Monday, June 16, 2014

Racism and the “Dash” problem

Pluralistic countries, such as the United and Israel, suffer from a human identity problem.  In the US, the people walking in the streets are black- Americans, Irish-Americans, Jewish Americans, etc. while in Israel there are Russian, Ethiopian, Moroccan, Druze, Arab, etc. Israelis.  Most countries of the world share the same situation to one degree or another, including such previous essentially homogenous countries of France and Denmark.  The issue is the emphasis: what is more dominant, the “species” or the “genus”. In other words, when people see different citizens of their country, what enters the mind, their shared or differentiated cultural values?

To demonstrate, I live in a culturally diverse neighborhood in Northern Israel.  The culture of origin of my neighbors is obvious from the clothes they wear, the odors coming from their kitchen, and the manner in which they say shalom.  They include Ethiopians, both immigrants and second generation, Russian, Caucasians (from the Russian Caucuses), North African Jews whose taste in music and clothes has not been radically changed by the three generations of living in Israel, and local Arabs who choose to living in a Jewish town for personal reasons, to name only a few.  A white Ashkenazi potential apartment buyer here could have at least two reactions.  On one extreme, this person could the see the differences of life style as a threat; these people are not really “Israeli” enough; “I” don’t fit or want to fit in with “them”.  The opposite attitude is to view the inhabitants as people who have chosen, for whatever the reason, to make their life in Israel and face common challenges, specifically making a living, raising a family, and enjoying life as much as possible.  The choice of keeping the Shabbat or not or the style of Friday night dinner and even the color of the skin are minor details.  When the VAT goes up, we all suffer. 

That said, some issues, often fed by opportunistic politicians, divide people by ethnic background.  Controversial trials, such as those of OJ Simpson in the US and Arie Deri in Israel, highlight ethnicity not  nationality.  International events often create a dilemma of loyalties, perceived or real, for the group in question.  These include threats to fellow members in another country, such as war in the Middle East or a massacre of group members elsewhere. Finally, actual racist behavior directed at the group specifically can separate its interests from the collective interest.  The best example is violent police behavior directed at a member of that ethnic group.  So, the ultimate melting pot is an ideal, not a reality.

Still, the key to a tolerant and non-racist society is seeing beyond obvious visual and behavior differences and noticing the common culture shared by all Israeli, Americans, and even French and Germans, to name just a few.  The excitement of parents on the first day of kindergarten of their children or fans as their team wins a World Cup games transcends individual differences as does the sadness of parents of a soldier on his final journey or frustration of commuters trapped in a traffic jam.

Bill Cosby, in an early and not very “funny” routine demonstrated the stupidity of racism ( as did MAD magazine several decades ago in which a racist was described as someone who loves America but hates 98% of the people who live there.   Hopefully, in the future, people will learn to drop the dash permanently.

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