After living in Israel for over eight years, it still amazes me how casually racist people here are. I get frustrated when I hear these comments and often disappointed in myself for not speaking up more. Can I consider myself an activist when I let these comments go by because I feel awkward or because it’s tiring? If it happens multiple times a day, can I successfully intervene every time? Can I really call myself an ally when I have an insane amount of privilege and don’t say something?
A few weeks ago, I wrote about how my girlfriend and I were almost denied an apartment due to homophobia, and I how I talked through that homophobia with the landlord. At that moment, I had the courage and the energy. I stuck up for myself, and I got a lot of positive feedback in which people told me “good for you.” But how good is it when I am so easily defending myself but letting other comments I hear slide?
Oppression here is so casual here that saying something often feels like you are looking for a problem if you point out the racism. For example, in my photography class, the teacher has said that if we don’t properly measure the light reflecting off the subject, he will look Sudanese (Israel has some Sudanese refugees, and it has become synonymous with black). In the same class, 50-year-old men regularly sexualize the women subjects in pictures. I constantly tell them to stop objectifying, but only in my head. When I mentioned something to a fellow woman in the class, she said: “oh, they are just men, they don’t mean anything by it.” I disagreed with her, and we had a productive conversation in which I gained some new perspectives. Yet, at no point were any of these men a part of that discussion. I find that I don’t usually have the courage to stop the middle of some else’s lecture in order to break down the patriarchy.
Over a year ago, I walked into a popular bakery called Piece of Cake to buy something sweet for the weekend. While looking through the options, I noticed a chocolate cake called “Obama”—I kid you not. I picked it up, turned to the woman behind the counter and said: “is this for real?!” She laughed as though we were sharing a joke. I did not find it funny. I said that this is pretty racist, and she responded that she just works the register, which is a fairly valid point. I didn’t take it any further, and looking back, I realize, since it was important to me,I should have talked to management.
Part of the frustration is that racism is not widely discussed in mainstream Israeli culture, and so having a productive conversation about how something is racist can be very trying. For example, Hebrew has no word for cultural appropriation, nor does there seem to be a concept for it. Yes, you can explain it in conversation, but it will be a process almost every time. A strong base for discussing racism is missing in Israeli society, and so a lot of groundwork still needs to be done. It appears that racism is so embedded in our society that we are never given the tools necessary to combat it, keeping the status quo intact. In my personal experience, this makes it much more challenging to engage in regular discussion about racism and oppression in public spaces.
When a group of women dressed in Burka last year to promote a queer party, I wrote on the event that I wasn’t going to come to because I believed the promotion to be disrespectful to Muslim and to Arab women (they chose Burkas because the party was hosted at a club with an Arabic name, and so this seemed like a logical marketing scheme). A lot of the backlash for this comment was that I have no place to say anything because I am not Arab nor Muslim. Most people said that if Arab or Muslims are offended, they will say so themselves, conveniently leaving out the fact that there were very few (if any) Muslims or Arabs invited to this event. This is not to say that I held the moral high ground or that my comments were the correct way of viewing the situation, but that it was hard to engage in a productive discussion about racism and oppression in this space. After a day, I gave up on the conversation because it brought me a lot of stress. In this instance, I stepped way outside my comfort zone, but it also took an emotional toll on me.
I am really grateful for the spaces in which I can openly discuss racism and oppression with others in a productive manner. Yet, as Israeli society becomes more right-wing and more tolerant of racism, I find myself shutting down more regularly when in environments that are not designed to discuss or combat oppression. I recognize, though, that the ability to shut down is a privilege, and that those oppressed often cannot enjoy this option.
Yet I also need to understand my limits. During the Gaza conflict in 2014, I felt totally drained. Again, I was in a complete state of privilege compared to both those in Gaza and those on the Gaza border. Even so, towards the end of the conflict, I took a hiatus from Facebook and decided that I would only return once the hostilities had calmed down. I did this because I found myself unable to function in my regular life. I’m at a point now where I need to find a balance. I want to be active in my reaction to racism, but also want to protect myself emotionally. With growing amounts of incitement towards minorities and towards left-wing activists, I also am nervous about putting myself in a potentially hostile situation. I also know that If I want to help change the discourse within our society, I need to do more to speak up and to react, even when it’s inconvenient for me, and even when it is just casual, everyday racism.
So I end this post not with some grand realization or a practice I know I must adopt, but with a question. Privileged folks, what do you do? How do you ensure you are acting as an ally without burning out?