The Power of Otherness: Identity Politics in the U.S. and Israel

In his recent award-winning book Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes with profound insight on American racism, white supremacy, and the experiences of Black Americans. Coates offers a powerful framework for understanding how Americans have built an “empire on the idea of ‘race’, a falsehood that damages us all.”

Without drawing any direct parallels to systems or experience of racial dynamics between the US and Israel, I would argue that Coates’s approach to identity provides a useful lens for seeing identity politics in Israel, offering us a new perspective on what might be seen as the same old story.

Coates writes about whiteness as a construct. He talks about “people who believe themselves to be white” and makes the argument that whiteness is a hollow identity built mainly out of “other-ing”, that is defined by who is left out of the category as opposed to the common attributes and experiences of those in it. According to Coates, the concept of a white identity is perpetuated to maintain the power dynamic. In the book, he explores deeply his own discovery of black identity. He claims that whiteness is more about not being black than about being white. Because given the multiplicity of ethnicities in the category, who is really white?

There is little argument that the Israeli identity that has dominated the public sphere and has defined the culture of power across the political, social and cultural spectrum for decades is a narrow one. The Zionist revolution sought to open a new chapter in Jewish history – and to create a new Jew in Israel.  Zionist thinkers wanted to rid Jews of the old other-ing that constructed their identity – the other-ing of not being a gentile. But the reality of the land to which they immigrated presented them with a new other – the Arab. To the old Jewish identity in Europe – the not-gentile – was added another layer in Israel: being “not Arab”. So Israeliness came to be defined as much by this new other-ing of not being Arab than by the first one – of the new Jew free from persecution.

The Ashkenazi Jews, Jews of Eastern-European descent, define Israeli identity because of this migration history and today, because they are most explicitly not Arab. This construct of Israeliness is perpetuated to maintain a status quo in which Arabs and those who resemble Arabs – Mizrahi Jews of Middle Eastern decent- remain outside or at the lowest levels - of this culture and structure of power. In recent years, however, the Arabness of the Palestinians and the Arabness of Mizrahi Jews have posed growing challenges to the concept of Israeliness. Of white, Ashkenzi Israeliness, that is. This pressure is the result of a new wave of identity-driven politics, along with social, political and technological changes.

The non-Arabs and the Arabs

If the concept of Israeliness is based on citizenship in the State of Israel, then what does this Israeli identity mean for the 20 percent of its citizens who are Arabs? If it is based on a common experience of Zionism and persecution in Europe and then national self-determination in Palestine, then what does this Israeli identity mean for 61 percent of Israeli Jews who come from the Middle Eastern and North African heritage?

Israeli Arabs, who are in fact Palestinian citizens of Israel, live inside what many refer to as “green-line” Israel, are Muslims and Christians, religious and secular, urban Northerners and Southern Bedouin rural communities. They are citizens but they do not fit inside of the defining Israeli identity.

Despite their citizenship, Israeli Arabs were never considered a part of Israeliness, because being Israeli meant by definition being non-Arab. Those who stayed in Israel after its independence in 1948 and became citizens were subject to Martial Law until 1966 – including administrative detentions, curfews and other legal tools of dominance. Today, most Palestinian citizens of Israel do not serve in the military, which is the dominant institution forging Israeli culture. They are also generally not included in national polling.

Not only are these Israeli citizens excluded from Israeliness, they are perceived to be a threat-from-within, and are subject to increasingly harsh forms of structural, symbolic and economic discrimination. They are commonly seen as a "time bomb" and "a potential fifth column" in both demographic and security terms and characterized as liable to undermine the state in times of war – continuing the perception of the military regime 50 years later.

The dominant political rhetoric around Arab citizens was made explicit in the final days before the most recent Israeli election last spring when, according to the Washington Post, “Netanyahu's rhetoric grew increasingly hawkish, even for his standards. On Monday, he declared there would be no independent Palestinian state under his watch. And on Tuesday, as Israelis cast their ballots, he sounded the alarm about who was voting. ‘The right-wing government is in danger,’ Netanyahu wrote in a Facebook post. ‘Arab voters are coming out in droves to the polls. Left-wing organizations are busing them out.’"

Over the past years, Israel’s Knesset has enacted several laws, and considered many more bills, that further entrench structural discrimination and exclusion of Arab Israelis from Israeli society. The Nakba Law, which according to the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), “authorizes the Minister of Finance to relinquish monetary support if the body or institution has made any payment towards an event or action that undermines the ‘existence of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state,’ violates the symbols of the State, or marks the date of Israel’s establishment ‘as a day of mourning.’”

This perception of identity carries meaningful consequences: While Palestinians make up about 20 percent of Israel's population, less than 7 percent of the budget is allocated to their communities.

The Mizrachim: Being an Arab Jew

 “Arab Jews”, or more commonly called by most Israelis “Mizrahi Jews” refers to people who trace roots back to Muslim-majority countries. This includes descendants of Babylonian Jews from places like modern Iraq, Syria, Bahrain, Kuwait, Iran, Lebanon, Uzbekistan, Yemen, and Georgia. If Israeliness is mostly about being a non-Arab, Mizrahi Jews don’t fit the bill. After all, many of these families were actually Arab in their culture and everyday lives. They spoke Arabic at home long after immigrating. Many had Arabic names like Rafiq, Najib and Jamila. They were consumers of Arab culture – films, music, literature and entertainment.

David Ben Gurion, a founding father of the new state, wrote in 1949 about the recent immigrants from Yemen: “They are separated from us by 1000 years. The concept of civilization is absent to them. Their relationship to women and children is that of primitive man.” Labor Prime Minister Ehud Barak famously referred to Israel as a “villa in the jungle”, a popular metaphor in Israel to this day. But if the Middle East is a jungle, how are its inhabitants classified? And what does this mean for Mizrahi Jews living in Israel? Are they part of the villa or part of the jungle?

Most of those immigrants were settled in “maabarot” (tent camps) in remote areas often in the desert. Many were moved then into development towns like Dimona, Netivot and other remote places. Not only did they leave their possessions and economic standing in the country they came from, they now found themselves on the outside of society symbolically, geographically and financially. The transition from insider to complete outsider was devastating. But mainly, their segregation in Israel meant that they continued to carry their Arabness even after becoming officially Israeli. Their cultural identity was a bar to achieving true Israeliness.

Of Symbols, Soccer and Dominant Accents

Prof. Nina Toren of Hebrew University found that in 2008, the academic staff of Israeli universities were 90 percent Ashkenazi, 9 percent Mizrahi, and 1percent Arab. According to a survey by the Adva Center, the average income of Ashkenazim was 36 percent higher than that of Mizrahim in 2004. According to a study conducted by the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics (ICBS), Israeli-born Ashkenazi Jews are up to twice more likely to pursue academic studies than Mizrahi Jews.

So is it possible for Israeli Arabs or Mizrahi Jews to achieve this elusive Israeliness? Only when they are are willing and able to shed their Arabness.

For Palestinian citizens, the demand has been to passionately adopt the symbols of the State of Israel, symbols created and defined by Ashkenazi Jews. Chana Pinchasi, Dr. Eilon Schwartz, and Shaharit Fellows describe symbols in their article entitled The Value of Culture: “Symbols touch us deeply because they are an expression of an essential part of our identity. A national anthem that lacks deep historical underpinnings—like the national anthem of Canada, for example, which only describes Canada’s size and climate—reveals the paucity of some shared identities, but it does not create any conflict. In contrast, for a non-Jewish Israeli, the symbol of the Star of David creates a sense of alienation.”

They go on to describe a story in which the soccer team of the Arab town of Sakhnin won the national cup and the team captain Abbas Swann ran a victory lap in the stadium wrapped in the Israeli flag. Pinchas, Schwartz and the Shaharit fellows argue that the sting of the symbol of the Star of David would fade if it was not set against a backdrop of structural inequality that Israeli Arabs face.  I would like to see Swann’s victory lap as a radical reclaiming, a statement that Israeliness can no longer mean shedding Arabness. I would also like to see the political demand for an inclusive citizenship, for challenging school curricula that exclude large swaths of students, for revising state symbols.

For Mizrahi Jews, access to the culture of power also comes from shedding the most outstanding aspects of their Arabness. Eva Illouz, herself an academic of French-Morrocan descent, describes this process with a focus on accent in speech. She says: “people and the institution they work in cannot feel represented adequately by someone speaking with an accent. Ashkenazis, it should be said, have no less an accent than Mizrahim, but theirs is “unmarked” − it is not heard, precisely because Ashkenazis have established the norm of speech, which in turn becomes neutral.”

The Mecca of Diversity

Talking about a shared society in Israel and deconstructing identity politics opens up the opportunity to bring about a more inclusive and constructive Israeli identity beyond non-Arabness. In Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates describes his experience as a college student at Howard University, a historic-Black school in Washington DC that he attended as an undergrad student. He nicknames it “Mecca” in the book and describes in detail the experience of being on campus, with a multiplicity of black identities intermingling – black Muslims, Caribbeans and Islanders, Africans, people from the Urban neighborhoods of American cities, Indians, black Jews. He writes about this time as his first encounter with the various cultures, ethnicities, and histories that are included in the construct of blackness.

Like Coates, I believe that the construct of “race” is destructive and damaging to all of us, most of all to those on the wrong end of the power dynamic. While I am included in those who believe themselves to be white in the United States, and in those who believe themselves to be Israeli in Israel, I surge with excitement during Coates’ description of “Mecca”.  It uncovers the gorgeous layers of identity, of culture, of appearance, of speech that black people in the United States hold, and not just the struggle, persecution and injustice they face in a system that actively discriminates against them.

On the symbolic level, Americans elected a black man as President in 2008. In his famous speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, then-Illinois Senator Barack Obama included authenticity about blackness in his keynote address: “My father was a foreign student, born and raised in a small village in Kenya. He grew up herding goats, went to school in a tin- roof shack. His father, my grandfather, was a cook, a domestic servant to the British.” He went on to say. “My parents shared not only an improbable love; they shared an abiding faith in the possibilities of this nation. They would give me an African name, Barack, or ‘blessed,’ believing that in a tolerant America, your name is no barrier to success.” Many people say that it was this speech that elevated Obama on the national political scene and eventually got him elected to President of the United States.

Mizrahi Cultural Renaissance: Turning Back to Go Forward

My revolutionary imagination rests on the idea that structural discrimination can and must be dismantled. In Israel, that means that the symbols, culture, and the experience of Israeliness is changing and must change. It is hard to imagine an Arab Israeli Prime Minister any time in the near future– Israel has not even elected a Mizrahi Prime Minister so far. But both Arab Israelis and Mizrahi Jews are increasingly reluctant to shed their Arabness in order to fit in with the dominant concept of Israeliness. A new generation of Israelis is emerging.

I heard the young Moroccan Jewish singer Neta Elkayam say, at a night-club in Tel Aviv, that her music was picking up where her grandmother’s music left off. In the 1950s, her grandmother stopped singing in Arabic because that was unacceptable in Israel. That is where her culture stopped. Neta said, “people want me to write ‘modern music’ but I want to write and perform my grandmother’s music here in Tel Aviv where she wasn’t allowed to. I’m not ready to fast-forward.”

In his inauguration speech to the Knesset last May, MK Ayman Odeh, the leader of the Joint List (a coalition of the major Arab political parties) imagined life in Israel in 2025. He imagined what it would look like if we were successful in overcoming discrimination and the campaigns to end racism were successful. His dream was of Arab children learning Hebrew in schools and Jewish students learning Arabic. He dreams of business cooperation, of shared spaces.

Neta Elkayam is part of a Mizrahi cultural renaissance fueled by a new identity politic in Israel. Ayman Odeh is part of a political and social moment of Arab Israelis. Tying these and many other pieces together could lead us to a new Israeliness- one that is defined by what it encompasses and not by what it excludes.  

This article was published as a part of an hbs North America series on US-Israel relations. To read more from this series, click here