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Thursday, June 12, 2008

Racism: It's all about the packaging

The first 'news headline' I spotted this morning was about a kibbutz near Kfar Saba named Nir Eliahu having announced the admission of its first Arab Muslim member.

Like most people I tend to decide, based on the headline, whether to read the story.  But since this didn't really seem to qualify as 'breaking news' I skipped over it and instead read the more pressing stuff about Olmert trying (in vain, I hope) to keep his Kadima party in power with primaries... Labor and Shas lying about claiming they will vote with Likud to disband the Knesset (while giving themselves plenty of wiggle room for when they eventually renege)... and how the security cabinet has decided to shelve the pointless 'medium operation' in Gaza in favor of a complete surrender to negotiated truce with Hamas via Egypt.

But when I'd finished with all the 'real news' my mind went back to that odd headline:

"First Arab Muslim accepted to kibbutz"

That seemed like a strange precedent to trumpet.  I couldn't resist... so I clicked over to see what all the fuss was about.

It turns out that most of the article was made up of statements from various kibbutz movement representatives making it perfectly clear that this was not a trend they hoped would blossom, but rather a one-off fluke. 

Apparently this all came about when an Arab Muslim woman began working on the kibbutz as a nurse.  She eventually moved to the kibbutz (as a non-member) with her sons, and they were apparently well liked by the kibbutz members to the extent that a decision was finally made to offer her (and her sons) full membership.  A heart-warming story, right?

I'll be honest... the first thing that popped into my mind was the social aspect of a single Muslim woman and her sons living on a kibbutz.  Who are her sons going to date?  Is she still in the market for a husband?  I'm sorry... for someone who moved to Israel to increase the odds that his kids would marry Jews, that's where my mind goes.  I can't help it.

I live in a nominally 'mixed' community (meaning there are religious and non-religious Jews), but assuming that my kids were to end up dating someone from our town... or even if they meet someone in the Army or university from elsewhere in Israel, there is still an excellent chance that I'll one day be bouncing Jewish grandkids on my knee. 

Assuming that Jewish continuity is important on a cultural, social  and/or religious level, this would be a positive outcome and something to strive towards, no? 

But if I were living on that kibbutz, the introduction of non-Jews into my kid's immediate social circle would obviously mess with the odds a bit.  And what about this woman and her sons?  For a single Muslim woman and her sons in a kibbutz environment... well, you'll have to admit that the odds are better than average that they will end up marrying Jews. 

With all this in mind, this news article was just chock full of cognitive dissonance.

First and foremost is the odd fact that the [secular] kibbutz movement - a vast bastion of liberalism - took so long to admit an Arab member.  After all, during the heyday of the foreign volunteer craze in the 70s and 80s, there was nary a kibbutz that didn't have a few non-Jewish Scandinavians or Europeans as full members as a result of kibbutz members marrying foreign volunteers who were just too tempting to leave alone.  So why all the fuss over an Arab?

Then in re-reading the article an odd paragraph jumped out as a possible explanation:

"The kibbutzim were always very Zionist Jewish communes. The left-wing ones tried to encourage Arabs to build kibbutzim for themselves - but they never admitted Arabs. The purpose [of the kibbutz movement] was to create a Jewish working class. The Arabs were irrelevant to that... Although times have changed, that that mind-set persists to the present day. "

Oh, I see now... according to an expert on the secular kibbutz movement, Zionism means keeping Jews and Arabs apart.  Fascinating!  I sure am glad it wasn't a guy with a kippah who said that!  Can you imagine the scandal?  The outcry!? 

From my point of view, an Israeli Arab (of any religion) should, on paper, be an easy 'fit' for most kibbutzim since there are far fewer personal and cultural hurdles to overcome than with say, a typical European or Scandinavian:

  • They already (presumably) speak fluent Hebrew. 
  • They already understand the subtleties of middle-eastern politics and social interaction. 
  • They are far more likely than a European or Scandinavian to come from an agrarian background. 
  • They are less likely to stand out physically from a typical kibbutznik.

Given all of these things (and I'm sure you can think of many more), the real news story should be that it has taken this long for an Arab to be made a full member of a kibbutz! 

Of course... if you scratch a 'liberal' kibbutznik, you're likely to find someone just as conservative (and apparently 'racist') as I am.

Posted by David Bogner on June 12, 2008 | Permalink

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"Oh, I see now... according to an expert on the secular kibbutz movement, Zionism means keeping Jews and Arabs apart. Fascinating! I sure am glad it wasn't a guy with a kippah who said that! Can you imagine the scandal? The outcry!? "


i never knew that Zionism = separatism. what a lesson to learn today. Great article, as per usual. I wonder if this indeed will be just a one off, or if it is the start (continuation?) of blurring the lines between us and them

Posted by: Hadassah | Jun 12, 2008 2:34:41 PM

Great post! I'm also surprised that there has never been an Arab kibbutznik up until now.

Posted by: Raizy | Jun 12, 2008 3:08:28 PM

I don't deny that many liberals - including left/liberal Israelis - are closet or unconscious racists. It's the unavoidable underside of the class-warfare, victimology mentality.

But in this case there's also the eeensy weeeensy, itty-bitty point that the Arabs have been trying to kill us - and have used suicidal civilian decoys since the beginning of the struggle.

And many of these kibbutzim were set up in the literal frontlines of the terroritorial/national conflict. And have suffered more than their share of casualties from Arab attack.

So - since you and I are living in places that, uhhh, occupy the same outlying position that many kibbutzim occupied back then - tell me: would it be easier for any of the Arabs working in your local economy to join your village - or to move into Jerusalem or some other, larger place?

Laying aside for the moment the issue of visas and permits... the necessary vigilance that unites our villages, and their ideals - both large Zionist ones, and smaller one of internal social cohesion - would make it more difficult for an Arab to be accepted where we live than in the general Israeli society.

So why are you so surprised that it took the kibbutzim so long to accept an Arab?

Posted by: Ben-David | Jun 12, 2008 4:08:29 PM

Personally, I think the assumption that no liberal can be a racist is a fallacy. The sniff test - check out how a liberal treats a minority with whom he/she disagrees with politically - think Clarence Thomas, Thomas Sowell, Roy Innis, etc. If they treat them the same way they would treat a white adversary, that's fine. But once white liberal pundits start using words like "Uncle Tom" and "off the reservation" - or, as in the case of Clarence Thomas, playing up certain black stereotypes - it's called racism. And don't forget Robert Byrd, a US senator with impeccable liberal credentials, who started his political career in the Klan. Liberals are not immune. There's no cognitive dissonance (at least for me) in referring to the policy of not accepting Arabs as kibbutz members as a "liberal/racist" policy.

Posted by: psachya | Jun 12, 2008 4:36:58 PM

It seems like your point isn't that racism is a bad thing, but that you're glad to have more folks on the racist "team". This attitude confuses me.

Posted by: Alan | Jun 12, 2008 5:42:14 PM

I'm at a loss for words. I've been taught my whole life that only white american males are racist. When I was at college, the term was used as a threat and silenced any student instantly lest they be labeled.

I don't see anything racist about wanting to pass your values onto your offspring. Otherwise, why bother having children?

Posted by: David Bailey | Jun 12, 2008 6:07:07 PM

One comment on the marriage thing: There were some fascinating studies done some years ago on the psychology of children who were raised on kibbutzim. They found that very few of them married each other for the simple reason that they looked at each other as 'siblings' in a larger family due to the communal living arrangements for children. It was pretty fascinating stuff, and goes a long way towards explaining why so few kibbutzim have managed to 'keep' the children and grandchildren of the original founders as members.

Obviously the effect is likely less important now, as the kibbutzim move more and more away from the communal ideal wrt children. Nonetheless, it suggests that the presence of a non-Jewish family on a kibbutz isn't likely to significantly affect the Jewish kids' chances of marrying Jewish.

Ender

Posted by: matlabfreak | Jun 12, 2008 6:54:29 PM

With Israel being so liberal as to invite "cheap" labour from Asia into society (because the Russians, who actually replaced the Israelis, stopped working for slave wages, if you didn't know) and way too many new immigrants with questionable papers about their origin, it's a bit funny that people should start to worry about this of all.

Posted by: a | Jun 12, 2008 7:09:03 PM

Zionism as usual is overrated (in that odd paragraph), if the MK you have or have had in Israel is not a good enough example then I don’t know what is, and how did it all start?… opportunity.

FYI, even from the Jewish community in Israel that cries out foul the most on equitable distribution of ‘wealth’ and ‘opportunity’, there’s an element of conservatism when it comes to intermarriage.

Call it a spade or spoon, it is what it is!

Posted by: Rami | Jun 12, 2008 9:41:22 PM

Matlabfreak: the research and experience have shown that this relates only to children who grew up together, i.e., in one group. If you look at the larger community, the picture changes. Not too long ago, the high school of our kibbutzim and the kibbutzim of the region had a "love evening" for all the couples who had been highschool sweethearts. It was a huge event. I know also quite a number of couples from the same kibbutz, and many kibbutzniks marry other kibbutzniks.

So the sibling taboo only occurs where people grow up from early childhood together.

Posted by: Lila | Jun 12, 2008 11:12:34 PM

If people from the same kibbutz married each other it'd end up looking like some interbreeding bunch of hillbillies in the Ozarks!

A kibbutz success story (is/used to be) that the kids move on to new kibbutzim in the Negev, Galilee, or wherever needs, and don't stay on the old homestead.

All that without relating to the topic in hand, which does seem to be a one-in-a-million event.

Posted by: asherasher | Jun 13, 2008 8:54:41 AM

Lila and Asher,

Of course I didn't mean to suggest that kibbutzniks can't possibly survive because of this psychological phenomenon. Obviously there are plenty of kibbutznikim who marry other kibbutznikim, even those from the same community. But at least in 'old school' kibbutzim where the child rearing was quite communal, there is a marked decrease of marrying within the kibbutz (as opposed to people who grew up in the same town or neighborhood marrying).

All I'm saying is that a Muslim family moving into a kibbutz won't necessarily result in any higher intermarriage than if they were living one town over, and might even be less. Obviously, I don't know the circumstances - maybe the kids are old enough that this phenomenon doesn't matter, or whatever. It was just a comment on the general assumption that kids growing up together on a kibbutz are more likely to marry one another than in some other setting.

*shrugs* I briefly visited my g/f's grandparents who have lived in a kibbutz in the Negev for nearly 60 years, and was somewhat saddened to see that this once venerable and vibrant community was aging and having to compromise its values to get along. There are a lot of reasons for this - economic, social, etc. - but the aforementioned studies are another contributing factor.

Posted by: matlabfreak | Jun 13, 2008 10:34:11 AM

David,

From what I read, there are a son and a daughter, Adam and Aya. In the Y-net Artikel (http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3554476,00.html) there is snippet on the issue of spouses for the children:

"According to Carmiya, her family has mixed feelings regarding her way of life.

“They have already learned to accept the way I am. They comment about my children’s education here and there, and think that maybe my daughter needs to return to the village to find a husband, but all of this won’t change my decision to live on the kibbutz,” she said."

Obviously the son could marry a Jewish girl according to Sharia while the daughter has to choose a Muslim.

By the way, the children of any Jewish mother would still be Jewish according to Halacha even if the father is Muslim.

Posted by: ruth | Jun 15, 2008 1:32:34 PM

David,

From what I read, there are a son and a daughter, Adam and Aya. In the Y-net Artikel (http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3554476,00.html) there is snippet on the issue of spouses for the children:

"According to Carmiya, her family has mixed feelings regarding her way of life.

“They have already learned to accept the way I am. They comment about my children’s education here and there, and think that maybe my daughter needs to return to the village to find a husband, but all of this won’t change my decision to live on the kibbutz,” she said."

Obviously the son could marry a Jewish girl according to Sharia while the daughter has to choose a Muslim.

By the way, the children of any Jewish mother would still be Jewish according to Halacha even if the father is Muslim.

Posted by: ruth | Jun 15, 2008 1:32:51 PM

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