«Fighting Racism and Discrimination: In Praise of Transparency The need for a Monitoring System of Racism and Discrimination in Israel - Lessons ...»
Fighting Racism and Discrimination: In
Praise of Transparency
The need for a Monitoring System of Racism and
Discrimination in Israel - Lessons learned from 20 years of
Dr. Haim Fireberg
It could be said that there are only a few more areas that
dealing with them are characterized by ambiguity as the
discourse on racism in Israel. First and foremost, the discourse
about racism suffers from vagueness because the subject itself
and its definition are ambiguous. The Israeli penalty code defines (section A1, 1998) "Racism" as: "Persecution, humiliation, contempt, revelation of enmity, hostility or violence, or causing strife against a public or parts of the population only because of its [skin] color or because of its belonging to a [specific] race or because of its national-ethnic origin". Literally, the definition is so broad that it enables theoretically the law enforcing authorities to deal with any complain that is filed by any individual or any group in Israel that feels being offended by racism.
Of course there is a big advantage in this ambiguity to the government, to the attorney-general and to the public persecution. It leaves the power of interpretation, and as a consequence, the power of persecuting the offenders to the political echelons. By using a vague language in the definition of racism and in the other clauses of this section of the penalty code, and by limiting the freedom of the general persecution by the following clause: "A written agreement by the Attorney General personally is needed for any indictment based on this section", the politicians preserve the authority to determine the 'actual state of racism' in Israel and to control the height of its flames.
Those who are familiar with the internal discourse in Israel on racism see very easily the raison d'etre of such formulation: The Arab minority in Israel and the unsolved ArabJewish national conflict. By keeping the power of interpretation and of indictment close to its chest can the Attorney General to decide – on one hand – that offending the Arab population in Israel should be considered as racism and should be treated severely, but – on the other hand – offences against specific Jewish population groups – especially those who are active in the internal political dispute between Left and Right - would be treated as part of the 'free speech' fundamental principle. And vice versa.
The present law does not guarantee the opportunity for various interested groups to analyze, to study and to consider offences of a racist nature on an equal and transparent basis.
This is – as I already mentioned – a big advantage to any kind of politicians and to different interested lobbying groups that have the possibility to harness racism to their open or their latent goals, but it is a huge obstacle for keeping and developing a true open civic society. A civic society that is based on the law but even more important, based on open and cut clear criteria that enable different parts of society to live together by respecting the dignity and the sensitivities of each group.
But in dealing with 'racism' and discrimination in Israel one should bare in mind that the reality of daily life is usually not a struggle between Jews and Arabs as two ethnic-national groups. Life in Israel is far more complicated and the Israeli society has many facets and is composed of many groups divided by communal identifications (i.e: Ashkenazim, Mizrahim, Ethiopians, etc.), along cultural boundaries, by sexual preferences, etc. Many groups raise flags of 'racism' and discrimination against them using the term for different reasons.
Unfortunately it is not the proper arena to discuss them.
The oldest 'racist' issue in the life of the pre 1948 Jewish Yishuv and Israel is the 'discrimination' of the Mizrahim (the Jews emigrated mostly from Arab countries) by the Ashkenazim (Jews that emigrated from Europe). The statistical data negate the idea of the existence in Israel of two pure racial groups; the vast majority of white Ashkenazim vs. a minority of black Mizrahim. For many years the Mizrahim were the largest group of the Jewish population, replaced at the present by almost a similar ratio of cross-marriage families (Mizrahim and Ashkenazim). The pure Ashkenazim become an extinct species in Israel, as well as the pure Mizrahim. The new Mizrahim in Israel today are the Jews (and Falash Mura) that emigrated from Ethiopia.
But to add to the difficulty of understanding 'racism' in Israel, Israeli intellectuals, mostly of their ancestral Mizrahi origin, developed 'a theory' that could be called: 'the perpetummobile discrimination of the Mizrahim'. For them the Israeli society is split to two complicated groups. On one hand a huge group that includes all those who suffer (up to them) from a methodical and brutal racial discrimination – the new Mizrahim.
It includes many different sub groups: ideological Mizrahim, Arabs, Women, Ethiopians Jews, exploited foreign workers, African refugees, LGBT community, etc. On the other hand the exploiters – the new Ashkenazim.
The unique and interesting thing about this group is that it is identified actually not by skin color anymore, but by cultural criteria. To belong to this group you should be identified by the 'Mizrahi intellectuals' as one that embraced and adopted Ashkenazi values. Many of the political strata and academia scholars are being blamed for abandoning their original Oriental
Ashkenazim. By adopting 'European values' they are the new oppressors, the new racists.
So the ambiguity of the 'intellectual' attitudes towards racism in Israel is not different in principle from the ambiguity of the laws that have to help us to recognize racism and to enable us fighting the phenomena. One could start thinking conspiracy, that the two groups: the politicians and the 'NewMizrahi intellectuals' combined forces to preserve their power and control on society. In this case both would prefer the current situation, in which each group has a full ability to manipulate racism over the possibility of adopting transparent and professional accepted criteria for monitoring, analyzing and study racism in Israel.
The present unclear criteria of racism that is built in in the current legislation on one side, and the brutal tread down of the possibility to conduct a real open intellectual discourse in Israel about the complicated situation of minorities and other specialneeds' groups on the other side, caused to a situation in which the arena of 'fighting racism' is flooded with groups that held different agendas, that more than once use highly biased data processing systems.
The involvement of NGOs' in the public arena is a blissful phenomenon and is very common worldwide. I, myself, represent an organization that could be considered to be one.
But when the attorney general office, the public persecution and the police in Israel do not publish authorized data about racism and discrimination in Israel. Or, in the police reports, there is almost no overt attempt (or maybe even intention) to use the racism section in the criminal code in specific criminal files (e.g.: on nationalistic agitation), then the products of such bodies (data and analysis) is the only ones that available for use.
Those products design and influence the public conscience about the moral state if Israel. And when for different reasons – obviously political ones, but also for a real concern about Israel ethics – people and even worse, political bodies in Israel and abroad, adopt the outcomes without the ability to criticize them;
there is a real concern that an inaccurate image of the status of racism in Israel is developed.
But there is even a bigger absurdity. There is an allegation – that comes especially from the far right in Israel, but it does not mean that it has not a morsel of truth – that the main, if not the only source of the attorney general office on racism in Israel is the annual report that is produces by the NGO: "The Coalition against Racism in Israel". So it is not only the public's conscience that is premeditated by a well media connected organization with a specific agenda, but also the brightest and sharpest minds in the Israeli legislative corps are exposed and maybe be influenced by its agenda.
So what should be done? The "comfort of fools" as it is being said in Hebrew is that Israel shares the problem of the discrepancy between legislation on racism and the limited ability to monitor racism, xenophobia and discrimination with many other countries. Even in the EU. There is no need to tell our colleagues from the FRA or DG/Justice how many efforts are invested by them in building and enforcing unified policing system for controlling hate crimes etc. And in the area of monitoring and fighting antisemitism several EU members are heavily relied on the crucial role that is played by NGOs' with a huge experience and knowledge in the field. Veterans of those organizations are working hand in hand with the law enforcement bodies in their countries and many times they are executing FRA initiatives, such as training law officers in recognizing antisemitic manifestations.
So a dependence of the legislative and policing authorities on NGOs' to monitor racism, discrimination and xenophobia is not a bad idea for itself. Our experience in monitoring antisemitism shows that many times the common people prefer to work and to report to NGOs' on such issues rather to submit complains to formal bodies. The main question is what are the goals of these bodies and how much they invest in becoming professional and unbiased authorities in their field; their formal goals as well as their latent ones should be the same. In order to develop public credibility as well as achieving governmental bodies' confidence in them, they should be as less biased as possible, holding and using firm and transparent criteria in gathering material and analyzing it and to postpone outside pressures that would try to influence their conclusions.
A common truth is that establishments do not like the interference of outside bodies in what they consider as their unique business. It is true in Israel as well as (I truly believe) among the EU member states and the EU institutions, and anywhere else in the world. But if I get a chance to advise the official representatives of the state of Israel I would have recommended them to support and even to initiate civic society bodies in order to develop a high standard monitoring body. (The example and experience of EQUINET should be considered and studied by Israel.) In the era of 'new antisemitism' a highly appreciated monitoring body on racism and human rights in Israel, that enjoy a vast support from all sections of the political rainbow and the academia, could influence the anti-Israeli discourse by supplying credible information, data and updated analysis. It is not a substitute to a true police work or to the general persecution responsibility to fight hate crimes and racism. But from Tel Aviv University – The Kantor Center's experience in monitoring antisemitism, those bodies became a complementary partner to the law forcing bodies.
A fundamental and primary demand in order to achieve a recognizable status as a leading monitoring and researching body is to develop monitoring and analyzing system that would be as much acceptable as possible by the public and the academia as well as the authorities. There should be transparent criteria that are very strict and stable over long periods of time, the outcome should be defendable and could be reconstructed any time. It is not easy to achieve such high standards, but trying to reach them is the only way to ensure recognition by all parties.
And the experience of 20 years of intensive work in monitoring and studying antisenitism keep telling us how complicated is the attempts to reach professionalism. There are many bodies world wide that are monitoring antisemitism. And although one can find similar characteristics in their monitoring systems, they are actually very different and generally speaking they are adapted to the specific nation's cultural codes and to its unique legal system.
In such a Babylon Tower of monitoring systems the TAU the Kantor Project for the Study of Antisemitism and Racism (formerly known as the Stephen Roth Institute) has find itself – many years ago - in a need to develop its own system and mechanism of monitoring antisemitism which was constantly improved over the years. As a research Center it also needed a basis of reference for evaluating antisemitism, so it developed its criteria that tried to reflect the diversity of severance of violent manifestations.
By studying the various systems carefully TAU – Kantor Center had developed the ability to make correlation between different data bases and to publish an analysis that covers the state of antisemitism world wide.
The main mission of each local organization is of course to monitor antisemitism, discrimination and xenophobia in its own jurisdiction and to fight it by cooperation with local law enforcement organizations. But the challenge of fighting hate is becoming more and more global. Through Internet and other media systems hate ideas are being circulated efficiently.
Fighting against antisemitic and racist phenomena is becoming trickier, especially because the actual fighting should be done in many different political environments and different legislative situations.
Under the auspices of organizations like the FRA, the ODHIR and the OSCE and with corporation with national legal enforcing authorities there is a chance to push forward a unified
discrimination, including antisemitism. Of course it means also to accomplish the need to develop unified criteria that would be used to evaluate and to analyze hate manifestations. For the EU it seems essential because it is part of the idea of unification.
And the same should be said about a divided society like this of Israel.
Over the years TAU monitoring and analyzing Center achieved a unique status and is considered to be by many human rights organizations and even by parliaments and governments as a neutral body that is known by its understatement attitude towards using statistics. It could have been done only by trying hard each year to find a way among all the different monitoring systems and to come out with a good (but definitely not the optimum) unified description of the global situation.