Racial profiling is a part of Israel in a way that is not possible in America, both due to Civil Rights laws making discrimination illegal, as well as the current state of political correctness, which makes it unpopular to vocalize that one group of people should be treated differently than another.
This, of course, does not mean that profiling does not happen in the United States. Rather, it becomes subtle, almost an art form, where store clerks turn into master spies, following like a shadow as you move through the store. Or perhaps your car is stopped for a borderline issue which gives a distrustful police officer a pretense to check your license and plates.
And in the worst scenarios, racial profiling leads to tragedy, when a situation which began as a mere race-based suspicion spirals out of control and results in a fatal tragedy. The recent events revolving around the shootings of Trayvon Martin in Florida, and Michael Brown in Missouri are but the latest in a chain of avoidable deaths. And when reviewing instance after instance in which it is clear that the victim’s race was the trigger, I remain unconvinced that it is preferable to shame people for racial profiling, thereby driving it deeper into their subconscious, instead of shining a light on the reasons why it occurs, and perhaps doing away with the need for it at all.
When I moved to Israel, I settled in Modiin, a planned city nestled on the “right” side of the “green line” which marks the borders of Israel prior to the beginning of the 1967 war with our Arab neighbors. However, since I worked in Jerusalem, I frequently had to cross over the territory administered by the Israeli government, but not officially part of Israel itself. At first, as I approached these crossings I became nervous, since I didn’t know how the Israeli border guards, frequently as young as 19 or 20, would classify me, in terms of likely friend or potential foe.
Israelis are good at telling different kinds of people apart, so I knew I would not be mistaken for Ethiopian or an African refugee, which represented the largest groups of people of African descent currently living in Israel. But I wasn’t sure if they would be able to tell I had come from America. And yet, repeatedly, when the border police came to check the buses taking us from Modiin to Jerusalem, I was met with little more than a cursory glance.
After watching closely, I began to understand that, unlike America, where the unofficial policy was to search for a suspect, and only later clear him, Israelis keep an open mind about whether or not someone is possibly guilty, and then try to clear as many people of suspicion as possible, based on the most likely patterns of actual behavior. Most of the terrorism in Israel is done by Palestinian men and boys. Therefore, the border guards look at everyone’s face, and then dismiss people who do not fit that group, unless the person is actually doing something suspicious. In America, being Black is enough to be considered suspicious, no matter the behavior. In Israel, Palestinians are under suspicion, but at the very least, there is a history behind why that is so.
Still, I am uncomfortable with singling out an individual who has done nothing wrong, even when this does seem to be the best method of reducing the possibility of a terrorist act. After the massacre that took place recently in a synagogue in the Har Nof neighborhood of Jerusalem, some of my more militant friends began campaigning for stores and restaurants to stop hiring Arabs, and Ashkelon, a town along Israel’s Mediterranean coast, actually had its mayor stop construction on several building sites that had hired Arab workers.
Of course, some of the Arabs so employed are not Israeli citizens, and I do believe that using a people as a source of cheap labor is detrimental to the blue collar class that can be found within Israel’s borders, acting to depress wages in much the same way as illegal immigrants from Mexico have driving the true wages in some industries below the legally required minimum, and resulting, de facto, in legal workers from being able to find jobs in those fields.
However, this country has a population of nearly 20% of citizens (nearly 1.6 million people) being of Arab descent. If we demand that businesses only use Arab labor, doesn’t this mean that these people will end up isolated, underemployed, and probably as a result, even more militant? It is one thing to say we should not import people who may wish us harm. It is another to try to strip the livelihood from a significant chunk of our population.
One of the things I liked best about moving from the village in the West Bank in which I lived for five years after leaving Modiin, to the coastal town of Hadera, is that I no longer have to cross checkpoints on a daily basis, and see the Palestinians lined up like cattle as they stand waiting to be approved to go to work. But, as a Black woman who tried to fight against discrimination in America, hearing the new calls for banning Arab labor within Israel has once more made me question whether racial profiling is necessary or evil, or if it could possibly even be both.
Malynnda Littky moved to Israel from the Detroit area in 2007, and lives with her family in Hadera, halfway between Tel Aviv and Haifa. She currently works as a Content Manager for a software company.
Header image courtesy of Pixabay.