They evinced no concern for the cleanliness of the area they lived in.… [T]he streets [were] filthy and stank to the skies.…They were considered to be swindlers, prone to lying. “An Arab never speaks the truth, except by mistake,” said policemen who served in the area.
That’s a description of London’s Jewish neighborhood, the East End, in 1904. I’ve quoted from Anita Shapira’s Brenner: A Life, her fascinating new biography (in Hebrew) of Zionist literary lion Yosef Haim Brenner—except that I’ve replaced the word “Jew” with “Arab.”
Lack of concern for the cleanliness and esthetics of public spaces and untruthfulness are the most common negative traits attributed by Jews to Arabs in Israel. These stereotypes cross all social and political boundaries—I’ve heard them from working-class Israelis in impoverished neighborhoods and from professors at universities, from religious champions of Greater Israel and from peace activists. When I’ve dared to suggest that these characteristics might not be inherent in the Arab character, I am generally silenced with what they see as the irrefutable argument: “You don’t know the Arabs the way I know the Arabs.”
Like most stereotypes, these Israeli canards about Arabs are based on a certain kernel of truth, which is then blown way out of proportion. The question is not whether Israel’s Arab citizens couldn’t do a better job of street cleaning and park planning in their villages, but whether the concentration of resources inside rather than outside the home is characteristic of Arab culture or a product of social, economic, and political conditions.
So it’s telling to see the same accusations made against the Jews when they were an impoverished and unwelcome minority in other lands. Shapira is hardly the first to record that filthy streets and deceit were associated with Jews at the cusp of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Isaac Babel’s descriptions of Jewish Odessa paint a similarly unattractive picture of how Jews will behave when they live in fear and when their lives are one long desperate effort to feed their children.
It’s not just Jews and Arabs, of course. Similar stereotypes have been applied at different times and in different places to American Indians, the Irish, the Zulu, the Chinese—you name it.
I suggest that when a poor minority lives among a hostile majority, the majority is viewed with suspicion and hostility. They are out to get us, so why should we tell them the truth? When resources are scarce and when the future is uncertain—because you suspect that the majority would really like you to go elsewhere—you invest what little you have inside your home and on your children, rather than on the public spaces where, after all, you may just be a temporary resident.