By Seraj Assi
In his ‘Telephone Conversation’ Nigerian poet Wole Soyinka reflects on the absurdity of racism allowing his poetic muse to render it ironic, sarcastic, cynical, satiric, ridiculous, beautiful and nasty.
The speaker of the poem is a dark West African man who is searching for a new apartment. He tells the story of a call he made to a potential white landlady. The narrative rapidly moves from discussing the price, location and amenities of the apartment to a conversation on the speaker’s skin color. As the conversation progresses, the speaker confesses:
But self-confession. “Madam,” I warned
“I hate a wasted journey- I am African.”
No great imagination is needed for reimagining the poetic space of Telephone Conversation in the spatial reality of Arabs in Israel. Nor to grasp the absurdity of the letter signed of late by the Israel’s municipal chief rabbis urging Jews to refrain from renting or selling apartments to non-Jews. For a scene that strips racism so naked leaves nothing to imagination.
Yet the rabbis’ letter is a triumph, not of racism, but its absurdity. With the Rabbis’ decree Arabs in Israel need no longer to take those wasted journeys in their desperate conversations with Jewish landowners, nor to embark on wasted struggles with the racial industry of the state, nor to wage lost bureaucratic battles or to go through an endless chain of artificial episodes. For racism has now become God’s word, divine law and religious duty.
Nothing is surprising about the rabbis’ letter. What is really surprising is the way some pretend to be surprised by it. Most surprising are those in Israel who need a rabbis’ decree to discover that racism does exist, those who take to the streets to protest racism in the name of Israel’s integrity, those who protest racism in the name of the racial democracy of the state, and finally those who protest racism under the banner of liberal Zionism. All are on a wasted journey.
To protest racism in Israel in the name of humanity and morality is another wasted journey. It is a fallacy that hints an active complicity with its underlying logic. For the plague of racism that sweeps the Israeli society today must be understood within the totality of the Zionist racial mindset, the history of Zionism in Palestine and the whole legal, political and social system that has operated in Israel since its very creation.
Another wasted journey is to assume that racism in Israel is a false consciousness. For the problem is not to change what in people’s minds, but the political, social and institutional forces that produce it. Racism in its Israeli version is not simply an inhumane sin. To fight it is not to simply wage a humanist battle against it. It is rather a form of hegemony, domination and power relations. So those in Israel who insist to protest racism within the racial structures of the state are nothing but conscious agents of a wasted journey.
Nowhere is the absurdity of anti-racism more acute than in Israel. For it is in Israel where racism is normalized, rationalized, institutionalized and practiced with full pride. It is in Israel where racism is turned from will into practice by the brutal force of modernity. It is there where racism has become equivalent to patriotism. And it is there where racial demarcations continue to proceed at the same tempo as social life.
Since racism is deeply grounded in the intellectual premises of the Zionist ideology, Israel’s national character, symbols, flag, national anthem, educational system, public discourse, basic laws and daily practices and policies, the rabbis’ letter is also Israel’s letter. It is then a mistake to think that racism in Israel is in complete harmony with the founding ideology of the state. It is the founding ideology of the state.
Indeed, what makes racism acceptable, legitimate and even inevitable from the Israeli standpoint is the very idea of the Jewish State that belongs to the Jewish people, in which native Arab Palestinians are absurdly seen as unwelcomed enemies. With this ethnocentric vision of the state racism becomes the raison d’être of Israel’s existence and the matrix in which identities and lives are forged. Its function as a site which maintains a relationship between the racial vision of the state and the wider society turns racism into collective product.
To protest racism in the name of the “Jewish State” is to perpetuate it. That is to confront one form of racism with another. This brings to the fore the absurdity of anti-racism in Israel. Most absurd is that Arabs in Israel are now argued by some liberal Zionists to accept the idea of the Jewish state in exchange of a package of humanist gestures, as if certain equilibrium were founded between the two formulas. An episode reminiscent of Columbus’s formula: the Spaniards give the Indians religion and take gold. In the Israeli case liberal Zionists take land and offer humanism.
It is also a matter of simple logic. To confront racism with humanism is to confront one abstract idea with another. It is to raise the wrong question and offer no genuine solution. For it is not just racism that needs to be confronted but the very ideology that generates it. So those who come to remind us that “we are all humans” while they continue to embody this ethnocentric vision of the state are in fact emblematic of the most artistic manifestation of this racist absurdity.
So if racism was always there, what all the fuss is about?
It is about the wasted journey of racism. To protest a bunch of rabbis over racism is to proceed in this wasted journey. To call into question the racial foundation of the state, its colonial enterprise, projects, institutions and structures, its history and its very existence, is to begin the real journey.
– Seraj Assi is a PhD student of Arabic and Islamic Studies at Georgetown University, Washington DC. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.