There is nothing ‘natural’ about police racism

Israel’s police chief angered Israelis when he claimed it is ‘natural’ to suspect Ethiopians. But his remarks are simply a reflection of where Israeli society is at today.

By Galia Boneh

Police Commissioner Roni Alsheikh. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Police Commissioner Roni Alsheikh. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Police Chief Roni Alsheikh’s recent comments, according to which it is “natural” for police to be suspicious of Ethiopian Israelis, stirred much controversy. They also lead to an important public discussion, exemplifying how structural racism works, and how racist acts in the name of public service gain legitimacy from the top echelon.

In parallel, however, they also allowed the public to characterize Alsheikh as a racist, to renounce him while absolving ourselves of responsibility. In his book Between the World and Me, African-American journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates writes the following:

At this moment the phrase ‘police reform’ has come into vogue, and the actions of our publicly appointed guardians have attracted attention presidential and pedestrian. You may have heard the talk of diversity, sensitivity training, and body cameras. These are all fine and applicable, but they understate the task and allow the citizens of this country to pretend that there is real distance between their own attitudes and those of the ones appointed to protect them. The truth is that the police reflect America in all of its will and fear, and whatever we might make of this country’s criminal justice policy, it cannot be said that it was imposed by a repressive minority.

Although Coates is writing about the situation in the United States, his words resonate here as well. It is easy to be outraged and shirk responsibility for the police chief’s remarks. It is less comfortable to think about how they reflect and represent us, and to remember that all the injustices carried out by Israel’s police against Ethiopians — was well as against Arabs, asylum seekers, and other persecuted groups — are the result of our desires as a society.

Coates continues:

…There was no golden era when evildoers did their business and loudly proclaimed it as such. ‘We would prefer to say that such people cannot exist, that there aren’t any,’ writes Solzhenitsyn. ‘To do evil a human being must first of all believe that what he’s doing is good, or else that it’s a well-considered act in conformity with natural law.’

Natural law. It is no coincidence that the police chief enlisted natural law to justify the police’s racist conduct. “Nature” is the ultimate justification — one cannot become angry over something natural. Like an earthquake or a tsunami, one can feel a deep pain over loss, but the forces of nature are not something we can judge; there is no one to get angry at, since they are out of our control. Thus the attempt to change natural law is doomed to failure, despite the fact that any attempt to do so is greatly appreciated. At least someone is trying.

Police push demonstrators back during a protest against police brutality targeting Israelis of Ethiopian descent, July 3, 2016. (Oren Ziv/
Police push demonstrators back during a protest against police brutality targeting Israelis of Ethiopian descent, July 3, 2016. (Oren Ziv/

But Alsheikh is not the only one who says racism is natural. This was the most common argument I heard over the past year, during which I analyzed the issue of racism as part of my studies at the Mandel School for Educational Leadership. For example, at a conference toted “Are We Racist?” at Hebrew University in April, one of the speakers said that skin color is a symbol that naturally distinguishes between groups, and that a group’s natural proclivity is to despise and deny “the other.” Thus, it was said, without constant intervention by societal forces, the human mind will inevitably lead us to racism.

How are these remarks so different from those made by the police chief? Are there readers out there who agree with this claim? The argument that racism is natural ostensibly recognizes the existence of racism (a brave recognition, as the supporters of Alsheikh claimed), yet this argument hides more than it reveals, while making it difficult to understand the fundamental problem: it defines racism as a problem of the human mind, rather than of society.

Racism is the product of social construction — historical constructions that our society built both locally and globally, which maintain and are maintained through our institutions and culture. The police, with all of its racist conduct, is one of many mechanisms we have established in order to maintain our social structures. The police arrest and exclude black and brown people — as well as other minorities — since the public does not want to see them in public spaces. Not because policemen have a natural proclivity to arrest them.

We would better address our problems if only we stop explaining social phenomenons as “natural,” and instead think about whom they serve, in whose name they take place, and how each and every one of us perpetuate them.

Dr. Galia Boneh is a fellow at the Mandel School for Educational Leadership. This article was first published in Hebrew on Haokets. Read it here.

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