It’s crude and it’s vulgar, but it gives us a window into some of the internal challenges of creating and sustaining an Israeli identity.Spotted on the blog of Amir Mizroch, editor of the English edition of Israel Hayom, a short video depicts an altercation between a Moroccan motorist and a Russian security guard. It’s not clear from the exchange what has sparked their ire, but the men spend two minutes hurling over-the-top ethnically-inspired insults at one another.
There are too many suppressed giggles and too much playing to the camera to interpret the clip as anything but an attempt to generate a few minutes of internet fame. But lurking beneath the crassness are some insights about Israeli identity worth considering.
In the video, the Moroccan calls the Russian a criminal; the Russian calls the Moroccan a cannibal, and tells him that if it weren’t for the Russian Army, his family would be a mere shard of soap atop a Nazi’s foot. The Russian asks why the Moroccan even bothered to come to Israel; in Morocco, you just have to open your mouth and a banana falls in. The Moroccan asks if they can at least agree that Lieberman is headed for jail. The Russian tells the Moroccan he must be from jail; after all, he’s from Kalkilya, a Palestinian town. The Russian asks the Moroccan if he likes spice, since he’s got some pepper spray for him. Then the F-word is uttered, and their enlightened conversation ends.
The Zionist dream was premised on the idea of kibbutz galuyot, gathering the Jews together from the far corners of Exile. But as with many multi-ethnic societies struggling to find their feet, Israel soon saw tensions arise as ethnicity tracked with social class.
Given that the founding members of the Israeli establishment were almost all Ashkenazi Jews, the Mizrachi community struggled to break into the power structure as their members immigrated en masse in the early 1950s.
Arriving four decades later, the mass wave of Russian olim has had their own set of challenges, many still trying to cope with being overqualified for their jobs. Neither does their light complexion inure them from being the object of overt racism; witness the offensive Shas-sponsored television ad aired earlier this year implying that Russian Israelis aren’t really Jewish.
Still, when it comes to absorption, the Mizrachi and Russian communities have fared much better than the Ethiopian community, where intense social challenges loom. According to a 2013 report by the State Comptroller, over half of Ethiopian families, and 65 percent of Ethiopian children, live in poverty.
As the old Israeli joke goes, Israel loves immigration, but hates immigrants.
And this says nothing about the 20 percent of Israeli citizens who are Palestinians, or the 60,000 African refugees, mostly from Sudan and Eritrea, for whom the state is struggling to balance humanitarian impulses and adherence to customary refugee law with apparent racist impulses.
In putting a light-hearted spotlight on inter-ethnic prejudice, videos like these can serve a cathartic function in society. For a brief moment, and through the kind of laughter that reaches deep into our own stores of xenophobia, individuals can see themselves through the eyes of the Other. In Israel, the question remains whether those communities that are most at risk will have a chance to step into the camera’s frame and be counted.