Israel’s newly elected ‘centrist’ president Isaac Herzog is a racist

Israel's new president Isaac Herzog (Menahem Kahana - AFP)

Asa Winstanley

The Electronic Intifada  /  June 11, 2021

Israeli parliamentarians last week elected a new president for the country – failed Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog.

The Israeli presidency is largely a ceremonial post. Herzog takes office in July.

But it is significant that the new head of state has a record of violence and racism and has supported all of Israel’s wars against the Palestinian people.

He is an anti-Arab [Palestinian] racist, a proud former officer in a notorious Israeli spy agency and has spoken forcefully against Jews marrying non-Jews.

Israel’s incoming farright prime minister Naftali Bennett welcomed Herzog’s appointment, calling him “a Zionist with a big heart.”

During his failed 2015 campaign to be prime minister, Herzog’s electoral list ran an ad in which Palestinians and Arabs are dehumanized, stereotyped and viewed as valid targets for killing.

As the ad explains, Herzog is a veteran of Israel’s notorious Unit 8200 spy agency. Part of Israel’s military intelligence, Unit 8200 is known for mass surveillance, blackmail and violence targeting the entire Palestinian population.

You can watch the full Herzog ad, with English subtitles, in the video above.

Herzog’s 2015 election ad consisted of a series of short interviews with his former accomplices from Unit 8200 heaping praise on him.

“He understands the Arab mentality,” Yuval Albashan, one of his former comrades, says of Herzog. “He saw the Arabs in many different circumstances. He saw them through the sight of a rifle, and he saw them behind the sight of a rifle.”

As Albashan speaks, the ad cuts to footage of nonviolent Arab protesters. The crosshairs of a gunsight appears over a visibly Muslim man at the center of the crowd, implying that he’s a valid target for killing.

These images do not even appear to be from Palestine or of Palestinians at all. From a protest banner visible in the video, the footage appears to be of a demonstration – possibly in Egypt or Tunisia – in the context of the Arab Spring.

Herzog’s use of these images reinforces the racist message that all Arabs and Muslims are indistinguishable and equally worthy of killing.

This is reminiscent of how incoming prime minister Bennett recently used an image from Pakistan in a video justifying Israel’s killing of civilians in Gaza.

The imagery and claims about an “Arab mentality” in Herzog’s ad reflect classical racist and colonialist thinking – as if hundreds of millions of Arabs can be reduced to a stereotype that can be decoded by a supposed expert such as Herzog.

Anyone unwilling to see just how racist that terminology is should consider what the response would be to a politician anywhere claiming to “understand the Jewish mentality” or boasting of seeing “the Jews” through “the sight of a rifle.”

In 2014, whistleblowers from Unit 8200 revealed new details on its all-encompassing snooping operation, which intrudes on every aspect of life for Palestinians living under Israeli occupation.

One of the details revealed by several of the whistleblowers was that it was common practice in the unit to mark an X on their headsets every time intelligence they provided was successfully used to kill a Palestinian.

This was known as “blood on the headset.” How much Palestinian blood does Israel’s new president have on his headset?

As appalling as this sounds, such violent behavior is judged to be a vote winner in Israel.

“Infiltrators from Africa”

The ad was produced by the Zionist Union, an electoral alliance between Herzog’s Labor Party and former Likud minister and Israeli war-crimes fugitive Tzipi Livni.

After Herzog lost that election to right-wing Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, the conclusion the Labor leader reached was that his party had not been racist or violent enough.

The following year he told a meeting of the dwindling Labor Party faithful his view: The problem was that Israeli voters had seen them as “Arab lovers” – something they should avoid, he argued.

In the lead up to the 2015 election Herzog had also tried to appeal to the right by changing his previous position and voting to expel Eritrean asylum seekers.

Calling them “infiltrators from Africa,” after the election Herzog even tried to outflank Netanyahu from the right, claiming his government was “only good at talking” about sending them back.

But for Israel’s supporters in the West, Herzog’s racist record poses no problem.

British pro-Israel lobby group the Jewish Labour Movement wished Herzog an enthusiastic congratulations:

Right-wing former UK Labour MP Mike Gapes claimed Herzog was “a man of experience, moderation and integrity” and reminisced about the time in 2017 when Herzog led him and other British Labour lawmakers in a tour around Israel’s parliament.

Around this time, when Jeremy Corbyn led the UK Labour Party, Herzog’s Israeli Labor Party was involved in constant efforts to overthrow and smear the British leader as “anti-Semitic.”

Douglas Alexander – a former Labour minister under Tony Blair – similarly gushed about Herzog’s “experience, integrity and authority.” While Michael Dugher, another prominent right-wing Labour ex-lawmaker, was even more fawning about Herzog’s “big political brain.”

To these people, it seems, Arabs are less than human.

Opposition to mixed marriages

Herzog’s bigoted hatreds are not confined to Palestinians and other Arabs.

In 2018, soon after he was replaced as Labor leader and was appointed head of Israel’s Jewish Agency, Herzog stated in Hebrew on national TV that there was “an actual plague” of Jewish people in the US who were “married or coupled with non-Jewish partners” and that this situation needs “a campaign, a solution” to combat.

Journalist David Sheen, who first exposed Herzog’s comments in English, responded that this was more evidence showing how Israel’s so-called “centrist” parties are just as racist as its far-right ones.

Israeli journalist Yossi Gurvitz commented that Herzog was spreading “the exact same message” as Israel’s Jewish extremist far-right, but doing so with a different presentation style, “in a much calmer manner.”

Herzog’s initial response to David Sheen’s exposure of his hateful rhetoric was to claim that the initial report in a Hebrew newspaper was “a misquote.”

But footage soon emerged of the actual TV clip, which showed the initial report had quoted him correctly. Herzog later defended his comments in English to The Forward, a US Jewish publication. He euphemistically stated that “the discourse on interfaith relations is different in Israel.”

True enough, though beside the point.

Racist heritage

Such racist comments by Israel’s new president are no surprise given his political ancestry.

His Irish father Chaim Herzog chose to settle in British-occupied Palestine in 1935.

Joining the leading Zionist militia, he helped British imperial forces put down the Palestinian uprising between 1936 and 1939, known as the Arab revolt.

In 1967 when Israel invaded and occupied the remainder of historic Palestine, Chaim Herzog was appointed Israel’s first military governor of the West Bank.

Herzog senior was later appointed head of Israel’s Military Intelligence, the same spy agency his son would ultimately join as an officer in its signals branch, Unit 8200. Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, Chaim Herzog served as Israel’s sixth president.

Allegedly left-wing Zionist organizations in the West today have criticized modern-day right-wing Israeli groups like Lehava, which violently campaign against mixed marriages.

But the same groups seem to have nothing to say when supposedly left-wing Israeli leaders like Isaac Herzog promote the exact same racist ideas.

Video translated by David Sheen.

Asa Winstanley is an investigative journalist who lives in London