Racism or assimilation: the war of the spray can

  • Geoff
“You’re a racist!” is one of the most cutting accusations one can make in these politically charged times, as we drown in a cacophony of hate speech on social media.
by GEOFF SIFRIN | Aug 01, 2019

To promote racism publicly, even among members of the white elite of the world, is still mostly regarded as disgusting. But the reaction to it is becoming less vehement in many places, from ordinary people to government leaders, including in the Jewish world.

Israel is fertile ground for this, given the complex power relations between parties in the conflict with the Palestinians, and the religious and demographic nature of the conflict.

Graffiti daubed in the Arab city of Kafr Qasim in central Israel on Sunday made no bones about the intentions of its authors. The graffiti went so far as to explicitly endorse racism by saying there were two simple choices for the Jews and for Israel: “Racism or assimilation”, and “Death to Arabs”.

Things like this are not new in Israel, they go back many years, and have emanated from the Palestinian and Israeli sides of the conflict.

But for Jews, the slogan taps into a hot issue in the Jewish world: assimilation is the biggest enemy for many leading figures, in the rabbinic world and elsewhere, who believe that almost anything should be done to prevent it.

That’s why there is such anger towards non-orthodox streams of Judaism, because of their tolerance of liberal streams of Judaism. This anger extends to those who have non-Jewish partners, which supposedly threatens Jewish “purity” and demography.

Some well-known rabbis have gone so far as to say that assimilation is equivalent to another holocaust, and it will essentially finish the job that Hitler started.

This is the context in which the slogan “racism or assimilation” exists for radical right-wing Jews. In other words, to preserve the Jewish people, it’s permissible in the West Bank and according to any possible political “solution” to the conflict, to treat Palestinians according to racist principles. Essentially, this is unabashed apartheid, with no pretence at being anything else.

In South Africa, racist talk, such using the “k-word”, is classified as hate speech, a violation of the constitution, liable for legal action, and possibly jail. The most famous example of that was the late Cape Town estate agent Penny Sparrow, who drew the ire of many South Africans in 2016 after posting racist Facebook remarks.

Incredibly, in some places in the world, it has become almost respectable to be overtly racist, even among government leaders. As an example, United States House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has accused president Donald Trump of wanting to add a citizenship question to next year’s census because he “wants to make America white again”. Such a question would have a chilling effect on who responded to it, thus giving a false, more white picture of the makeup of the population.

In this era of growing nationalist and identity politics, this kind of identity politics is the flavour of the times. In the US last week, the words “Why have Jews been kicked out of 109 countries?” and “Nationalism or extinction” were written in Santa Monica on a public highway, and the “Holocaust is a lie” was found on a bicycle path nearby.

Identity, religious and personal, is hugely important to the human being. But, how far should we go to achieve it?

Are the people who wrote “racism or assimilation” fair warriors in the war for identity, or a dangerous poison? In this war, the spray can and graffiti become a cowardly weapon.

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