deals in an interesting fashion with the way racist thinking has been reshaped to conform to the prevailing mode of thought - genetic, individual - as contributor Snait Gissis describes in an article on "The Use of 'Race' in Genetics, Epidemiology and Medicine." Indeed, it appears that the culture of genetics that is becoming increasingly widespread here - in which supposedly only the scientific, the particular, the basic nucleus and the objective of things exist - is in fact a hothouse, in which a new kind of racism is being nurtured: the racism of the free market.

Now read the description of the following case - also a real-life situation, and one that appears in the book - and answer the following questions:

"Lynne Rodriguez, from the Philippines, wanted to work in Israel. Like other labor migrants who are officially hired by Israeli employers and Israeli labor contractors, she was required to undergo comprehensive medical examinations before she came to Israel. The examinations were aimed, in part, at ensuring she was not a carrier of infectious diseases and was not pregnant. A short time after entering Israel on a work visa, she discovered that she was in her first months of pregnancy. In June 2005, she gave birth to a son. At the Interior Ministry she was informed that according to regulations, she was now only entitled to a tourist visa, which would expire 12 weeks after the birth. At that time, she would have to choose between leaving Israel or sending her baby home to the Philippines. These are the guidelines laid down in 'Procedure for Pregnant Foreign Workers,' which was formulated at the [ministry's] population registry in October 2004."

Thus begins Sigal Goldin and Adriana Kemp's astounding, chilling contribution to the anthology, "Foreignness and Fertility," about the attitude toward the bodies of female labor migrants in Israel. In understated and objective language, they describe the system by which female migrant workers are imported to Israel, a practice aimed at rectifying the shortage of nursing care workers that accompanied the collapse of the welfare state.

Some additional questions:

1. In your opinion, is the story described here reasonable or monstrous?

2. Should Rodriguez have been allowed to remain in Israel with her baby and work until the expiration of her permit? Or is the Filipina threatening the Jewishness of Israeli society with her body, as the Interior Ministry officials and the legislators in Israel assume, according to the authors of the article, hence making it proper to deport her, or at least to deport her 3-month-old baby?

3. Read the following description of the attitude of the State of Israel toward a "female foreign worker," and answer the questions below.

For $650 a month, write Goldin and Kemp, a Filipino worker will care for an Israeli patient and be on call 24 hours a day, six days a week. The worker's work and residence permit is deposited with her employers - a system that everyone calls "a binding arrangement":

"A foreign worker who leaves his employers is called a 'fugitive' by the authorities and the employer, and he is subject to punishment and is a candidate for immediate deportation," they note. A worker who becomes pregnant after she has received her permit can remain in Israel and work until the permit expires but she is forbidden from raising her baby here. In effect, a migrant worker is not entitled to work in Israel and at the same time have a family life here (it is forbidden to accept workers of either sex who have first-degree relatives here).

Fee of $4,500

In Rodriguez's case, she decided to send the baby to his father, her husband, back in the Philippines and remain in Israel to work, because of her and her husband's difficult economic situation, and because she had not even managed to cover the expenses entailed in coming to Israel, which included, among other things, a payment of $4,500 to the labor contractor.

Further questions:

1. In your opinion, is the story described here reasonable or monstrous?

2. Is it possible to accept the state's logic, by which women are imported to work here in nursing care, to the benefit of the Israeli economy, and at the same time are forbidden from functioning as human beings - to have a relationship, establish a family or enjoy other basic freedoms?

3. Is the logic of the regulations racist? Is it to the benefit of the nation? Is it for the good of the economy? Is it sensible, in your opinion, or despicable?

4. Does the designation "foreign worker" reflect the way we reduce the humanity of the poor migrant woman into that of an entity that works and nothing more? Would we apply the phrase "foreign worker" to a top white-collar employee in Israel, say an American high-tech engineer who is working for an Israeli firm? Or is "foreign worker" a label reserved for poor people?

5. Do the terms "binding arrangement" and "fugitive" remind us of concepts from the era of slavery? Are Israelis, who are educated in the State of Israel sufficiently cognizant of the history of slavery, and do they know how to identify its characteristics and to be disgusted by them? Or has the concept of slavery been pushed aside by our hypersensitivity to racism or anti-Semitism in the framework of education to humanism in Israel, so that it's not considered here to be a black and repugnant stain?

6. Is the violent attitude noted above on the part of the state toward labor migrants in the field of nursing care - and also in the fields of construction and agriculture − indicative of racism, or of hatred and abuse of the poor?

7. In your opinion, is it possible to distinguish between racialization on the basis of poverty and racialization on the basis of ethnic origin? Between racism and abuse of the poor?

The answers:

"Racism in Israel" is an extremely important book. It contains fascinating articles, such as one by Dafna Hirsch on Zionist physicians at the start of the 20th century and their attitude toward mixed Jewish and non-Jewish marriages in the context of "the improvement of the Jewish race," or one by Dimitri Chomsky on the differences between the racist thinking of Ze'ev Jabotinsky, in Odessa, on the one hand, and Max Brod, in Prague, on the other, in different historical environments, in which different attitudes toward race and nationalism prevailed.

The book also offers an interesting treatment of a key phenomenon of racism in Israel - the attitude of Jewish Israelis toward Palestinian citizens of the state, in articles like "Us? Racists?!" about the discourse of racism as it is reflected in print journalism, by Hanna Herzog, Inna Leykin and Smadar Sharon, and "What Color is the Arab?" by Honaida Ghanem.

And the book also offers a wealth of commentary on the development of a new kind of racism here. Reading it stimulates challenging thought about the connection between Judaism and Zionism, on the one hand, and racism on the other. However, here and there the book suffers from an excess of off-putting academic jargon. Had the editors published a more accessible version, they would have had a better chance of disseminating the essential ideas they are presenting here.

In this context, reading Shenhav and Yonah's introduction is liable to give one the (mistaken) impression that everything is racism and that there is no hierarchy among its various manifestations. One might think that the state's racism toward the poor Filipinos, who are accepted here as workers, is identical to the racism of the Israeli client who requests an Ashkenazi donation from the sperm bank and attributes fundamental importance to the donor's ethnic origin. Perhaps the time has come to move our focus away from race relations, from national and ethnic responsibility and tribalism, to power relations of wealth and status. It seems to me that "Racism in Israel" does not delve deeply into this issue.

It would be easier for us to rectify injustices and to stop them if we began to see the way the strong (the wealthy, the member of the national majority) exploit the weak (the poor and the wage-earner, the member of the national minority or the migrant), consume him, use him, restrict him and harm him, only to reaffirm their own superior status. Indeed, on the basis of the example offered here, we would not have been witness at all to institutionalized Israeli racism toward Filipinos had they not been so poor.

Orna Coussin is the author of "Al nohut" (On Comfort), published earlier this year by Babel press (Hebrew).
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