Coming Face To Face With Israeli Racism

on 10 Comments

A few days ago, an incident in Tel Aviv changed my entire perception of Israel. Naive as I am, I thought that Tel Aviv is a more liberal and left leaning city in Israel. So I figured that I would not feel too incredibility uncomfortable wearing a Free Palestine T-shirt. So I went about my day just thinking that I’m another Israeli walking the streets of Tel Aviv. But I was wrong. I was very wrong. I was not just another Israeli. I had a very dark tan and 2 weeks of facial hair that I was too lazy to shave off. Thus, wearing my Free Palestine T-shirt, I was no longer an "Israeli," I had for all intents and purposes become a "Palestinian."

My semi-Farsi accent in Hebrew and the darkness of my skin made me lose all the Jewish privileges I previously held. If I had dirty-blond hair and fair skin, I would just be another lefty Tel Aviv Jew. But that was not the case. So I went about my day receiving one dirty look after another, getting my entire bag searched before I entered any building, etc. The worst came as I was taking the bus from Tel Aviv to Holon. As I was on the bus, an Israeli man who spoke no English grabbed my arm and accused me of being a suicide bomber. He said that I was wearing a terrorist flag on my T-Shirt, and that I need to be forced off the bus. I tried to explain to him in Hebrew that I was just an American Jew that supported the peace process, but it was worthless. As if I was a black man in Apartheid South Africa this man asked to see my Teudat Zehut (Israeli Identity card). For those of you who do not know, this card is extremely important in sustaining the Israeli system of apartheid because even if you are an Israeli citizen, it lists whether you are a Jew or an Arab. Obviously I do not have one because I reside in the States. So, I decided to give in. There was a busload of people giving me unusual looks, and I just wanted it to end. So I showed him my Israeli passport to calm him down. But that too did not help. He specifically wanted my ID card, so that if I’m Arab I could leave the bus. Luckily for me, the bus driver did not listen to him, but neither did anybody stop him. As the man left the bus, an Israeli women told me that although he was being too intense, I must understand that my shirt represents terrorism (apparently the flag of Palestine calling for freedom from occupation is terrorism). She told me that every time she sees an Arab woman in a headscarf or people speaking Arabic in the streets, she fears for her life. I don’t think she understands that what she said was racist.

So there it is. For one day I felt what it’s like to be Palestinian in Israel. As a Palestinian you cannot hold up your flag or display your national emblems, but on every street corner you see graphiti saying עם ישראל חי-The People of Israel are Living. You are treated like a criminal at every mall entrance, airport security check, and that’s not even mentioning the discrimination against Palestinians in the West Bank. As a Palestinian in Israel, you are considered to be a terrorist before you even speak. It’s time to open our eyes to Israeli racism.

Another instance took place yesterday, after I went to a peaceful protest in the West Bank of non-violent Palestinians and leftist Israelis against the occupation (which ended in soldiers shooting tear gas canisters at peaceful protesters). But it was after I left, that I saw the most blatant example of Israeli racism. At the checkpoint, the car in front of us had an Israeli license plate, but he was an Arab. So legally he should of been treated like the rest of us. But no, he was stopped for ten minutes, and had his entire car searched. However, when we passed, we were not even stopped. I guess that’s just how simple it is when you look like a bunch of Ashkenazi Jews. The airports, the bus stations, the malls, the checkpoints- all are complicit in the Israeli system of apartheid. Roads for Israelis only, settlements with armed forces surrounding them. Everyone should really open their eyes. This is not a matter of security or war, it’s a matter of daily prejudice and racism. As an Israeli, it’s easy to pretend that none of this exists, or to justify it in the name of security. But then again, that’s how Apartheid South Africa justified it’s treatment of Blacks.

So how’s Israel, it’s great, just so long as you steer clear of any semblance of Arab culture and lounge on the beaches of Tel Aviv.

Adam Astan is an undergraduate student at the University of California, Berkeley. He is an Israeli-American who is involved in Kesher Enoshi: Progressives For Activism in Israel, a student organization of progressive Israeli and American Jews who work directly with Israeli and Palestinian activists in the region.

10 Responses

  1. Gellian
    August 3, 2009, 9:44 am

    Adam, fantastic post. Have you ever read Black Like Me? (link to You’ve just enacted for one day what Griffin did for (if I recall) about 6 weeks in the American South.

    Do you have the courage to do it for a week? A month? Imagine the stories you could tell us of your experiences…

    • Seham
      August 3, 2009, 2:04 pm

      Adam… can you keep doing this and then get all the reactions on youtube for us :)

  2. Citizen
    August 3, 2009, 9:46 am

    Interesting. Thanks for sharing, Mister Astan. Interesting to compare the unknown (by Americans) private daily life there with, for example, the fact that nearly all Americans
    are aware of the recent flap between Professor Gates and Sergeant Crowley.

  3. anomalous
    August 3, 2009, 12:49 pm

    I tried the same experiment in Manhattan many years ago. I was very nervous, and on my very first outing in a Free Palestine tshirt, a huge man stopped me in a store, and began shaking and crying. I seriously thought he was going to kill me and began preparing myself to drop my groceries and run for the exit. Instead he told me he is Palestinian and that in all his time in the US he had never once seen even a single person express their support for Palestine, and he wanted to tell me how much it meant to him, to shake my hand and personally thank me. I was very moved, and stocked up on Free Palestine tshirts, with a large Palestine flag, which I wore frequently for about a decade.

    Over the years I experienced many incidents as a result, most of them very positive and supportive, but I was also physically attacked on several occasions. In my first week or so wearing my shirt, I had one person – a candidate for city council at the time, I later discovered – stop me in the street and tell me that when he found out where I live he would kill me. That was the first of many times that I was threatened like that, and it made quite an impression on me. I had my door painted with swastikas. I was spit on several dozen times, and other times kicked, tripped, shoved and slapped by strangers in the street. A popular kind of assault consisted of walking into me so violently, shoulder-first, that I would be thrown backwards to the ground, while the attacker would simply keep walking on as if nothing had happened. I had ribs broken two or three times, and a toe broken on another by someone who walked up to my face and slammed their foot down abruptly on the top of my foot. I was kicked from behind and knocked to the ground once by a group of kids who ran off, calling me “terrorist!” I once had a person get out of a passing car, grab a bag of garbage out of a dumpster and hurl it at me.

    The vast majority of negative incidents were simply verbal attacks. I was called “nazi” at least several hundred times. Old Jewish ladies called me “Adolf.” I was stopped in the street many, many times by furious Jews who wanted to bombard me with various questions and declarations. I had one guy who told me to take my shirt off immediately and said that it was illegal to wear that flag; he wouldn’t let me pass him on the sidewalk and insisted that I was going to take the shirt off right now if I knew what was good for me. I had an MTA bus driver stop in mid street, open his door, and scream “fuck you” at me. Innumerable people made quiet comments about me being a “terrorist” or “anti-semite” to their friends as I passed. I had a group of Moishe’s Movers guys – all Israelis, judging from their heavy accents – chase me out of a park while I was walking my dog; one of them said that although he doesn’t feel bad about what my face is going to look like when he’s done with me, he does feel bad for what he’s going to do to my little dog. I was kicked out of a few shops and restaurants on the grounds that my shirt was disrespectful or offensive to customers. One shop owner called the police on me. The police on the subway were so bad – particularly after the London bombing – that I eventually took to turning my shirt inside out before entering the subway. Palestinians would sometimes stop me to warn me that living in this country I probably didn’t understand how dangerous it is to wear such a message. Israelis live HERE, they cautioned.

    I finally understood very clearly when, after an attack by a group of 3 Israelis at a small demonstration, I had had to get my first Palestine-related medical treatment: aggressive antibiotic treatment for human bites. One of them actually jumped on my back and bit me. While one tried to crush my windpipe and claw at my eye sockets another kicked me repeatedly in the groin and ruptured some blood vessels in my inner thigh, and my entire upper leg turned black over the course of a few days. One of the attackers ripped the eyeglasses off the faces of several people at the demonstration, including my own, ripped them to pieces and threw them into traffic.

    After the swelling went away it turned out that they had left a much more serious injury: multiple fractures in the head of one of my femurs, at the point where it connects with the pelvis – an injury which eventually became so painful that I was completely unable to walk for a few months. 5 years later it still hurts and I haven’t been able to run ever since.

    I mention all of this because I thought that perhaps readers might get the mistaken impression that these displays of Jewish racism might be something confined to Israel. It absolutely is not.

    I recently stumbled across a series of 12 videos on youtube – grotesquely entitled “This is why people hate the Jews” – which show a group of haredim apparently harrassing the owners of a Christian shop in Israel. What struck me most was that it all seemed absolutely, disturbingly FAMILIAR. Having attended many hundreds of Palestine solidarity demonstrations around the NYC area, I feel I have seen this exact scene play out – down to the smallest detail – dozens of times. I don’t know any of the back story, but if you can get past the appalling anti-semitic titles, it’s fascinating viewing:
    link to

    • Shafiq
      August 3, 2009, 4:27 pm

      All of this happened in the US?

      I truly don’t know what to say

      • anomalous
        August 3, 2009, 8:03 pm

        Yep, all in Manhattan.

      • pineywoodslim
        August 3, 2009, 11:51 pm


        Thanks for posting your experiences in NYC. While certainly it is no doubt a hotbed of Zionism, it is difficult to fathom that such a normally tolerant–or perhaps, indifferent–city could offer such personal violence against you.

        I will be googling for one of the T shirts.

  4. Seham
    August 3, 2009, 2:02 pm

    Great comment Anamalous, and I can identify. I like to use keffiyahs as scarves instead of fashion statements during the winter and even in liberal CA I get strange looks, but in all honesty it’s quite different if you are female… less chance to get attacked though I have been told by an elderly Jewish woman that I seemed like a nice girl but she was confused why I wore the scarf… she said only terrorists wear them. My brother started donning Free Palestine t-shirts as his weekend wear a few years ago, I definitely notice the looks he gets. But I don’t think anyone has said anything to him. I’m sure he is waiting for that to happen so that he can go ballistic…

  5. Citizen
    August 3, 2009, 3:37 pm

    Pretty interesting that a Palestine flag t-shirt equates with a cross between a yellow Star of David and a swastika in the good old USA and Israel. Despite facts, logic and actual history. Looks like the Jews learned well from Goebbels and Hitler, the repeated Big Lie, thanking Fortune that citizens think so little and are always easily manipulated by talk of Terror.

  6. Queue
    August 3, 2009, 7:39 pm

    ‘The War is With the Arabs’

    Imagine driving through the middle of a predominantly black neighborhood in a US city or town and seeing a enormous sign that says, ‘The war is with the Blacks’, says Hannah Mermelstein.

    I saw this sign as I was entering Nablus last week, again on my way to Ramallah, and again near Bethlehem. The phrase is printed in Hebrew, presumably by Israeli settlers, on huge signs throughout the West Bank. Israeli racism rarely shocks me anymore, but its blatant display still makes me stop and catch my breath as I translate it into other contexts. Imagine driving through the middle of a predominantly black neighborhood in a US city or town and seeing a enormous sign that says, “The war is with the Blacks.”
    link to

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