Do Jews Have a Color Problem? Sadly, Yes
Usually when I visit friends in Israel, we discuss the situation in Israel. But this time, we sat and discussed the situation in Baltimore. The people of Israel were keenly aware and sensitive to what had unfolded on the streets of Baltimore last month, because at just about the same time a similar situation was taking place in Israel. Like in the U.S., in Israel someone had captured a picture of an Israeli policeman beating a black Ethiopian Jew, leading thousands of people to go into the streets in protest, with dozens injured and more than 40 arrested.
It seemed like the two situations – in Baltimore and in Israel – were alike, but they really weren’t on many different levels. Some of the black Israelis who went out on the streets resorted to violence as happened here, but none of them broke into stores and none of them went on a free shopping spree.
But much more than that, the history of black/white relations here in America is so different from that of Israel. One hundred and fifty years ago here in America we fought a Civil War over this issue. It was white people who had forcibly brought blacks here to America as slaves. And 100 years after the Civil War, blacks were still treated as second class citizens. Schools were separated, rest rooms were separated, drinking fountains were separated, and people were forced to give up their seats because of the color of their skin. And as much as it contradicts our vision of the American Dream, that was the way it was in a large part of this nation.
That was not the way it was in Israel. Israel did not bring blacks from Ethiopia to serve as slaves. They were brought to freedom. Operation Moses, as it was called, when seemingly overnight thousands of Ethiopian Jews were brought to Israel, was considered no different than one of the great Biblical miracles. It can be said that when African Americans from down South started moving up north to the big cities, whites didn’t want them. You can’t say that about Israel. Our black brothers and sisters were welcomed with open arms by the people and government of Israel.
But the picture of an Israeli policeman beating an Ethiopian Jew – a Jew dressed in his army garb, serving his country – forced Israelis of all color to confront the reality that racism exists amongst whites, yes, but sadder still, amongst Jews as well. And if you don’t believe me, listen to the words of Lt. Col. Zion Shankur, a soldier in the Israel Defense Forces.
As an immigrant from Ethiopia, he lit a torch on Israel’s 49th Independence Day. He was awarded the President’s Award for Excellence, and had a string of firsts in the military as an Ethiopian-Israeli. Listen to his words: “I know that the moment I take off this uniform, I will no longer be that successful Lt. Col. Shankur from the IDF, whose name precedes him. I will be Zion the Ethiopian, who will not be able to easily get into any club in Tel Aviv.”
“If I walk around Tel Aviv without my uniform and there is some act of violence or a murder, I will be the first person police will stop. And that is only because I am black.” And in Israel this pertains not just to Ethiopians.
From the very beginning of the state of Israel, immigrants came from both Eastern Europe and from North Africa. One group was labeled “Ashkenazim” and the other “Sephardim.” They came with different customs and different cultures, but they came with another difference. The Ashkenazim were lighter skinned and the Sephardim darker skinned. In Israel it’s unusual for Sephardim and Ashkenazim to get married because Sephardim are considered inferior and Ashkenazim are considered more elite.
A few years ago an Ashkenazi school in the Israeli city of Emanuel was told by the courts that it had to take in more Sephardic students. So, they took them in and you know how they did it? They built a separate entrance for the Ashkenazic students and for the Sephardic students! And as if that wasn’t bad enough – they had the Sephardic girls dress in one color and the Ashkenazic girls in another color just to make sure that you don’t mix up the two.
So if we want to be honest with ourselves, really really honest with ourselves, we have to admit to ourselves: the color of one’s skin makes a difference in the Jewish world – both here and in Israel. No, we don’t go around using the “N” word. Sad to say, Israelis have their own derogatory word in speaking of blacks. It’s the word “kushi.”
The word comes from a famous Biblical story where we find Miriam and Aharon being punished for having spoken badly about their brother, Moshe. The Torah simply tells us: “And Miriam and Aharon spoke against Moshe regarding the Kushite woman he had married.”
The translation of “Kushite” is “Ethiopian.” One explanation that should speak to us is from the commentary of Rabbi Yitzchak Karo. His siblings were criticizing Moshe for having chosen a black woman, for this was Moshe’s way of showing the world that outer looks had no meaning to him. But they obviously did to his brother and sister! And how was Miriam punished for this? She developed leprosy – her skin turned white – God’s way of saying: If you think white is so beautiful look at how it now looks on you.
The Jews in Israel still use this word “kushi” to speak derogatorily about black skinned people. Jews in America are too sophisticated for that. We don’t use the “N” word, instead we have the Yiddish “S” word. How many times I’ve heard that word in recent weeks!
And it is disgusting … disgusting not that I hear it, but disgusting that our children hear it … and the prejudice gets transmitted from generation to generation.
Are we worse than other whites? I don’t know! But I do know that our tradition teaches us that we should be better! It was the prophet Malachi who challenged us with the mandate: “Have we not all one father? Has not one God created us? Why then are we faithless to one another profaning the covenant of our ancestors?”