Israel’s PR gaffes expose its racist atmosphere

Israel is increasingly isolated and adrift, cast away on a wave of its own delusion.

Israeli police move Ethiopian Israeli protestors during a demonstration against police brutality and racism, in the centre of Tel Aviv [AFP]
Israeli police move Ethiopian Israeli protesters during a demonstration against police brutality and racism in Tel Aviv [AFP]

This isn’t an attempt to compile a “most racist” scorecard of nations. But the offensive tweet posted by Judy Shalom Nir Mozes last week is not a million miles away from the sort of comments you hear in everyday conversation within Israel, all the time.

To recap, the talk-show host, household name, and wife of Israel’s interior minister, Silvan Shalom, told a “joke” on Twitter: “Do you know what Obama coffee is? Black and weak.” Not that there is ever a good time for such a racist comment, but this one came in the same week that the US and swaths of the twittersphere were focused on painfully strained race relations in the US, and still reeling in the aftermath of a white terrorist attack on nine black Americans in a Charleston church.

Are black Israelis being discriminated against?

An avalanche of criticism followed – including in Hebrew, from Israeli tweeps; the international media picked up on it, and the message was duly deleted and apologised for.

Hostility to ‘others’

But, while Mozes now insists she likes people “no matter about [sic] their race and religion”, Israel is home to the sort of openly casual, incidental racism that feels like a jarring throwback if you’re from a country that is further advanced on that front – or at least pretends not to do racism, and keeps these sort of comments under wraps.

Such sentiments aren’t just aimed at Palestinians, both within the occupied territories and inside Israel. The hostility to “others” also finds a target in the African asylum seekers who have perilously crossed into Israel, mostly via the Sinai desert border with Egypt, and mostly from Sudan and Eritrea. Numbering some 60,000, these refugees (called “infiltrators” in Israel) were memorably described as a “cancer” by the current culture minister, back in 2012.

The government’s pretty open animosity to African refugees is mirrored on the streets…


The government’s pretty open animosity to African refugees is mirrored on the streets, where there have been sporadic attacks and bursts of violence over the past few years. During a spate of such attacks in 2012, the Israeli historian Tom Segev, voiced concern about the “racist atmosphere”, adding that: “For several years now, Israel society has been moving in that direction.”

There’s also the treatment of Ethiopian Jewish citizens, which recently made the international front pages when thousands protested after video footage emerged of a police officer beating up an Ethiopian Israeli soldier. At that time, one Ethiopian Israeli told the UK’s Independent newspaper: “This country is racist from the bottom up.

Just days ago, violent clashes with police erupted on Israel’s streets as Ethiopians protested against the decision to close the investigation of the police officer responsible for that attack on the soldier in May.

Disparaging ethnic focus 

Meanwhile, a strain of this same disparaging ethnic focus resides in the recent analysis – or psychobabble, if you prefer – unleashed in a series of op-eds penned by Israel’s former ambassador to the US, Michael Oren.

Plugging a book about relations between the two BFF countries, Oren suggested that US President Barack Obama is, among other things, unduly keen to appease the Arab Muslim world because of a sort of unresolved “Muslim Daddy complex“, the result of being “abandoned” by his Muslim father and step-father. This crass speculation, rehearsed just over a week ago, hardly needs taking apart – but if you want the spectacle, the internet has already done a great job there.

Israeli Interior Minister Silvan Shalom and his wife Judy in 2003 [Getty]Israeli Interior Minister Silvan Shalom and his wife Judy in 2003 [Getty]

All in all, these past few weeks haven’t been too great for Israeli PR. In the mix with the racist Mozes tweet and Oren’s outlandish assertions was the South-Park-style cartoon released by Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), mocking international journalists who covered the Gaza war last summer.

Some 2,200 Palestinians, including 500 children, were killed during Israel’s 50-day military operation in 2014. The MFA clip shows an idiotic, American-accented journalist making statements about life in Gaza that are entirely detached from the scenes unfolding behind him: describing a place with “no terrorists, just ordinary people”, while militants carry rockets behind him; framing the tunnels that militants are shown using to attack Israel, as “a fascinating attempt by Hamas to build a subway system”.

‘Misleading and poorly conceived’

At the end of the 50-second clip, the journalist is given a pair of glasses and told: “Maybe now you’ll see the reality of life under Hamas rule.” The cartoon was released just ahead of the UN’s report on the conflict in Gaza, which Israel has dismissed as biased. 

Universally denounced as unhelpful and offensive, described as “misleading and poorly conceived” by Israel’s foreign press association, the cartoon was removed from the foreign ministry’s website a few days ago.

Palestinian children play next the remains of their house in Gaza City [AFP]Palestinian children play next the remains of their house in Gaza City [AFP]

This, however, isn’t the first time the MFA has caused heads to shake at the somewhat juvenile, tone-deaf comedic content it has issued.

In 2010, Israel was forced to apologise for a YouTube spoof video put out by its press office, mocking activists aboard the Gaza flotilla. Nine people aboard the aid-bearing boats heading for the strip were killed by Israeli forces – which is one of the reasons why the video, featuring Israeli activists, waving weapons while singing: “We con the world, we con the people,” was deemed to be in such poor taste. 

Earlier that year, the Israeli foreign ministry had sent reporters recommendations for a gourmet restaurant in Gaza, anticipating that journalists would travel to the blockaded strip to report on “alleged humanitarian difficulties” and keen to establish the fine dining and other markers of high-quality living in the Hamas-controlled enclave. 

How Israelis view themselves

But the problem inherent to all this supposedly hilarious content is precisely how out of touch it is with sentiment outside of the country. Israel’s ever-mounting “hasbara” (or PR or just plain propaganda) efforts are premised on the operational assumption that criticism of the nation’s policies is unwarranted and unjustified.

By this logic, it isn’t the policies being criticised – the occupation, the Gaza wars – that are the problem, but rather some kind of glitch in the way the policies are coming across, or some dysfunction (ignorance, stupidity or anti-Semitism) in the people appraising them.

In a continuously reinforcing loop, this is pretty much how Israelis view themselves, while at the same time absorbing the same message from politicians and domestic media. And so, paradoxically, Israel’s efforts to improve its image just keep making things worse – as the past few weeks of mis-tweets and misfiring “humour” have demonstrated.

Such incidents, part of a wider campaign of public diplomacy, have made Israel look like a strangely disconnected, self-serving echo-chamber. While the government perceives its hasbara efforts to be helping the nation ride high on a wave of righteousness, the sad reality is that the country is increasingly isolated and adrift, cast away on a wave of its own delusion.

Rachel Shabi is a journalist and author of Not the Enemy: Israel’s Jews from Arab Lands.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.