Every once in a while, a spectacle of racism or violence is so grotesque it stops an entire society in its tracks, elicits widespread condemnation, and forces a reckoning upon it. The display can take different forms: a white woman calling the police on a Black birdwatcher in a public park, a torch-lit rally by the far-right at a Confederate statue, or an officer kneeling on someone’s neck for nearly nine minutes.
Israel saw its own spectacle over the weekend after a video surfaced of Roy Oz, a popular Israeli children’s entertainer who goes by his stage name “Roy Boy,” treating Bedouin children as if they were zoo animals while on a family trip. The video, filmed from Oz’s point of view, shows him turning to his own children sitting in the backseat of his car, holding up a cookie to the camera, and asking if they want to feed two Bedouin boys standing next to the vehicle.
Oz then offers the cookie to the boys, who ask for money. He responds in Arabic, asking them how much they want. “A thousand shekels?” The children say they want “10 shekels,” or even a single agora (the equivalent of a quarter of a cent). The contrast between Oz’s own children — clean, happy, wearing winter coats inside their family’s car — and the Bedouin children — poor, wearing tattered clothes, and unaware of their being mocked and exploited — was too much to bear.
The video, which was filmed in 2015 but surfaced on TikTok last Saturday, went viral on social media and was condemned by Israelis across the political spectrum. Oz’s Facebook page was filled with angry commenters who cursed him for his blatant racism — some even going so far as to wish death upon him — while others announced they were cancelling tickets to his shows. Meanwhile, Israeli police announced that they had launched an investigation into the incident. The backlash prompted Oz to publish three separate apologies (one of them in broken Arabic), but it was too late: Roy Boy had been cancelled by Israeli society.
For many Israelis, the wall-to-wall condemnation has served as a sign of a healthy society — one that has zero tolerance for any kind of racism, especially when it degrades children. But Israeli society is not a healthy one, and the widespread censure of one racist actually does far more to preclude a real reckoning with what has been built here. The fact that very few Israelis would film the mockery of young Bedouin children does not make Oz an aberration from a society that elects leaders who regularly incite against the country’s Palestinian citizens, warn of a third Nakba, and liken the birthrate among Bedouin women in the Naqab/Negev Desert to a “bomb” that Israel needs to defuse.
Washing our hands clean of Oz requires little effort, and allows us to avoid asking what kind of society produces this type of behavior. It is easy to pin all of our ills on the brazen racist or the violent settler. It is far more difficult to come to grips with the fact that Oz is only an extreme example of an ideology that the vast majority of Israeli Jews buy into.
Zionism’s unending frontier
In response to the video, Haaretz television critic Ariana Melamed published a scathing takedown of both Oz and the discussions surrounding the clip, focusing on the ways in which anti-Palestinian racism has become commonplace across Israeli television stations. Melamed states that racism alone is “not a criminal offense,” and the panacea she offers is early education — a “national effort that the right-wing government does not want.”
Yet Melamed doesn’t go nearly far enough to uncover the roots of racism in this country, which go far beyond the current government, and to which the Bedouin community is particularly vulnerable. In order to understand the society that has raised and enabled Oz, one must understand that the same society is deeply in the throes of a colonial project — one that views Bedouins as an obstacle to the Judaization of the entire country.
More than half of the 200,000 Bedouin citizens in the Naqab live in 37 “unrecognized” villages. Israel deems that the villages lie on “state land,” and thus views their inhabitants as “trespassers” or “squatters” — words frequently invoked in the political and public discourse. Successive governments have repeatedly refused to provide these villages with any semblance of a planning structure, municipal authority, or utilities such as water and electricity.
Israel has used a number of measures to pressure Bedouins into relocating to one of seven impoverished, government-planned townships — the only new localities built for Israel’s Palestinians since 1948. Principal among these methods are demolitions: the village of Al-Araqib, for example, has been destroyed over 170 times. Another stark case is Umm al-Hiran, which the state sought to raze and build the Jewish town of Hiran atop its ruins; during one demolition raid in 2017, Israeli police shot and killed resident Ya’qoub Abu al-Qi’an while trying to drive out of the village, inadvertently killing an officer as a result.
These are not isolated incidents, but pieces of a wider policy aimed at erasing thousands of Bedouins from large areas of the Naqab. Years ago, that policy took the form of the “Prawer Plan,” which, after a lengthy struggle, Bedouin activists were able to stop in 2013.
But the effort continues: In 2015, the Israeli government approved a plan to establish five new settlements in the Naqab, some to be built directly where unrecognized Bedouin villages already exist; activists from the Bedouin community, nearby development towns, and environmental groups formed a coalition to successfully stop the plans in 2018.
Most recently, in late 2019, Israeli planning authorities put forth two plans to provide “temporary solutions for housing, public needs, and related services for the Bedouin population.” According to the legal rights center Adalah, the plan’s basic aim — despite what the government may claim — is to transfer the residents of unrecognized villages to temporary encampments for up to six years. As with Hiran, the government is reportedly planning on using the land to build towns primarily designated for middle-class Jewish Israeli families.
On Tuesday, two days after Oz’s video surfaced, Haaretz reported that the Jewish National Fund is preparing to plant trees across 10,000 acres of land adjacent to the Bedouin communities of Shaqib al-Salam and Abu Talul. Local residents and experts say this is an attempt to prevent Bedouin residents from accessing the land.
All of these policies — which Bedouin citizens have been subjected to since 1948 — stem from a colonial logic that covets the land, plunders it, and “redeems” it in Jewish hands. This logic has always formed the crux of Zionist ideology, whether through the Jewish National Fund’s policies of erasure and dispossession inside the Green Line, or the ideological settlers seeking to conquer every hilltop in the occupied West Bank. The Naqab is but another unending frontier of the Zionist imaginary, and as in the occupied territories, those who remain on the land will always be in direct confrontation with that logic.
When we think about the “cancelling” of Roy Oz, then, we must also ask ourselves where upstanding Jewish Israelis were when Ya’qoub Abu Al-Qi’an was shot dead by police. Had it not been for a small group of activists, journalists, and members of Knesset who documented the killing (including Joint List MK Ayman Odeh, who was shot in the head by the police with a rubber bullet during that same raid), many Israelis would still be parroting the police’s baseless allegation — which was immediately picked up by the media — that Abu Al-Qi’an was an ISIS-inspired terrorist.
Where was Jewish-Israeli society when Al-Araqib was demolished for the 173rd time in January? Where was the chorus of righteous Israeli anger and solidarity when Bedouin citizens put their bodies on the line and stopped the Prawer Plan and the displacement of thousands from their land?
They were nowhere to be found precisely because the vast majority of Israelis abide by colonial logic. Making the desert bloom has, by all accounts, been viewed as something to aspire to: a boon for the nation and its upper middle class. The ability to disconnect the structural violence meted out to Bedouin citizens from Oz’s display of arrogant racism is a reminder that Israelis want to enjoy the fruits of colonialism without having to face the inevitable: our supremacism in its ugliest, most malevolent form.
A real reckoning
After I published Oz’s video on my Twitter account on Saturday night, along with a caption that called his behavior the “face of the Jewish state in 2020,” I received a slew of responses that I hadn’t anticipated. The video rattled many, prompting some to resort to antisemitism and labeling Israelis “Nazis” and “soulless people.” Others were angered by the caption, which they viewed as dishonest and misleading.
The first allegation is not only racist and untrue, it also fails to view Israelis as full human beings with the capacity for both good and evil. Israeli Jews are neither soulless nor Nazis. We are, however, actively taking part in and benefiting from a regime that dispossesses indigenous people of their land, and thus needs to be transformed. No matter how much we are loath to admit it, that regime is the face of Jewish-Israeli society, regardless of how many times society near-unanimously denounces individual acts of racism.
That Oz’s video has sparked moral outrage without much soul-searching is by no means a uniquely Israeli problem. For years, video footage of American police officers killing Black men failed to move the public to confront the country’s bloody bequest. The now infamous confrontation in New York City’s Central Park between Amy Cooper, a white woman, and Christian Cooper, a Black birdwatcher (no relation), followed by the police’s murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis just days later, sparked a full-blown uprising with unprecedented support by white Americans. Real conversations subsequently emerged about structural racism in institutions from the police to major news organizations.
Israeli Jews are not doomed to take part in colonial conquest. We are not fated to plunder and treat Palestinians as impediments to our national redemption. Our destiny need not be a choice between Roy Oz and a society that washes its hands clean of his behavior. But to find another way, we will first have to transform ourselves, our relationship to this land, and its people.