Fair-complexioned Arabs and dark-complexioned Jews? Khalid Diab & politically driven stereotypes

A guest post by AKUS

In a recent post, CiF contributor Khalid Diab reflected on Arab and Israeli stereotypes. His article included the following:

On a lighter note, she [Israeli student Rachael studying Islam] recalls that their group included a couple of fair-complexioned Palestinians, one of whom even had red hair. This apparently threw some of the Israelis who expected all Palestinians to look “Arab”.

The majority of Diab’s article deals with what he believes is Israelis’ surprise at the ability of Arabs to hack Israeli computer systems and stereotypical responses such as the surprise of a West Bank Arab IT professional at discovering that Israelis are human beings just like himself.

But the above reference to Rachael’s friends’ surprise at seeing “fair-complexioned Palestinians” seems to say more about Diab’s prejudices than those of Rachael and her friends.

One of the common charges leveled at Israel by those who wish to challenge its legitimacy is that it is peopled by European colonists (who should pack up and “go back to Poland, Germany America and everywhere else” as Helen Thomas notably recommended). That Diab selected the issue of Israeli attitudes to Arab “complexions” in contrast to Arab accomplishments but without a similar example from an Arab suggests that he has a frame of reference which is roughly this:  Israelis are “light complexioned” and therefore are colonials, while Arabs are “ many complexioned” and therefore indigenous. Of course, it also implicitly implies that Israelis are (white) racists without any similar reference to Arab attitudes to “complexion”.

Diab even quotes an Israeli Arab woman from Nazareth who has absorbed the mantra of Jews as colonists:

“It’s not because [Jewish] Israelis don’t encounter Arabs. It’s just more comfortable for them to look down on us – it makes their colonial enterprise easier,” she contends. “If they acknowledge that we are similar, this will raise the uncomfortable question of why they don’t treat us as equals.” [emphasis added]

I would contend that the intifadas and the wedge-politics of Arab MKs and references to colonials with the implication that Jews do not belong in Israel (i.e. – which is really Arab Palestine) have had more to do with Jewish suspicions about their Arab fellow citizens than some imaginary “colonial enterprise”.

Of course, while many Israelis are “light-complexioned”, most are not. Even with the arrival of the Russian Jews in the 1980s the majority are descended from parents who fled from Arab countries in 1948-1951.

Jews who fled Iraq in 1951 register upon arrival in Israel.

To quote Diab, they “look Arab”. In addition, Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews frequently inter-marry so most Israelis are “dark-complexioned” to one degree or another. Diab seems to view Rachael and her friends as white, blue-eyed European colonials who expect their neighbors on the West Bank conform to a dark, brown-eyed Arab stereotype. 

In fact, as armies came and went in the region for millennia and left their DNA mixed in with Arab DNA, it is not surprising that one encounters blue-eyed or red-headed Arabs. King David was reputed to have had red hair.  Moreover, despite all the politically motivated claims, many Arabs in the West Bank, Israel, and Gaza are recent arrivals, contemporaneous with the growth of Jewish immigration attracted to a growing economy. They came from the corners of the Ottoman Empire, bringing with them the genes of millennia of wars, conquests, and inter-marriages. What seems to be happening here is that Diab frames his report about “complexions” around his own inability to accept that Jewish Israelis and Arab Israelis, and Arabs on the West Bank, can often be indistinguishable.

This is an interesting example of how political biases can simply blind someone to facts that are as obvious as – well, the color of someone’s complexion.

The constant repetition of the politically motivated idea that Israelis are white colonials (despite all evidence to the contrary) likely influences Diab to note that some Israelis may be surprised when some Arabs look just like them.

But it blinds him to the idea that some Arabs may be equally surprised to see that many Israelis look just like them. Perhaps this kind of prejudice is something he and others reporting on the Israeli-Arab conflict should consider – not only in terms of complexion, but how they frame the conflict across many dimensions.


20 replies »

  1. You quite gently but very competently unveiled a whole lot of malicious prejudice disguised as fashionable fact Akus. Nicely done.

  2. And that’s not even taking into account the not-insignificant number of Israelis who are black, of Ethiopian origins.

    The colloquial Arabic term for a black (African origins) person is “abd” – “slave”. But let’s not mention that. Or Darfur, where black muslims are being massacred by arab muslims in a truly antiracist spirit of universal islamic brotherhood. No, forget that. It’s Israel that is a racist, volkish, european colonial enterprise. Obviously.

  3. For many of the peoples of the world, genetics is a crap shoot.Especially those continents with multiple conquests over the centuries. You never know what the gene pool will kick up. Most people need to look no further than their own families to figure that one out.

  4. This is a very important area and I’m so glad you wrote this.

    Many Western lefties use a hellishly simplistic ‘paint chart’ approach to politics which goes something like this: if two groups are in conflict then the darker-skinned group must be in the right.

    Now, often that is true. But often it is not.

    And, as you wrote, that approach doesn’t work for Israel and the Palestinians. Arafat, Abbas and many other Palestinians are lighter-skinned than many Jewish Israelis.

    Thanks for your post!

  5. … suggests that he has a frame of reference which is roughly this: Israelis are “light complexioned” and therefore are colonials, while Arabs are “ many complexioned” and therefore indigenous.

    That’s unfair on Diab. He is saying no such thing.

    Of course, it also implicitly implies that Israelis are (white) racists without any similar reference to Arab attitudes to “complexion”.

    It only implies that if you really want to believe so.

    If you look at the article without such prejudiced eyes, you’ll see Diab’s point was that a lot of Jews and Arabs in the region do look similar.

    • Let’s say you’re right. What is the point of bringing up how Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs look alike if skin pigmentation wasn’t on the writer’s mind?

        • Without any proof, and to play devil’s advocate, isn’t it possible that this was on Diab’s mind? Let’s say Rachael did indeed show a bit of surprise by the light skinned, red haired Palestinian. How surprised? Not a paragraph’s worth (as in, a muted gasp) but a whole editorial’s worth (speeches, historical breakdown, etc)?

          I like to think I’m a writer, and I know what a writer is capable of. Not necessarily making mountains out of mole hills, but rather the ability to drive a discussion based on predetermined theories and thoughts.

          • This is, of course, assuming that Rachael is not normally a complete twit who wakes up in a whole new world every morning, AND that what she said is being correctly interpreted. “Hey, a redhead!” may mean, “Me too!” not “WOW, Arabs came in non-brunette?”

  6. One of the charming things I find as a (non-Jewish, non-Arab) foreigner living in Israel is the constant inability to distinguish between the two peoples. For example, a couple of months back I was taking a local Akko bus back from the Baha’i center there to Akko train station. The driver spent the entire journey talking to his friend, right in front of me. I couldn’t figure out if they were Arabs speaking Arabic with lots of Hebrew loan words (very common in that part of Israel) or Mizrahi Jews speaking Hebrew with an Arab accent (e.g. many older Mizrahim will still pronounce the ‘Ayn’ in the Arabic fashion).

  7. I agree with Pretzel – all the comments about assumptions were made by individuals on both sides. Diab’s point was precisely that these assumptions were false.

    However, I have to say that I find it hard to believe that there are many Israelis like “Rachael” who would be surprised to know that there are Arabs who are fair-skinned, blonde, red-headed or any other shade of complexion. That many people on both sides have prejudiced views of people on the other is beyond doubt, but not based on colour.

    As Mel points out, the interaction and constant exposure in the media (certainly in the Israeli media) leaves nobody with any room for doubt on this score.

    • You have a point there, i.e. KD might have wanted to talk to the rest of the group, not just Rachael.

  8. The race thing just feels like a battle that can never be won. It’s an intellectual construct about race, color and privilege that gets imposed with an agenda in mind, and therefore misses major aspects of the Israeli reality.

    Yes, Arabs come in blonde and redheaded. Yes, Jews cover the whole spectrum. And the popular myth that Ashkenazim are all light and Sephardim dark is pretty silly as well, as anyone who has bothered to meet a bunch of Jews would have noticed.

    I recall, years ago, being at an interfaith conference, and saying to a blonde woman with a Semitic face next to me, “Did your mom do that at Pesach as well?” “Well, no,” she said, “I’m Palestinian.” We laughed, and talked about something else. What amazed me was the response later, from (non-Jewish, non-Arab) friends who simply couldn’t believe that I might not have known, just from looking at her, that this woman wasn’t Jewish. After all, she was a woman of color! This must have been evident!

    So yes, there are people who are amazed at the idea that the Middle East doesn’t break down into white Jews and brown Arabs. I don’t think many of them live in Israel, however.

    • “The race thing just feels like a battle that can never be won….”

      So by design. Therefore, stop fighting it. We all know that a guy being asked if he has stopped beating his wife has taken the bait merely by answering the question.

      It’s high time, wherever possible, to forcefully steer the discussion away from race and into nationality. That blonde Arab woman who said to you, “Well, no, I’m Palestinian” provided a great opening in that regard. For, if we look at this with the Edward Said glasses taken off, it is clear that she is no Palestinian, but you are.

      A Palestinian speaks and writes in Hebrew, the language of Palestine.

      A Palestinian celebrates the festivities of Palestine, such as Succot, Pesach and Shavuot, held according to the lunisolar calendar of Palestine, the Hebrew calendar.

      A Palestinian belongs to the same nation that was here 2000 years ago, whether by birth (to a Jewish mother) or conversion, and is marked as such by keeping to a particular culture.

      A Palestinian yearns, and all his ancestor have yearned, for Palestine and no other place in this world.

      And on the other side, like the woman you confronted:

      An Arab speaks and writes Arabic; Hebrew, only because of living in the state of Israel.

      An Arab uses either the Gregorian calendar (solar only) or the Islamic one (lunar only), marking in neither any date particular to Palestine.

      An Arab in Palestine could perhaps be descended from locals—though most Arabs in Palestine cannot trace their ancestry further back than the 19th century—but his ancestors were Arabized in language and culture long ago; they have nothing tying them to this land of all lands.

      An Arab only speaks of Palestine because his forefathers’ dream of a Greater Syria (of which Palestine was nothing but the southern part) was dashed by the British and the French in 1920.

      We Jews are the only true Palestinians; Arab colonists in Palestine have illegitimately claimed the name “Palestinian” for covering up this truth.

  9. You only have to take a look at that gangster clinging on to power in Syria – and his father before him to see that Arabs can be of light – European like complexions. Only an idiot living in Israel would be unaware of what a nemesis like Assad looks like. So yet again, the European obsession with race and Jews gives credence to this type of anti-Zionist propaganda that paints Israelis as white colonial usurpers.

  10. So yet again, the European obsession with race and Jews gives credence to this type of anti-Zionist propaganda that paints Israelis as white colonial usurpers.

    Khaled Diab wasn’t trying to say that. So who are you talking about?

    • White Jews, black Arabs. A construct of the racist European mind, exploited by Diab because it fits the kind of bigoted narrative that makes Europeans feel better about themselves. That’s what I’m talking about. As for K Diab, you’ll have to enlighten me as to what he was really talking about.

      • A construct of the racist European mind

        Oh, do stop talking rubbish.

        exploited by Diab

        The main point of Diab was breaking down prejudices. The skin colour aspect is mentioned towards the end anway. You are massively overreacting.

      • “A construct of the racist European mind,…”

        The European mind no longer has anything to do with it. Yes, a century ago the European colonial theorists were probably dividing things so, but, contrary to all the Far Leftist talk, Western colonialism is a spent force. It is, ironically, the Far Leftists themselves who are doing everything to perpetuate the old Manichean worldview, even if construed to the opposite direction (with whites being the baddies in their view).

        “…exploited by Diab…”

        I don’t know about Diab specifically, but this exploitation is just pragmatic smarts on the part of modern Islamic imperialists. It will not do in the PR department for them to tell the truth that they want to steal the possessions of others (though they can be quite candid, as with those “Islam Will Dominate” signs), therefore the patent injustice and greed of Islamic imperialist aggression needs to marketed in an acceptable façade, which they happily borrow from the Far Left.

        Thus it has come to be that Islamic imperialist aggression against the Jewish State, the United States of America and the indigenous Europeans in their nation-states is depicted as “backlashes against white racism.” Very efficient in duping those who are already predisposed to believing, as Ward Churchill subtitled his book, in “the justice of chickens coming home to roost,” retribution for white man’s eternal guilt.

  11. It’s really the first time I read that Tzipi Livni, Benyamin Netanyahu or Shimon Peres “look like Arabs”. And yet, aren’t they Israelis?