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.


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