Those Filthy, Lying Minorities

Haim Watzman

    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.

8 thoughts on “Those Filthy, Lying Minorities”

  1. …and you’ll find the same attributes among the Eta of Japan and among inner-city African Americans in slum housing. Poverty and lack of opportunity lead to mendacity in the face of Authority.

    I got an epiphany one day before a pretrial conference with the opposing counsel. “But when the cops rolled up, these guys RAN,” I pointed out, since in the middle class white mind one would only run if one had a guilty conscience. My well-respected and well-beloved African American opponent laughed out loud. “Hey, I grew up in the projects, ” he pointed out. “When the cops come, you run ON PRINCIPLE, ’cause you know they don’t care who they arrest or for what, even if you haven’t done s***.”

    The cure is a long way from now–but when resources are shared and everyone’s vision respected, then you’ll see progress….but maybe not in our lifetimes, the way things are going.

  2. Two comments.
    First, as a “settler”, I fully identify with minority discrimination as I find myself trying to defend myself against claims of fanaticism, messianism, zealotry, criminality, violence, etc. Second, I recall debating Amiram Golodblum years ago when accused of depriving the Pals. of water and when I tried to point out that, factually, we do use more water – washing machines, diswashing machines, and even take more showers, not to speak of mikva’ot (apropos the article quoted by Brenner) – I was told by Amiram that I was besmirching Arabs by calling them dirty which I didn’t. But he is a liberal prgressive and can do no wrong.

  3. The condition of a neighborhood, in a modern society, is in large part a function of resources devoted by government: How often garbage is collected, whether streets are cleaned, whether there are streetlights, whether there are reasonable public spaces where people can gather, whether there are public parks for sports.

    Anyone who visits majority Arab and Jewish towns in Israel can quickly see the difference in government investment. The lack of local government spending in Arab towns is a function of tax base: Arab towns have not been allocated industrial areas, which provide local taxes.

    The situation is worse in Jerusalem, as I’ve noted here:
    http://www.prospect.org/cs/articles?article=a_note_to_hillary_on_jerusalem_disunited . If the city collects taxes from residents but does not collect garbage or build sidewalks, it should be no surprise that the neighborhoods are less attractive.

    This is racism twice over: Unequal distribution of resources creates unequal living conditions, and then the victims are blamed for their situation.

  4. A place where the government and most of the people are determined to break the law, brazenly, is an UGLY PLACE. An ugly neighborhood, if you will. See below.

    A place that calls itself a DEMOCRACY when it is not is a place of LIARS. See below.

    It is (presumably) not illegal for Israel to
    spend more money for Jewish neighborhoods than for Arab neighborhoods within pre-1967 Israel.

    However, it is definitely illegal for Israel to permit and to facilitate and to encourage Israelis (any Israelis) to live within territories occupied by Israel in 1967. And to confiscate land there for non-defensive purposes (the WALL could be inside pre-1967 Israel).

    If Israelis DEMANDED that their government comply with international law (remove the wall, remove the settlers, do it now), then we might not have to be sidetracked with discussions such as the present discussion of the attractiveness of neighborhoods and whether Jews or arabs tell (more) lies. No-one would care very much.

    A place where the government and most of the people are determined to break the law, brazenly, is an ugly place. An ugly neighborhood, if you will. Israel breaks the international law as declared by the ICJ in July 2004. there was never any doubt of it.

    A place where most of the people call their government a DEMOCRACY is a place of LIARS if the government of that place does not allow people who are proper residents there (such as the Arabs who left pre-1967 Israel in 1948 with the intention to return) to RETURN and to VOTE.

  5. Another reason for the low tax base in Arab towns is that simply they do not make the effort to collect the arnona taxes local authorities levy. Members of the ruling clan will not press fellow members to pay the tax, and the other clans try not to pay it because the Arabs, unlike in the West, don’t view taxes as something citizens pay in order to receive services, but rather as tribute paid to the ruling powers. Apparently Arabs would rather pay lower taxes and get fewer services.

  6. It’s easy to call it discrimination, but OTOH, if you check a little deeper, you’ll find that the Arab municipalities are mismanaged, corrupt, that individuals pockets funds intended for the town, that a large proportion of the municipal population doesn’t pay muni taxes, nor does the municipality enforce collection.

    Just recently there was a huge outcry over the water being cut off to Arab municipalities….and it turned out that it was because they didn’t pay their bill.

    My water gets turned off if I don’t pay my bill, too.

    And don’t start on housing permits. I live here–NO one can get a permit, not just Arabs. Getting a permit to cover a balcony can take two years in the application process if not longer, and you stand a better than 50% chance of it being denied. IF the muni inspectors find you’ve covered your balcony w/o a permit, they come out and force you to tear it off.

    And someone in the Arab townships must be getting building permits, because Beit Safafa, Sharafat, Issawiya, Beit Hanina, Umm Tuba, Tzur Bahir and Beit Safafa are all mushrooming with new construction.

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