Racism or assimilation: the war of the spray can


Racist talk is becoming less out of bounds, almost respectable in some places, even amongst government leaders like US President Donald Trump. South Africa and Israel are both fertile territory for this. The words sprayed on a wall in an Arab village express concisely those feelings: Racism or Assimilation 


“YOU’RE a racist!” is one of the most cutting accusations one can make in these politically charged times, as we drown in a cacophony of hate speech on social media. To promote racism publically, even amongst members of the world’s white elite, is still mostly regarded as disgusting. But it is becoming less so in many places, from ordinary people to top government leaders, including in the Jewish world.

Israel is fertile ground for this talk, given the power relations between parties in the conflict with the Palestinians, and the religious and demographic nature of the conflict. Graffiti daubed in the Arab city of Kafr Qasem in central Israel on Sunday made no bones about the intentions of its authors. The graffiti went so far as to explicitly endorse racism by saying there were two simple choices for the Jews and for Israel: ‘Racism or Assimilation’, and ‘Death to Arabs’. Things like this are not new in Israel, they go back many years, and have emanated from both the Palestinian and Israeli sides of the conflict.

But for Jews the slogan taps into a hot issue in the Jewish world: assimilation is the biggest enemy amongst many leading figures, in the rabbinic world and elsewhere, who believe almost anything should be done to prevent it. That is why there is such anger towards the non-orthodox streams of Judaism because of their tolerance of liberal streams of Judaism and for non-Jewish partners of Jewish spouses, which threatens Jewish ‘purity’ and demography.

Some well-known rabbis have gone so far as to say assimilation is equivalent to another holocaust, and it will essentially finish the job Hitler started. This is the context in which the slogan ‘racism or assimilation’ exists for radical right wing Jews. In other words, to preserve the Jewish people, it is permissible in the West Bank and according to any possible political ‘solution’ to the conflict, to treat Palestinians according to racist principles. Essentially, this is unabashed apartheid, with no pretence at being anything else.

In South Africa, racist talk, such as use of the k-word, is classified as hate speech, a violation of the constitution, liable for legal action and possibly jail. The most famous example which became almost a national catchword for racist talk, is that of the late Cape Town estate agent Penny Sparrow who drew the ire of many South Africans in 2016 after posting racist Facebook remarks.

Incredibly, in some places in the world it has become almost respectable to be overtly racist, even amongst leaders of governments. US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has accused president Donald Trump of wanting to add a citizenship question to next year’s census because he ‘wants to make America white again’; such a question would have a chilling effect on who responded, and discourage people who are in the US illegally from responding, thus giving a false, more white picture of the makeup of the population.

In this era of growing nationalist and identity politics, this kind of identity politics is the flavour of the times. In the US last week, the words “Why have Jews been kicked out of 109 countries?” and “Nationalism or extinction” were written in Santa Monica on a public highway, and the “Holocaust is a lie” was found on a bicycle path nearby.

Identity, religious and personal, is hugely important to the human being: but how far should we go achieve it? Who are these people who wrote ’racism or assimilation’? Are they fair warriors in the war for identity, or a dangerous poison? In this war, the spray can becomes a cowardly weapon.

GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:  geoffs@icon.co.za 


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