Israeli activists gather in strength to fight racism

15 November 2013

More than 200 activists came together on October 29th for the sold-out Strategies for Fighting Racism Conference. The Arab-Hebrew Theater in Old Jaffa was filled to capacity; registration to the event was closed the day before due to the overwhelming response. The event brought together activists to discuss, share, and learn about the ongoing struggle against racism in Israel, including strategies for combating it.

In recent years, Israel has seen a disturbing rise in incidents of racism as well as the passage of in racist legislation and racist rhetoric by public leaders. In response, SHATIL together with NIF, the Coalition against Racism in Israel, Achoti, the Mizrachi Democratic Rainbow, Mossawa Center, Tebeka, Morashtaynu and other partners organized the conference as a launching pad for a coordinated effort to fight this phenomenon.

In her opening remarks, SHATIL Director Ronit Heyd noted that a disturbing number of racist incidents in Israel today come from politicians who are also responsible for an increase in racist legislation in the Knesset. “SHATIL and other organizations are not afraid to stand up to this legislation,” she said. Nidal Othman, of the Coalition against Racism, said that “at the end of the day, it’s the government that is responsible [for racism in Israel] – it’s the government and the Knesset that we need to change and influence.”

Dr. Werner Puschra, director of Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung Israel, one of the conference’s sponsors, noted that “a shared society requires an inclusive national idea,” meaning that in order to have a truly pluralistic, shared society, its members must buy into the idea of inclusiveness. That is a goal for which the organizers and conference participants are striving.

Shutafut-Sharakah, a forum of civil society organizations promoting a shared society for Jews and Arabs in Israel, of which SHATIL is a member, used the conference to launch their interactive real-time mapping of racist incidents, including acts of violence and vandalism. On the organization’s Hebrew language Facebook page, Israelis can post information whenever they encounter racism in Israel, such as racist graffiti.

Speaking on behalf of the Russian community, Eddie Zhensker pointed out the irony that while “Israelis love Aliyah [immigration], they don’t always like the olim [immigrants]. “Zhensker was one of six speakers — members of Israel’s Mizrachi, Russian, Ethiopian, Arab, African refugee, and Haredi communities – who shared their personal experiences with racism in Ted-talk style talks. SHATIL-led pre-conference training for the speakers resulted in powerful and moving presentations.

“The walls we build to protect ourselves eventually become our prisons,” said New Israel Fund’s Pazit Adani, arguing that racism is a product of fear of the other. “The idea of combating racism in Israel is a relatively new one and developing the tools to fight it is still a work in progress.” Opportunities for activists to meet in forums like this are a step in the right direction.