Before syphilis was baptized with its modern name, it used to be called the “French disease” in Italy, Poland and Germany, the “Italian disease” in France, the “Spanish disease” in the Netherlands, the “Polish disease” in Russia and the “Christian disease” in Istanbul. Something quite similar appears to be today the fate of overt racism. Bad people always seem to be bringing it from elsewhere. For some unfathomable reason nobody wants to claim ownership.
Thus, of all places in Israel, Yossi Gurvitz informs us that “disregard of human rights, contempt for democracy and the democratic process, and rampant racism towards ‘uncivilized people’, such as Asians or Muslims” are symptoms of the Soviet system, the portrait of a homo sovieticus.
To be clear, I don’t call Gurvitz “a racist,” a term that I believe should, for reasons of discursive hygiene, be reserved to those who advocate racial discrimination. “Identify the racist” is often a loser’s game, and merely replacing the figure of the homo sovieticus with that of a homo ashkenaz would achieve little that is worth achieving. What is worth achieving is understanding how racializing reinforces relations of power and domination. To do that one must start with dismissing Gurvitz’s defense, not in order to prove that he is indeed a racist, but to understand the work expressions such as homo sovieticus perform.
Gurvitz’s main defense is that he cannot be a racist because he has the facts on his side. Russian immigrants have measurably more racist attitudes. To argue with such facts would be to defy common sense. But racism almost always proceeds from facts. To be sure, fictional racism exists, witness Joan Peters, Alan Dershowitz and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. These however are the exceptions. Racist arguments are generally based on facts, badly selected, misused and misinterpreted, but nonetheless facts. Racism is not ignorance of the other. On the contrary, it is a form of knowledge.
Russian immigrants do hold more authoritarian and racist news than average Jewish Israelis, but what Gurvitz does with facts such as this is crude. He presents a one tone stereotype of a “Lieberman voter.” Do really people vote for Lieberman because they are “isolated from the outside world?” Do issues of class, resource allocation, power and identity have nothing to do with that vote? Then he attributes that caricature to “the soviet system.” Is “blind acceptance of claims made by authority” really the result of living under the soviet system? I was born in a communist country, and the people I know took from the experience a general belief that claims made by state authorities are lies. Perhaps I am not as well informed about Soviet life as Gurvitz. Finally, he asserts that these racist attitudes inherent in Russians made Israel more racist, a very questionable claim. What motivates Gurvitz’s anger?
Gurvitz assures us that he knows all about Israel’s history. Unfortunately he shows little effort to draw insight from this knowledge. Let us begin with the end: Gurvitz says that “there is something exceptionally loathsome in an émigré whose politics are based on the idea of expelling the native population.”
Israel exists by virtue of Jews arriving from Europe and expelling the native population. Granted that what Lieberman is proposing is loathsome, how is it exceptionally loathsome relative to the very foundation of Israel and its continuing refusal to allow the return of the expelled Palestinians? Were not the Palmach troops composed of and led by émigrés? Isn’t the very expression of “exceptional” outrage here a mean to normalize and naturalize the original outrage?
The expulsion of 1948 is not only the foundational act of Israel’s creation. Crucially, it is the foundation of the distribution of wealth in Israel. By and large, Israelis possess wealth to the extent that they or their families were close to this act of original dispossession. The wealthiest, most powerful, most connected Israelis, which Gurvitz identifies, following Kimmerling, as “ahusalim” (secular Ashkenazi veteran socialist nationalists), were those whose families directly profited from the expulsion. The domination of this group over other subordinated groups was and is based on the control of the resources primarily grabbed through that expulsion. Itzhak Laor, reviewing Kimmerling, explains what happened next:
One by one, Kimmerling enumerates the sequence of cracks that appeared in Ahusal rule: Gush Emunim, the ultra-Orthodox, the Mizrahi Jews who have their origins in the Muslim countries and Shas, the immigration from Russia, the deprived Arabs. All these groups were created by the Ahusalim, or more precisely, were shaped by the Ahusalim into dependents, potential voters in return for loyalty, and turned into forces that at one stage or another shook off the need to kiss the hand of the Ahusal.(http://www.haaretz.com/
culture/books/wiped-out-1. 70743 )
Gurvitz thinks that being an “ahusal” is a pejorative. It needn’t be. It is the naming of a sociopolitical configuration. If you want to change a society, a good starting point is understanding it, mapping it, and indentifying how power flows in it. Political strategies follow from political analysis. For Gurvitz, the reason Israel is becoming more and more racist is because of the rise of various groups that are inherently more racist than the original ethnic cleansers. These groups are primarily religious Jews and Russians.
A clear political strategy follows from this racialized analysis of racism in Israel: we need to strengthen the power of the original ethnic cleansers and the people who benefitted most from that ethnic cleansing. The more power they have, the more liberal and democratic Israel will become. This is the upshot of Gurvitz’s homo sovieticus putdown for Lieberman. It is a plea for people outside Israel to support “ahusal” domination.
The alternative analysis that I propose, following Kimmerling, Laor, and others, is that, rather than other Jews being inherently more racist, it is precisely the various maneuvers of the ahusalim seeking to defend their privilege against challenges that has progressively moved Israel to ever increasing racism and violence. The original settlers opened the country to Arab Jews in order to avoid having to let the Palestinian refugees back in. Then the elite chose the economic path of militarization and war primarily to avoid having to share wealth with these same Arab Jews. Militarization lead directly to the occupation of 1967. After 1967, the territories became the tool for keeping the peace between the different sections of Israeli society, and in particular for building an alliance with religious Jews. This became even more important during Oslo, when settlements became an alternative welfare system while Israel itself went the neoliberal way, allowing the wealthiest Israelis to become ever wealthier. Finally, the Russian immigration itself was welcomed and encouraged in order to check the rising power of Shas and restore white power.
The often noted absence of a class and race perspective from the analysis of the conflict presented by the Israeli left is not merely a matter of a moral failure. The Israeli “left” cannot deal critically with its own class and race position because it is the political expression of racially constituted elite. This elite is looking for “peace” when and to the extent that it perceives it as a useful strategy for maintaining power and privilege, not only vis-à-vis Palestinians but also vis-à-vis all other sectors of Jewish society. Unfortunately, this very strategy explains why reconciliation with Palestinians has such a small constituency in Israel and why challenges to the power of this elite manifest themselves primarily as expressions of anti-Arab racism.
The upshot of this analysis is also clear. Supporting white Ashkenazi (ahusalim, if one prefers) domination in Israel, in addition to having no moral justification, is, to the extent that the past is any indication, a recipe for further disaster. That is a good reason why the racialization of “fascism” in Israel as a Soviet import that Gurvitz offers as analysis should be politely turned down.
Gabriel Ash is an activist and writer. Ash is a core member of IJAN (Inrternational Jewish Anti-Zionist Network), and he co-writes the blog Jews Sans Frontieres. He writes because the pen is sometimes mightier than the sword and sometimes not. He welcomes comments at g.a.evildoer A T gmail D O T com.