A muted response in the blogosphere persuaded me to write about Israeli interior minister Eli Yishai’s now not-so-recent remark, which I’ve come to think of as ‘the “white man” comment’. If you missed it, in June 2012 Yishai, responding to criticism of Israel’s treatment of African migrants, claimed that: “Muslims that arrive here do not even believe that this country belongs to us, to the white man.”

Amid staggering incitements to xenophobia by its politicians, Yishai’s statement was perhaps the most quietly telling of a certain Israeli psyche. And even if a few bloggers have pointed to a possible distortion of Yishai’s words, the ultra-orthodox intelligentsia in Israel has an embarrassing history (see ‘Who America belongs to’) with respect to this sort of thinking.

On the surface the comment reminded me of Museveni’s stated hope, in a 1997 Kinshasa speech, that Africans might be able to overcome their Anglophone/Francophone divisions and create a Bantuphone Africa. What about us, the Nilote-speaking Acholis and Langi in the North of his own country, wondered. And what also about the whole of non-Bantuphone West Africa?

But while M7 can be forgiven for knowing little about Africa’s complex linguistic realities, Yishai is surely aware that half of Israel’s population are Sephardi/Mizrahi (intellectuals like Ella Shohat prefer the term Mizrahi). In fact a few bloggers were quick to point out that Yishai’s own parents had made Aliyah from Tunisia. Peter Beinart has written on similar tensions and prejudices which surface between the Sephardi and Ashkenazi wings of his own family.

But there’s so much more nuance to unpack, and most analyses don’t go nearly deep enough.

The late British historian Tony Judt argued that Israel’s dilemma is not that it is a European “enclave” in the Arab world “but rather that it arrived too late.” Judt is referring to the anachronism of founding in the middle of the 20th century “a state in which Jews and the Jewish religion have exclusive privileges from which non-Jewish citizens are forever excluded.”

But Yishai did not say, “This country belongs to the Jew.” If he had, it would have been taken as the familiar hasbara. The choice of words seemed instead to signal something more interesting, the possibility of ethno-national transformation, and suggested another anachronism at work: was Yishai preparing Olim to be ready to acquiesce to the necessity of becoming white?

In How the Irish became white, American historian Noel Ignatiev explains that, in 19th century America, “white” was not a physical description but one term of a social relation which could not exist without its opposite.” Ignatiev was describing the process by which Irish migrants proved their whiteness through violence and hostility toward free blacks. And the Irish were not alone: in the early 1900s Southern and Eastern Europeans occupied the same indeterminate racial terrain, a purgatorial proving ground, until they too demonstrated fitness to be seen as white.

Israeli society is partly analogous to that of historic America, albeit infinitely more complex. There’s every appearance that two paths exist to full citizenship in the Jewish state: whiteness and Jewishness. And while it might seem intuitive to the wider world that Jewishness would be of greater importance, this is far from certain.

A 1970 amendment to the country’s Law of Return (LOR) relaxed the definition of a Jew to offer refuge to anyone that would have faced persecution under the Nazis’ Nuremberg laws. Prior to that, only those meeting halachic (religious law) standards were admitted. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Israel accepted a significant number of migrants, at least 100,000, perhaps twice that number, with tenuous or no Jewish ancestry whatever.

Many adherents of Russian orthodoxy migrated to Israel for economic reasons, and did so using forged documents and the loosened application of LOR. Ironically, many citizens of the former Soviet Union, Jewish or goyim, departed for Israel simply because their preferred destination—the U.S—had been closed to them because “Israel persuaded the United States to cap the number of Soviet refugees. Germany also virtually ended Jewish immigration after being pressured to do so by Israel in early 1991,” according to conservative think tank, the Cato Institute.

Israel welcomed Russians immigrants for several reasons. Since 1973, the US State Department has provided annual refugee and migration grants to support the integration of Jews returning from the Diaspora. In 1992, when Soviet emigration reached its peak, the U.S. Congress approved an amount of $80 million for use in the housing and integration of emigrants.

According to a 2001 Jerusalem Post essay “U.S. government support is closely tied to the number of immigrants, a substantial decrease in that number would cost the Jewish Agency a significant chunk of its operating budget. Pressured to produce “numbers,” emissaries find it much easier to round up those with minimal or no Jewish connection than to concentrate on the smaller pool of Jews.”

But a willingness to grant citizenship to non-Jews cannot be attributed solely to fiscal concerns. The former USSR was home to very many underemployed scientists and professionals. As historian Shlomo Sand notes in The Invention of the Jewish people, “[Israel’s] pragmatic needs were too strong to exclude other white immigrants,” even though “this…situation forced lawmakers to balance the narrow definition of the Jew by widening significantly the right of Aliyah.”

Unsurprising then that in 1999, amid heated debate in the Knesset over tightening LOR precisely because of the entry of non-Jews, Ehud Barak reportedly shouted: “If only we had one million more Russian immigrants.”

Barak also told the press that he considers the incomers from the ex-Soviet Union “the greatest gift Israel has received since its establishment.”

These sentiments stand in sharp contrast to the treatment and reception of Falash Mura, Abyssinian crypto-Jews whose ancestors converted to Christianity to avoid persecution. Ironically, it was Eli Yishai, during a previous term as Interior Minister, who declared, “I see the pain and I intend to do everything possible to ease the terrible suffering and bring all the Jews left in Ethiopia to Israel.”

Despite Yishai’s vow, Israel for several years maintained a controversial monthly quota of 300 for arriving Falash Mura, and granted members citizenship only on condition of conversion to Orthodox Judaism. It is thought that as many as 30,000 Falash Mura remain in Ethiopia and yet, significantly, Israel’s government announced in 2010 that it would close Ethiopian Aliyah with a final airlift of 8000 before 2014.

Even Beta Israel, Ethiopian Jews recognized as “fully Jewish” as far back as the 16th century, faced hostility and institutional discrimination before and after being airlifted to Israel in the early 1990s. A senior official at the Jewish Agency claimed that  “[taking] a Falasha (sic) out of his village, it’s like taking a fish out of water…I’m not in favor of bringing them [to Israel].”

In contrast, Russian Christians have faced little pressure in the Holy Land to assimilate. Cultural familiarity and the value attached to their technological skills render moot their adherence to another faith. Russian goyim readily learn Hebrew and serve in the IDF but their numbers and non-conversion have altered the country’s Jewish character. Butchers selling pork are now common, as is the sight of IDF soldiers wearing crucifixes.

There have been unintended consequences. According to the Jerusalem Post, “the derogatory Russian term for Jews, “Zhid”, is now commonly heard on Israel’s streets and anti-Semitic graffiti graces cities with large Russian-speaking populations like Ashkelon and Ashdod.” In 2006, Haaretz reported that neo-Nazi street gangs from the former USSR had terrorized an ultra-orthodox community for two years.

The considerations— socioeconomic and ethnocultural—that account for disparate treatment of migrants are not arbitrary. Israeli political scientist Shlomo Avineri explains that Ashkenazim dominated political and economic life in Israel from its founding. Subsequent “Jewish immigration from mainly Arab countries in the 1950s and 1960s gave rise to ‘Middle Eastern’ cultural patterns. With it, the perception that Israel is a ‘European-type’ country—situated in the Middle East by coincidence only—became increasingly contested. The recent Jewish mass immigration from the former Soviet Union changed the balance once more toward ‘European’ cultural patterns.”

“In fact,” posits Sand, “Zionism was part of the last wave of nationalist awakening in Europe, and coincided with the rise of other identity-shaping ideologies on the Continent.” Although West European Jews were involved in its formation, Zionism’s real incubator was the “secular modern Yiddishist civilization densely packed into the cities and towns of Poland, the Ukraine, Lithuania, Russia and Romania.”

According to Sand, with time the character of Western Europe’s nationalisms tended broadly to become more civically and politically inclusive and tolerant of minorities. Whereas in Germany and further east—Russia, Poland, Hungary—“ethnobiological and ethnoreligious ideologies triumphed.”

Zionism was thus simply another strand of the then-flourishing mittel-European instinct toward “tribal” nationhood, and as it gained ideological strength what arose with it was a powerful wish among the leadership to prove beyond doubt that the Jews were a biological and historical entity, a race, perhaps not wholly pure in blood, but with shared descent from Abraham; a people that had managed to remain largely distinct and apart from the societies in which they lived for centuries. Jewish scientists and theorists—Ber Berochov, Arthur Ruppin, Aaron Sandler, Jabotinsky—generated racial, even eugenic theories that paralleled the thinking produced by the Third Reich.

And yet, Sand points out, a “profoundly Eurocentric outlook was even stronger than the concept of the Jewish race.” The aforementioned Ruppin, a longtime correspondent of Hans Günther, the father of Nazi race science (who Ruppin visited in Germany even after Hitler’s rise), wrote In The Jews of To-Day, “the Jews have not only preserved their great natural racial gifts but through a long process of selection, these gifts have been strengthened. Perhaps owing to this…selection Ashkenazim are […] superior in activity, intelligence and scientific capacity to the Sephardim and Arabian Jews, in spite of […] common ancestry.”

Growing belief in a Jewish essentialism in turn fed a desire to acquire and settle sovereign territory. For if Jews constituted an ethnos and were not merely the scattered adherents of an ancient monotheism then they possessed a claim as compelling as that of Poles or Germans to a land of their own. In pursuing a deliberate strategy of nation formation, the mostly secular Zionist leaders saw the expedience of enlisting Judaism’s “religious imaginary” as the basis on which to reconstitute an ancient “exiled” people long assimilated into disparate cultures across the old and new worlds.

Subscription to racial theories receded among Zionist theorists just as it did in the wider scientific discourse. Through Aliyah, the country became ever more ethnically and culturally diverse, and yet in the realms of business, politics, and academia a de facto Ashkenazi pre-eminence has endured.

And periodic allusions in the media to a “demographic time bomb” discloses the persistence of an orientalist and ethnocentric worldview that cuts across religious and cultural backgrounds. These coded words have been invoked in connection with Israeli Arabs, and Mizrahim (see pg. 22), but also with the Ultra Orthodox and Russian goyim. And of course there is the ongoing existential peril of the Muslim Arab presence in the Occupied Territories and the wider Levant.

The consequence of several decades of ad hoc demographic policy and tactical political maneuvering is that today’s Israel is a precarious, unsustainable and bewildering amalgam of religious and tribal sectarianism, eurocentrism, ethno-nationalism and neoliberal economics. As a polity Israel at times displays a startling contempt and ambivalence for the wider world. Internally, spheres of liberalism exist that rival those in Western countries but there are also great lacunae: the ongoing occupation and subjugation in the occupied territories, of course, but also that civil marriages and burials are inexistent; such matters are governed solely by religious authorities. Sammy Smooha of Haifa University implicitly rejects the assertion that the term “Jewish democracy” contains no internal contradictions by classifying Israel, with Slovakia and Estonia, as an “incomplete” or “ethnic” democracy.

It is not difficult, with a little research, to delineate a hierarchy predicated on socioeconomic and ethnic-cultural categories. In such a society, African “infiltrators” necessarily occupy an unequivocal and lowly position. Economic migrants like the Russian Christians, they are nonetheless viewed as too poor, unskilled and dusky to be offered Israeli citizenship on the grounds of “whiteness.” Ironically, while African migrants would likely be willing, if the choice were offered, to convert to Orthodox Judaism so as to gain citizenship, this is inconceivable.

The violence against Sudanese and Eritrean migrants (one overlooked dimension of the spectacle in Tel Aviv is that it produced images which overturned a familiar, even well-worn visual trope of industrialized countries: the looting and destruction by blacks of Jewish-owned shops) revealed a crude and virulent racism entirely unrelated to the ongoing dehumanization of occupation. However, Africans, unlike Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, were for a brief time “permitted” to enter and live in Israel proper.

All that said, it is most probable that Yishai’s words were directed not at Mizrahi would-be Olim (scarcely any remain, and persuading Persian Jews to make Aliyah is in any case not an official priority), but to a different audience: Zionists in the European and American Diaspora, which in Sand’s words “have the option to emigrate to Israel…but have chosen not to live under Jewish sovereignty and prefer to retain another nationality.”

As he explains, “the old nationalist discourse that revolved around the idea of Aliyah has lost much of its appeal … today, Israel’s strength no longer depends on demographic increase but rather on retaining the loyalty of overseas Jewish organizations and communities.” In fact, “It would be a serious setback for Israel … if all the pro-Zionist lobbies were to immigrate en masse to the Holy Land.”

As Yiddish culture in the U.S has waned, America’s Jews, predominantly of East European stock, have developed greater attachment to Israel. Diaspora Jews provide invaluable financial and political support to Israel even if, as Sand observes, they “do not understand the language of the nation supposed to be theirs.”

Two fatal trends are working gradually to undermine the present status quo: younger Western Jews are, progressively, less unquestioningly supportive of Israel than their parents; and the number of Jews leaving the Jewish state exceeds that of those entering. Israelis are relocating to Europe as well as the US; Germany has the world’s fastest growing Jewish population. The absurd goal of Philip Roth’s doppelganger in Operation Shylock, to ignite a reverse exodus of Jews from the Levant to Europe, no longer seems quite so absurd.

In the short term, however, Faustian bargains continue to be struck that are intended to ensure that the Holy Land remains in the right hands.