The interesting shift in the attitude of the American progressive left toward Israel lies in the imposition of a Black-white frame on the conflict. While in Israel people argue heatedly about Likud MK David Amsalem (who recently complained that Israel is being “ruled by 30 percent of the Ashkenazim”) and about Ashkenazi-Mizrahi relations in general, from the progressive-critical viewpoint across the Atlantic, all of us here are privileged whites, compared to the Palestinians.
So much so, that in one of the classes I taught at New York University – about the place of the Holocaust in Israeli society – a student said that the very idea of being preoccupied with the Holocaust is white privilege. Others in the class objected, but that student represents a growing trend. What she said, of course, is a superficial exaggeration, but it’s hard to deny it completely when one looks at the instrumental use Israel makes of the Holocaust and antisemitism in justifying the continuation of the occupation. And the occupation, as noted, is now being examined in the U.S. through the prism of race relations.
The truth is that in cultural contexts, too, the depiction of the American Jews as a neurotic nebbish is losing its punch. When Sarah Silverman complained recently to Seth Meyers, on his show, about her plight as a Jew ahead of Christmas, it sounded stale and disconnected, and manifestly less funny than in the past. There are groups today that have bigger troubles, besides which the majority of the Jews have assimilated and belong to the more comfortable middle or upper classes.
Perhaps that’s why, in the fourth episode of the new season of “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” which is sharper and funnier than ever, Larry David mocked a young producer character, who was trying to impress him with jokes about being a Jew in a Christian America – humor of the sort which David himself resorted to in the past, but which today sounds shopworn. But even if the Jews’ present status in the United States precludes them from complaining gleefully about their bitter fate, the Israeli-Palestinian story, even if it contains features of colonialism, is not really a story of black and white.
Official Israel has recourse to all manner of hasbara (public relations) ploys, including trumpeting its openness to gender fluidity, in its attempt to market itself as the right side in the conflict. Some buy it, others less so. But beyond the fact that the best way to change attitudes toward Israel is for it to renew peace negotiations, there is one thing the progressive American gaze misses that can undermine application of the Black-white model to Israelis and Palestinians. The fact that the majority of American Jews are Ashkenazim, as are the majority of Israel’s official representatives, strengthens the image of privileged whites in contrast to the Palestinians. Nonetheless, in Israel today, a majority of the Jews are Middle Eastern in their geographical origins and culture.
Historically, Ashkenazi Jews, too, were perceived as “non-white” in Europe and the United States prior to the Holocaust. But in any case, the fact that the origins of most Israelis lie in Africa or in the Middle East region, is relevant if one intends to compare the conflict to Black-white relations. There is some truth to this comparison, but it also does an injustice to its full understanding.
At the same time, emphasizing Israel’s Eastern dimension in American discourse about the conflict is important not only for purposes of hasbara. It can also add another dimension to the current internal Israeli discussion about who is privileged. When the Palestinians are factored into the equation, then contrary to what Amsalem and his followers think, Mizrahi-Jewish privilege is also blatant in the Middle Eastern story.
Avi Shilon, a historian, is a visiting professor at the Taub Center for Israel Studies, at New York University.