‘Arab culture is the jungle’: Leader in Gantz’s Blue White party gives racist Haaretz interview

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I think the Arab culture around us is the jungle,

This is according to Yoaz Hendel in an interview with Haaretz journalist Ravit Hecht on Friday (Hebrew).

Hendel is in the top 10 leadership of the Benny Gantz’s Blue White party, which has 33 seats in the Israeli parliament. The party is supposed to serve as a centrist opposition to Netanyahu’s Likud, and mostly polls above Likud by a couple of seats for the coming elections in March.

The interview is harrowing. Hendel makes generally derisive comments on Arab culture:

There are people who came here from all kinds of countries; some came with the mentality of a concert in Vienna and some came with the mentality of darbukas,

Hendel told Hecht, referring to a type of drum popular in the Middle East.

This is not the first time Hendel has spread racist propaganda. In 2017, his weekly column in Yediot Aharonot featured a revenge-fantasy, where Palestinians played Nazis. In an orientalist “rally for democracy” organized by Blue White last year, Hendel boycotted the event since it was announced at last moment that leader of the Israeli-Palestinian Joint List, Ayman Odeh, would be speaking.

Hendel has come into Blue White from Likud, as part of the Telem faction with Moshe Ya’alon, who is number 3 on the Blue White list. Ya’alon is also a former Likudnik, has served as Defense Minister, and also has a record of anti-Palestinian racism, having compared the Palestinian “threat” to “cancer”, to which he applies “chemotherapy” (it was 2002, he was army Chief of Staff). Hendel was Director of Communications and Hasbara (‘public diplomacy’) for Netanyahu in 2011-2012.

The “Arab culture around us is the jungle” statement doesn’t come from nowhere. The notion of Israel as a “villa in the jungle” is actually attributed to “left” leader Ehud Barak, he said it in an official address in 1996. Barak has also congratulated Trump’s racist warning of “Mohammed” becoming Prime Minister and has opined that “they (the Palestinians, and especially Arafat) are the products of a culture in which to tell a lie… creates no dissonance… they don’t suffer from the problem of telling lies that exists in Judeo-Christian culture”.

Here’s more from the interview:

Hecht: You’ve said in the past that Israel is a villa in the jungle. You repeat here that our advantage over Palestinians is the morality. Do you think the Arab culture is a jungle?

Hendel: Yes, certainly. I think that the Arab culture surrounding us is a jungle. There is a gross violation of every single human right that we recognize in the Western world. These rights haven’t even sprung up there. They haven’t reached the evolutionary stage of having human rights. There are no women’s rights, no LGBT rights, no minority rights and no education. Most Arab states are failed dictatorships, which is why the peace treaties we make here are limited to the leadership. It’s not peace between peoples because there is no education for peace and tolerance.

Hecht challenges Hendel:

Hecht: Also in Israel hatred of Arabs is a popular norm.

Hendel: There is racism and it needs to be taken care of, but every time I see in ‘A Star is Born’ or ‘Master Chef’ where Israelis vote for an Arab contestant, or when I go around hospitals because of my wife (she’s a doctor of Gynecology, ed.) I am in the impression that finally, life here is devoid of racism”.

This is a really awful ironic point. Hendel seeks to apply his classical Hasbara in pointing to the ‘Israeli Arabs’ as a proof of Israel’s supposedly blossoming democracy. But the point about the hospitals – has Hendel not been following the issue of widespread and systemic racial segregation of mothers at Israeli maternity wards? Has he not noted the words of far-right lawmaker Bezalel Smotrich, who tweeted that “[a]fter giving birth, my wife wants to rest and not have a party like Arab women do after giving birth”, and that “[i]t is natural that my wife would not want to lay down next to someone who just gave birth to a baby who might want to murder her baby in another 20 years”?

Hecht once again challenges Hendel’s racist expressions:

Maybe you vote for an Arab contestant in ‘Master Chef’ yet you say without hesitation: My culture is superior and I do not want to resemble an Arab. That’s also a kind of racism.

Hendel: In my feeling I have nothing racist (sic). In a cognitive way, first of all I take care of my people, my heritage and my history. And that’s reality. I don’t have hate towards anyone and I have personal ties with Palestinians, because I live adjacent to Gush Etzion [settlement bloc].

These expressions of the ‘enlightened colonialist’ saying that ‘some of my friends are Palestinians’ has brought B’tselem chair Hagai El-Ad to compare Hendel with Apartheid South Africa Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd, who said:

Our policy is one which is called… ‘apartheid’, and I’m afraid that it is being misunderstood so often. It could just as easily, and perhaps much better be described as a policy of good neighbourliness.

Joint List lawmaker Ahmed Tibi was also particularly sharp in his critique of Hendel’s racism, pointing to how his remarks about Arab music also targeted Arab Jews:

A white racist against Arabs and Mizrahim alike. Hendel is not Tarzan; Hendel is the jungle. I adore [the Lebanese singer] Fairuz and the darbuka in the songs of [the late Egyptian singer] Umm Kulthum, and it’s almost certain that Hendel listens to Wagner every time the boot of the occupation tramples on Palestinians without human rights because of that Western culture that encourages settlements, dispossession and annexation. I despise his worldview and that of some of his friends who believe in Jewish supremacy.

Leader of the Joint List Ayman Odeh said that “Hendel’s theory of European supremacy” was disproved by “the ignorance and lack of culture he showed in his interview with Haaretz.”

Hendel’s blatant racism was also too much for several Blue White members. Ofer Shelah (also in the top 10 of Blue White, above Hendel) said that “Yoaz Hendel’s remarks were miserable utterances that would better not have been said and don’t in any way reflect the spirit of Blue White.” Lawmaker Orna Barbivai (ranking just below Hendel) was more muted in her critique: “I think we are all born equal and we don’t give out grades”. Calling Hendel’s remarks superfluous, she said, “I’m in favor of darbukas. But to deduce from this that Hendel is a racist would be an extreme statement.”

The fact that Hendel was somehow equating Mizrahim with a supposed Arab degeneracy also brought in critique by the further right. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu retweeted a Likud statement on Twitter saying that Hendel should be ashamed of himself. Forget everything about Netanyahu’s racist statements about Arabs – these are now cheap points to be made against the anti-Netanyahu rival. Even Education Minister Rafi Peretz of the far-right Yamina said he was “proud to be part of a culture of darbukas.” Shas (ultra-orthodox Mizrahi party) lawmaker Ya’akov Margi condemned Hendel’s “condescension” and said Mizrahi Jews came from a grand tradition that included “Maimonides, science and medicine”.

It is somewhat of an irony, that so many racists can become offended by racism. But there is a logic to it; Zionist racism contains several layers. It has a white-supremacist vein from its inception as a European colonialist venture. Yet that vein is coupled with another racism – Jewish supremacy. Palestinians bear the brunt of both aspects. The Mizrahi Jews, who have Arab heritage, want to only adopt the Jewish supremacy, without the white supremacy reflecting badly upon them. Mostly, Zionists manage to balance the act and not alienate the Mizrahim. But when the racism is so blatant and vile as with Hendel, it slips.

H/t Ronit Lentin, Edith Breslauer

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