Netanyahu on how his old U.S. high school ‘changed’

More evidence that his racism doesn’t stop at Arabs.

I’ve never written about a particular comment Bibi Netanyahu made when I interviewed him in the summer of 1993, because as objective evidence of anti-black racism, it’s not exactly slam-dunk.

But this weekend Netanyahu accused Israel’s friendliest, most unthreatening Arab public figure, broadcaster-turned-candidate Zohair Bahloul, of “praising Hezbollah” in a court testimony. What Bahloul actually said was the exact opposite. For Netanyahu this was a personal low in terms of anti-Arab racism, which takes some effort. And recently I saw a Washington Post account of the blatant anti-Hispanic racism Netanyahu showed in a 2002 speech to white Texans, which was perfectly in line with the anti-Hispanic attitudes he expressed in his 1993 book “A Place Among the Nations – Israel and the World.”

So even if the evidence I’ve gathered of Netanyahu’s anti-black racism is not conclusive, not undeniable, it was a tell-tale sign as far as I’m concerned. And between his documented disdain for Hispanics and his ever-deepening contempt for Arabs, Netanyahu is coming into focus not just as an Israeli Jewish hater of Arabs, but as an old-fashioned white bigot. So I want to put that comment he made to me in early summer 1993 on the record.

Netanyahu had just been elected leader of the Likud, and I was doing a magazine profile of him. The interview, conducted in English, took place in his Jerusalem office. Before we started, we made small talk, and I mentioned the high school he’d gone to, Cheltenham High, just outside Philadelphia. He said it had been a very good school when he was there in the mid-60s. Then, with a conspiratorial expression on his face, he added:

“It’s changed.”

His meaning was clear to me: Cheltenham was a good, white school when he was there, then the blacks moved in and it went to hell. There’s no other reasonable interpretation of those words in the mouth of a person who lived in America in the 1960s and 1970s, when they’re directed in private, presumably off the record, to an American immigrant of roughly the same age, and when they’re accompanied by a conspiratorial look on one’s face.

The Wikipedia entry on Cheltenham High School, one of the oldest in Pennsylvania, says that as of the 2011-12 school year, the student body there was 49% Black, 40% White, 7% Asian, 3% Hispanic, and 1% Native American.

In the mid-1960s, high schools in traditionally white, wealthy suburbs of big American cities like Philadelphia didn’t have that sort of ethnic breakdown – they were all or nearly all white. Later, many of them, including Netanyahu’s alma mater, “changed.”

Why did he make that remark with that expression on his face during the warm-up for our interview? I figure it was because he wanted to gauge whether he was going to be talking to his kind of Jewish immigrant to Israel, or to a liberal. (As I remember, I nodded without expression in response to his remark.)

Netanyahu’s supporters can easily dismiss this anecdote as meaningless, as the purely subjective interpretation by an inveterate Bibiphobe of a two-word comment and a facial expression. But for those who aren’t Netanyahu supporters, and who know something about “changing neighborhoods” and “white flight” in America from the 1970s on, what else could he have meant? In the context of his views of Hispanics, not to mention his bottomless contempt for Arabs, together with his generally superior, cynical, narrow, rigid worldview and character, the logical – not to say obvious – way to understand what he was saying about his old high school was that it “changed” from white to black, or to racially integrated; i.e. from a good school to a bad school.

With all that’s known about Netanyahu, I think that taking those words to be innocent and unassuming would be a stretch. Instead, I think it’s fair to conclude on the basis of that anecdote that Netanyahu holds racist attitudes towards blacks.

To what extent, though, is an open question. For instance, his loathing of Obama – does it stem partly from white racism? I don’t think it’s fair to conclude that it does, but I do think that the question, in light of the above, is an interesting one to ponder.