Living Among “Typical Israelis”

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How can anyone break the legs of a two-year-old? Or throw tear gas into a maternity ward? Or shoot dead a schoolgirl? Each time I am confronted with questions such as these in conversations about living the past two and a half years in the Israeli-occupied territories, my mind returns to my own experiences in Israeli society.

I lived in Israel for three months in 1980 as a foreign exchange student with what the exchange program promised was a “typical Israeli family.” That summer, spent swimming in the Mediterranean and exploring the endless beauty of the country, made for many happy memories. So many years later, however, there are other experiences that also stand out in my mind.

One sticky summer afternoon my “host mother,” returning from her job in the industrial sector of Haifa, began complaining about how hot and dirty she felt every day after work. I vividly recall sitting with her at the dining room table, sipping iced coffee together as she explained that there were showers for the workers, but she didn’t like to use them.

“Why not?” I asked.

I have seen that racism against Arabs is an integral part of Israeli culture and society. It provides, in part, the ideological framework for the atrocities committed against Palestinians that the world is just beginning to recognize.

“Because the Arabs use them,” she replied quite matter-of-factly, wrinkling her nose in a gesture signifying displeasure, if not disgust.

Hearing her reply, I remember feeling my stomach tighten in a knot. Even as a naive 17-year-old, I recognized racism when it reared its ugly head. Somehow this aspect of Israeli society had been left out of all that I had read and all the newscasts I had watched about Israel, in what I thought was a thorough preparation for my stay.

Later that summer, sitting with neighbors who were listening to a radio news broadcast, I noticed one of them respond quite enthusiastically to a news report in Hebrew, which I could not follow. When I asked what had happened he informed me, “Four Arabs were killed in a car accident today.” Seeing my unenthusiastic response, he explained, “That’s good!”

Again I felt my stomach knot.

These comments came not from Kach supporters or other right-wing ideologues, but from middle class Israelis who were proud Labor Party supporters and who certainly considered themselves moral, upstanding citizens of the state. I was living, as the program had assured me, among typical Israelis.

I have seen that racism against Arabs is an integral part of Israeli culture and society. It provides, in part, the ideological framework for the atrocities committed against Palestinians that the world is just beginning to recognize. One can crush the bones of a child or beat the abdomen of a pregnant woman when one has internalized the prevailing sentiment that the object of your violence is not really human. For a frightening and, I fear, increasing number of Israelis, Arabs are not only not to be showered with; they are, as former Prime Minister Menachem Begin has described them, “beasts with two legs.”

Once again, living near the same sea in which I swam as a teenager during that formative and educational summer, I think often of the family with whom I stayed and the “typical” Israelis I met. I think about how I’ve changed, I wonder if they have changed, and if so, how. I wonder if one day while stepping aside for an army patrol I’ll see anyone I recognize. I wonder if they would recognize me. More often, though, I wonder if the Israelis I knew then would recognize themselves now.

Alison J Glick, in addition to her summer as an exchange student, spent six months in an Israeli kibbutz.

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