White Israelis, Brown Palestinians

Inaccurate racial language distorts the conflict

Dining on Sacred Cow

As Israel and Hamas draw closer to tragic confrontation, a vast class of amateur pundits has come out of the woodwork to weigh in on the comparative rights and wrongs. Dodging in and out of vitriolic Facebook arguments, I came upon a piece in Rutgers’ student newspaper, the Daily Targum, nondescriptly titled “Israel Must Act Responsibly”.

In her brief column, Amani Al-Khatahtbeh poses a standard pro-Palestinian argument about conditions on the ground in Gaza, well within the expected range of opinions that populate my heated, Middle East-heavy news feed. What stands out most is a peculiar claim about American media coverage of the conflict: “We are basically being told, ‘It’s OK that our largest-funded ally is killing all those brown people—they asked for it.’”

Aside from the unexamined fact that many Israelis are browner than many Palestinians, I was struck by the utter incongruity of Khatahtbeh’s resort to racial language, folded in amongst arguments that draw from international law and political economy. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a dense thicket of conflicting dreams and grievances about land ownership, national identity, and religion, is anything but a matter of skin color.

However, a growing contingent on the left has taken to caricaturing the conflict as one between white Israeli colonists and brown Palestinians indigenes at the mercy of an empire. The framework of colonialism is certainly worth including in the discussion. Yet in analogizing the Jews of Israel to Algeria’s Pieds-Noir and South Africa’s Boers, the pro-Palestinian left’s race-baiters stake a dangerous claim: European Jewish intruders should get out of the Middle East. For those of us who believe in some sort of coexistence in the land of Canaan, this language threatens the very foundations of peace and reduces the complexities of a tragic conflict to racial homily.

Although it’s clear that “white” doubles as “wealthy,” “privileged,” and “Western” in critics’ racial essentialization of Israeli Jews, the relative wealth, privilege, and Western status enjoyed today by Jewish people is anything but essential. Unlike British and French colonists, whose privilege accrued over centuries of political and economic ascendancy, the European ancestors of now-powerful Israelis were most often poor, disenfranchised, and pursued. In 20th-century Germany, Jewish citizens’ attempts to live “white” lives were rejected by racial purists who insisted that they “go to Palestine.” In my grandparents’ age, there was still a running question in the United States as to whether Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazi Jews could be accepted as white.

This is, of course, not to speak of the many Israeli Jews whose recent roots trace back to the Middle East and North Africa. If Palestinian Arabs are to be considered brown, it is unreasonable to call the hundreds of thousands of Yemeni, Iraqi, and Moroccan Jews in Israel anything but the same. And since the beginning of Ethiopian immigration in the 1980s, Israeli Jews have come in yet a darker shade. The reduction of Israel to whiteness thus proves to be nothing more than a sloppy, overreaching extension of the settler-colonial narrative prominent on the left.

Moreover, attempts to generalize Palestinians into the ambiguous brownness of Cubans, Zulus, Filipinos, and Indians gloss over the peculiarities of Levantine Arab racial identity, which often has more to do with religious affiliation than with ethnic origin. Many Christian Palestinians, Lebanese, and Syrians in the Middle East and abroad are accepted as white on the basis of their Western names, cultural affinities, religious preferences, and white-enough visages. Looking beyond the political narrative, Palestinian brownness is just as contingent and problematic as Israeli whiteness.

Perhaps most aptly, against Khatahtbeh’s implication that Jews and Palestinians are a racial world apart, an uninformed observer at a Jerusalem market would be hard-pressed to tell apart similarly dressed members of the two ethnic groups. To the chagrin of radicals on each side who rush to disavow blood ties to the other, Israelis are not the Khazars of Arthur Koestler’s “The Thirteenth Tribe,” nor are Palestinians the Arabians of Joan Peters’ “From Time Immemorial”.

I carry an Abrahamic pride in the fact that I have been mistaken for Palestinian; it suggests that I have an extra obligation to figure out a way for my people to share the land with our not-so-different cousins. The daunting challenges we face are political, military, and economic in nature. To invent a racial dimension blows open an additional chasm between our peoples, setting back the enterprise of coexistence yet another step.

Joshua B. Lipson ’14, a Crimson editorial writer, is a near eastern languages and civilizations concentrator in Winthrop House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.