As An Asian Israeli, The Coronavirus Has Awakened Me to Our Racism

April 2, 2020
Photo by da-kuk/Getty Images

On Feb. 16, a young Taiwanese woman posted on the popular Facebook group Secret Tel Aviv that she was riding her bicycle and a group of Israeli teenagers began to yell “Sinit” (Hebrew for Chinese) and “corona” at her. She called the police in tears. On March 15, a 28-year old Indian Yeshiva student was hospitalized after being beaten by two Israelis in Tiberias because they felt he “looked Chinese.”

A few weeks ago, as the hysteria amid the beginnings of the COVID-19 outbreak began, I turned around in the kitchen at work to find a colleague of mine coughing at me. I stared blankly, and he said, “You’re Asian. This is a little bit of a problem.” I literally had no words. I took my coffee and fled to my desk, speechless.  A fearful realization popped into my head: Two things have been spreading faster than the virus itself — misinformation and racism and xenophobia toward Asians  —and Israel is no exception.

Even before the pandemic, Israelis made inappropriate comments to me or asked me uncomfortable questions about my origins — from random people on the street asking if I want to clean their houses to cringworthy men in clubs telling me I’m “exotic.” This pandemic has only amplified these things.

I preface everything I’m about to say with the fact that I truly love Israel and the Jewish people. I am a staunch Zionist who has dedicated most of my career to working for Jewish nonprofits; encouraging young people to grow their relationships with Israel. I run an Instagram account that offers  a look into the daily life of Israelis and new immigrants, hoping the world might see that it’s not all wars and camels.

I get it. Asian Jews are far and few between, so if I want someone to speak up for us then I have to do it myself. So I am here to tell you, Israel has a real problem that runs deeper than any virus and needs to be eradicated.

“But how,” you ask? Israel is a country made up of diverse immigrants that fled ant-Semitism, persecution and some of the worst discrimination in the world. However, this is the first time in modern history that the Jewish people in Israel find themselves in a position of power. With this power comes great responsibility — the decision on how to treat minorities in our society. From my personal experience, Israel is missing the mark.

Two things have been spreading faster than the virus itself — misinformation and racism and xenophobia toward Asians  — and Israel is no exception.

Israelis simply do not understand and/or deny that something is racially motivated. They were never educated on why or how racism is bad. When the incident about the young Indian student was posted on Facebook it received the following comments: “My question is, who brought coronavirus in Israel? Get well bro,” and “This has nothing to do with race or color.”

Another common excuse I encounter is: “Amy, there is racism everywhere in the world.” Unfortunately, this is true. However, this is not an acceptable excuse. We should strive to do better. We often boast our purpose is to be a light among the nations, so let’s become that. Let’s acknowledge the racism and start improving. Here are two steps we can take right now:

1. When someone reports an incident of racism or discrimination, listen to them. Don’t say, “Oh, well people are just rude.” There is a difference between being rude and acting on racially charged pretenses. It can be hard to spot prejudice when you’ve never experienced it, so trust our minorities when they tell us it is happening.

2. Actively choose to eradicate racism. If you don’t understand why something is racist, ask. And then listen. If you witness something racist or xenophobic, speak up. We each have the potential to make a monumental change with our small, individual actions.

The coronavirus is devastating societies around the world. However, we have a real opportunity to translate it into something positive. While everyone is learning the importance of practicing proper hygiene, we can wash our hands of the racism in Israel.

Amy Albertson is a Californian-turned-Tel Avivian, and the new immigrant behind the Instagram account @theasianisraeli.

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