Racism, Israeli Style

11/16/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The school year got off to a rocky start in the Israeli town of Petah Tikva, just east of Tel Aviv. Petah Tikva is Hebrew for "opening of hope," but for more than 100 black-skinned children, Jewish immigrants from Ethiopia, it was hardly a hopeful beginning to their lives in the Holy Land when several local schools refused to accept them.

Reporters and editors were quick to spot the tear-jerking potential of cute first graders, little skullcaps on their head and shiny backpacks on their backs, waiting forlornly in school and city halls while their parents pleaded for them to be allowed into classrooms. Headlines and government officials were quick to denounce the schools for racism.

Incidents of racism in Israel, a nation of Holocaust survivors and immigrants whose self-image is molded by the racism Jews suffered abroad, are always intriguing. They shed light on what constitutes racism in the eyes of the country's Jewish majority, and the case of the kids in Petah Tikva is particularly telling.

Racism toward Ethiopian immigrants, who have been coming to Israel for the past 30 years, has less to do with their skin color and more with continuous doubts on the part of the country's religious establishment about their Jewishness and their claims to be descendants of the 12 tribes. As a condition of their acceptance they are forced to undergo conversion and to enroll their kids in religious schools, meaning their choice of schools is somewhat limited.

Thus the education department in Petah Tikva found itself short of slots for its new Ethiopian students and demanded they be accepted into three schools that are considered private but get a substantial amount of funding from the government.

These, however, claimed that the immigrant children were not suited to their high academic standards. The public religious schools, too, refused to take the kids, arguing that they had accepted many immigrant children and it was now time for the private establishments to share the load.

Just a case of private school elitism? A mundane manifestation of NIMBY?

Hardly. In recent years several incidents have come to light of public religious schools instituting separate classes, separate busing, even separate recess times for Ethiopian kids. One mayor refused to accept them altogether citing an overburdened public school system unsuited to the needs of the African kids who hail from a very different culture and society.

But the Ethiopians are not the only children targeted by bigoted religious school officials. Some ultra-Orthodox girls schools, run by sects of Jews of European origin (Ashkenazi Jews) have for years refused to enroll girls whose parents or grandparents were born in Arab countries (Sephardi Jews).

Perhaps as a result of summer doldrums and a dirth of news, the Petah Tikva affair prompted an impressive public uproar -- from calls to cut off government funding to schools that refuse to accept Ethiopian children, all the way to demands that police be mobilized to escort the kids into class. Shades of Little Rock.

The Petah Tikva schools, private and public, were forced to back down and accept the children. The media and government congratulated themselves for combating an ugly manifestation of prejudice.

Admirable? Hardly. Just ask any Arab student from the Galilee who has tried to rent an apartment in Jerusalem, any Arab engineering graduate who has tried to get a high-tech job, any Arab shop assistant in suburban Tel Aviv who is forbidden to speak Arabic to her colleagues lest she alienate Jewish customers.

It's not simply a case of double standards. Israel, a complex mosaic of ethnic groups, is oblivious and indifferent to its deeply rooted racism against Arab citizens, who constitute 20% of the population.

The biblical injunction of not doing unto others what you would not have done to you is buried under Israel's complex struggle for existence in a hostile environment and an innate need to perpetuate its status as the victim it once was, a need that blinds it to the suffering of others.