Ali Abunimah on Monday 23rd February 2015
This astonishing video of an incident that occurred on an Israir airlines flight from Tel Aviv to the seaside resort of Varna, Bulgaria, last weekend has become a social media sensation among Israelis.
Although all involved in the incident are apparently Israeli Jews, it is nonetheless very revealing and symptomatic of endemic anti-Arab attitudes.
This is a transcript of the video from Israel’s Walla! News, translated by Israel expert Dena Shunra. Be warned, it contains very foul language:
Passenger A: You’re gonna sell me chocolate, do you understand that? You work for me, I paid money for you.
Flight attendant: I don’t work for you. You wish I’d be working for you.
Passenger A: I want the chocolate. What reason do you have not to sell me the chocolate? I want the chocolate. What is this? I want the chocolate.
Flight attendant: If you think that if you’ll raise your voice and be a little more violent – then you’ll probably not get what you want.
Passenger B (A’s sister, shouting from the other side of the plane): Sell her the chocolate, what is she, an Arab? Kuss rabak [Arabic expletive], sell chocolate! Do you hear? She paid the flight price, sell her chocolate! Yalla! Tone it down quick! Sell her chocolate quick! You piece of garbage. What do you mean he’s not selling her chocolate? Piece of garbage. You are not going to sell my sister chocolate?
Flight attendant (to Passenger B): mark my words. Varna? You’re not going to get there.
Passenger seated near passenger A: I put my dick on you, and on Varna, your mother’s mother’s cunt, you maniac, you son of a whore, you fucker, you piece of a son of a thousand…
Meanwhile his companions, including passengers A and B, move to stop his outburst. The passenger later grabs onto the flight attendant’s elbow. The flight attendant warns him: “Watch out.”
Thuggishness and sexual harassment
Walla! News provides additional context about the incident: the flight attendant had been selling duty free items in order of seat rows, and Passenger A did not want to wait until he reached her row.
An airline spokesperson said that the incident “is not something that I can call unusual, but we’re glad to say that it does not happen exactly every day” and that “the phenomenon of disrespect to air crew, verbal thuggishness, and aggressive conduct with the crew is a phenomenon we identify as increasing, not only in ours but in very many airlines.”
Israeli daily Haaretz reported that Israir also said that “a security officer on the flight declined to intervene in the argument because it was not a security incident.”
If several Palestinian or other Arab passengers had behaved in the same manner, is it possible to imagine they would not have been deemed a “security” threat?
A female flight attendant with the Israeli state airline ElAl is quoted by Walla! News about the harassment workers routinely experience: “There’s a custom of addressing the flight attendant not by pushing the call button but by touching her buttocks or pulling the crease of her trousers or the hem of her skirt. He [the passenger] doesn’t do this thinking sexually, but you get off a flight after quite a few passengers have touched you or pulled your trousers or skirt. It is definitely unpleasant.”
“What is she, an Arab?”
“The question asked by Passenger A – ‘What is she, an Arab?’ – touches some very core issues inside Jewish Israeli society,” Shunra observes.
The phrase is extremely colloquial, Shunra says. It rarely appears in writing – but can be found often in online comment threads.
Shunra points to it being used in a number of ways – for example to denote bad taste, to assert normativity and belonging to the mainstream and to assert being well-behaved and civilized in supposed contrast to Arabs.
The phrase briefly made its way into the American mainstream days after Barack Obama was elected president in 2008.
Benjamin Emanuel asserted that Obama’s appointment of his son, Rahm Emanuel, as White House chief of staff would be beneficial to Israel.
“Obviously he will influence the president to be pro-Israel,” the elder Emanuel, a former member of the Irgun Zionist terrorist group, said. “Why wouldn’t he be? What is he, an Arab? He’s not going to clean the floors of the White House.”
What all of these usages have in common is an assumption that the speaker of the rhetorical question “What is she/am I, an Arab?” occupies a superior position, while Arabs are clearly inferior.
One sarcastic Twitter user subverted the question to highlight Israel’s systematic discrimination, writing, “Connect her village to a sewage line, why not, is she an Arab?”
This is an apparent allusion to the fact that Israeli authorities refuse to provide basic services to dozens of so-called unrecognized villages inhabited by Palestinian citizens of Israel.
The question evokes the casual contempt captured last year when a couple of Israelis filmed themselves shoving an Arab woman into a lake just for the fun of it.
The woman was pushed into the water precisely because she is an Arab.
And lawmaker Haneen Zoabi was again banned from running in Israel’s upcoming election for precisely the same reason: she is an Arab who loudly challenges Israel’s official racism and discrimination. The decision was later overturned by Israel’s high court.