Does Israel “Blackwash” to deflect international scrutiny?

It would be an understatement to say that Israel’s international standing is not so spectacular at the moment. Between the continued occupation of Palestine, last year’s war in Gaza, and a belligerent government, there is little doubt that fewer and fewer of the world’s citizens hold a positive view of the country. The Israeli government, determined to fix what it considers an image problem rather than its underlying causes, has embarked on a mission of hasbara: to “explain” Israel’s policy positions to the international community, and engender sympathy for Israel.

One axis of this response – colossally ineffective as it is – concentrates on Israel’s role in development and aid projects across Sub-Saharan Africa. The press promotes Israeli medical efforts in the “Ebola zone” in West Africa. They celebrate the supposedly vital role of Israeli firms in irrigation projects in Malawi. Informational media is replete with stories like Israel’s “heroic” rescuers in Madagascar. All this despite the fact that Israel gives a lesser proportion of its national income to aid than similarly wealthy countries – even less than debt-laden Greece.

Is this “blackwashing?” i.e, using black bodies to justify Israel’s military aggressions and human rights violations.

We are now familiar with “pinkwashing” – efforts by states to distract attention from human rights abuses by concentrating on a supposedly-progressive LGBT rights record. Though most known in the case of Israel, whose record of using gay rights to justify or distract from the Occupation is well established, it has also been well-noted in the Netherlands, Britain, and Scandinavia. Yet blackwashing is a term that has also surfaced. In the Israeli context, it describes state efforts to market a country known to have forcefully given birth control to its citizens of Ethiopian descent as friendly to blacks. Here, however, I think there is another angle of blackwashing: Israel vis-à-vis African countries.

Israel blackwashes by marketing itself as a development savior to African countries. It seeks to portray itself as a “good country” through the tired trope of “helping Africa.” This is a contentious if not specious depiction of Israel’s relations with African countries. Let us leave aside Israel’s horrific domestic racism; blackwashing is aimed at a foreign audience – not least, a young Jewish American public, increasingly skeptical of Israel’s actions.

What does “blackwashing” entail? The discourse pivots on two figures: technology donation and the white savior.

Firstly, blackwashing is closely tied to Israel’s marketing as a “start-up nation.” The work of technology firms such as Netafim in providing irrigation drips to countries like Senegal is frequently celebrated in Israeli media. Israel advocacy groups produce clickbait-laden paeans to technological aid with titles like “The Top 12 Ways Israel Feeds The World” or detailing how Israel “restored carp to Lake Victoria.” In short, Israel is portrayed as the “big tech brother” helping Africans have a normal life. I imagine many of the writers of this article think, “in this framework, how could Israel be colonial?” (Little do they know…)

Israel’s defenders also deploy the figure of the “white savior.” The Ministry of Foreign Affairs details how Israeli assistance was apparently more than that of other Western states, and emphasizes a narrative of continued assistance from Israel to newly independent African states. They are silent on Israel’s continued financial, military, and political support for South Africa’s apartheid regime, or that African governments balked at Israel’s policies after the Yom Kippur War. Rather, the focus is on Israel as the helper, the essential assister, and the carrier of the new white man’s burden of “assistance” and “investment.” This robs agency from the Africans who have by and large managed these projects. In addition, the Israelis profiled in this effort are overwhelmingly Ashkenazi and white –the work of Ethiopian Israelis is well…whitewashed.

I do not want to dismiss the potential positive benefits of these projects – although, as amply noted on these pages, such initiatives often hurt more than help.  Rather, I want to return to a central point: that the Israeli state is using these projects to raise its international profile and image. Yet a central truth remains: no number of aid initiatives or stylish projects can undo the scar of the Occupation. To use the tired trope of the technologically-advanced white savior on a civilizing or aid mission to the poor black body as a marketing ploy appropriates African experiences to serve a colonial project. Call it blackwashing, call it inappropriate, but this emphasis in Israel’s rhetoric on “the aid-giver” distracts from the wider implication of this state’s policy.

Jonathan Paul Katz

Jonathan Paul Katz is an American/South African writer and MSc Migration Studies candidate at Oxford University. He is a regular contributor at the Jewish Daily Forward and until recently at New Voices Magazine.

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