The Race Against Racism

20 March 2014

In 2007, when my eldest daughter, Noa, was 5, she and I took a trip from California to Boston to visit my new nephew. While we were there, we had lunch with an old friend and mentor of mine, a man who had recently been elected Governor of Massachusetts. Noa was impressed, not because he was the first African American to hold that position, but because, in her words, someone she’d known when he was “just a normal person” now held such an impressive office. On the flight back home, she glanced at the front page of the Boston Globe I was reading. Seeing a picture of the Governor speaking in front of a cheering crowd with his arm around a smiling man in a suit, she asked, “Daddy, who is that guy with the Governor?” “That’s Senator Barack Obama.” “Why is he with the Governor in front of that crowd?” “Well, he’s running for President.” “And the Governor wants him to win?” “Yes.” “Daddy, do you want him to win?” “Yes.” “Does mamma?” “She does.” She wondered about this for a moment, and then asked, “Daddy, are all the best leaders black men?”

The story of race and racism in America is central to the story of America itself. The way we have grappled with it has defined us as a country, and it continues to do so. But things change, and sometimes even for the better. That day on the tarmac at Logan Airport, I felt that we’d crossed a Rubicon, at least as far as Noa’s generation’s relationship to the issue is concerned. Yes, racism is still a pernicious and dangerous problem in America. But we have made great strides here.

Race, or race within and outside ethnic difference, is also central to Israel’s story. The bad news is, racism in Israel today is also a pernicious and dangerous problem. Arab Israelis, Mizrachim, Ethiopian olim, asylum seekers from sub-Saharan Africa: all have felt the sting of discrimination, sometimes emanating from depressingly high-level places. Just take a look at the edict from the Chief Rabbi of Safad instructing Jews not to rent property to non-Jews (read: Arab Israelis). Or the Knesset Member who told an anti-immigration rally that migrants from Sudan were “a cancer in our body.” Or the religious girls’ school that segregated classrooms so that little Ashkenazi girls would not have to sit next to little Mizrachi girls.

The good news is, Israelis, just like Americans, are standing up to do something about it. As those of you who read this newsletter regularly know, NIF is very proud to be the engine of support for the individuals, organizations and coalitions that are working every day to fight racism in Israel. NIF-Shatil and our community of organizations are responding to outrages like the ones I list above and Israelis are paying attention. Indeed, a recent poll found that a majority of Israelis recognize that racism is a problem, and believe that education is the best way to combat it. And a partnership of organizations including Shatil, Tebeka (Advocacy for Equality and Justice for Ethiopian Israelis), the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and the Coalition against Racism, as well as many others, recent launched an anti-racism campaign including an anti-racism conference in the Knesset. I loved the way the coalition advertised the Knesset conference:

“Good morning Knesset! Today a special meeting of the Lobby against Discrimination and Racism will take place at the Knesset. The annual report of the lobby for the struggle against racism will be presented at the meeting. In addition, the results of a survey conducted in preparation for the “Day Against Racism” will be presented.

Attention: More than half of Israeli society pointed to education as a solution to the problem of racism. This is the area that needs to receive support, resources and tools in order to promote a more inclusive and tolerant Israeli society. Give this day a chance!”

We’re all giving toleration and pluralism a chance in Israel — a chance it must take to succeed.