Racism: Being Better or Being Different? by Bob Yermus

In this election season, the subject of racism has been spurred by the Likud party’s agreement with the Otzma Yehudit party, an offshoot of the legally banned Kach party. Kach, and its founder, Rabbi Meir Kahane, are for many Jews synonyms for racism. I can say from personal experience, both in having read several of his books, as well as personal interactions with the rabbi himself, that racism, as it is understood – prejudice against an ethnic group – is not part of the package he presented. I know of others who at first accepted what he espoused, and later rejected him. One friend claimed that the rabbi was “full of hate”. I thought about that for a while, which led me to wonder about whether it is unacceptable to hate one who seeks to destroy you.
My personal position is decidedly Right leaning. I am against any concession to the Arabs in the context of a peace agreement, whether those concessions are territorial or financial. In fact, terms like “peace process” and “negotiated settlement” fall into the same category as vampires: they make for a good story, but they are fiction. I know that I am not a racist. The moment one makes such a claim, one has to back it up with statements that the average reader/listener reduces to “some of my best friends are…” My behaviour toward the Arabs that I know personally has nothing to do with my attitude towards them as a people. In the over thirty years that I have lived in Israel, I have taught, studied and worked with Arabs. They would have to guess regarding my political stance, because we have never talked about it. There may have been comments made inadvertently that might give a clue as to my position on politics, etc., as there have been comments they have made that indicate a particular position they have. Nevertheless, the interactions have been, for the most part, friendly and free of tension.
To label one as racist is an automatic disqualification from legitimacy. Nazis, Apartheid and the Ku Klux Klan serve as prime examples of racial prejudice and use of these as labels to describe any group is meant to invoke immediate condemnation and rejection of that group. Israel has been branded with all three of these tags in describing its relationship with the Arabs who live in Israel proper as well as in Judea and Samaria. These terms make an immediate impact on the average person who has heard of the conflict, is a little sketchy on the details, and allows for this shorthand version of the situation to form an opinion. Furthermore, using this terminology precludes debate and the exchange of ideas. In the interest of promoting debate, and avoiding merely strengthening the accusation of racial prejudice, I will ask some questions that arise for me when confronted with the allegation of being hateful. I would like to think that they will get others thinking: Why is recognition of and respect for differences between peoples considered racist? Conversely, why is telling a people to forgo the unique and special aspects of their peoplehood, and be “like us” or “like everybody else” not racist? Why is Israel’s averment that it is a state of, by and for the people of Israel racist in the face of the Arabs’ demand for their own state, where they might express a national identity different and separate from that of Israel? Why is Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s call to counter the Arab vote considered racist, but the Arab call to vote that prompted it not? Is there really no difference between to discriminate against and to discriminate between?