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May 29, 2015 5:37 pm

Do Jews Have a Color Problem? Sadly, Yes

avatar by Mitchell Wohlberg

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During the protest in central Tel Aviv one rioter held a sign that read, "Black lives Matter." Photo: Twitter, HRM Israel.

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?”

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  • Yesak Aberham

    First,Ethiopian jews came from very rural ,poor and uneducated communities of Ethiopia…the gov’t of Israel did nothing to help them like the rest. There are still alot of Jews in Ethiopia..and they are not going to Israel because they are pretty fine in Ethiopia…this people did’t came from Israel but they were in Ethiopia morethan 3000 years ago. God is watching what israel have beeb doing…i think the bible is telling future of israel.

  • Elaina Electrah

    What’s the S word?

    • S-Word

      “Shvartza” which is really Yiddish for the color black. But when used in context of describing a person it has derogatory meaning.

      • len

        shvartz means black in my Yiddish dictionary,shvartza means a black itself it is not is an honest way of describing a certain type of has the same potential to inform as the word Jew.there are not too many other ways to describe a black one uses that word makes it derogatory.

  • Dan Friedman

    I thought this type of liberal Jewish self-flagellation had gone out of style. But it looks like I’m wrong, and this rabbi is leading its comeback.

  • Shalom-Hillel

    In Israel it’s unusual for Sephardim and Ashkenazim to get married? How does the editor allow such false information In the Algemeiner?

  • The world doesn’t change . Like what this partial quote of Dr. King said,” It will be a great day in America when look upon a man bythe content of his heart, and not the color of his skin. ”
    My appearance and name, which makes people discount my heritages confuses , and so I hear hate from those looking for allies, and some not knowing I am partly theirs and then too , one of the “Damned——“.

    Remember to care or the stranger, for you were a stranger in a strange land.

  • Adele Winston

    I remember when Jewish boys’ clubs’ football teams in London refused to play each other because some were United and some were Federation. All orthodox Jews, of course, but that didn’t stop them from discriminating against each other.

  • Paul

    Despite the good intentions, there are some problems in this articles.
    First of all – the example of the school segregation in the “Israeli city of Emmanuel” is misleading because it refers to Ashenazi and Sephardi backgrounds, but neglects to mention that we are talking of extremely orthodox jewish factions in an xtreme right-wing religious city. The hatred, the xenophobia and the extreme behaviour of the extremely orthodox jews is notorious, and is far worse than the divisions encountered in the general Israeli population. They discriminate harshly and cruelly against everyone, including (especially ?) women.

    But regarding other claims here: we shold discriminate between prejudice that is based on evidence and true differences, and prejudice that is based on xenophobic ideas of inequality due to race or color. The inferiority here is NOT supposed: it is, for now, an existing social fact. The Ethiopians are less educated, they are generally very poor, and the result is that they are less successful in society due to unfortunate circumstances they are trapped in. A cop who first of all suspects an Ethiopian is reacting to the unfortunate fact that a disproportionate number of Ethiopians are indeed criminals. Who SHOULD the cop suspect – someone who is LESS likely to be at fault ? The Ethiopians are not to BLAME for being in their predicament, they are victims of their circumstances. The cops should not be blamed for suspecting WHOEVER is most suspicious. If ethiopians were white-skinned, they would still be suspected once their background became known, because of the disproportionate percent of ethiopians who are led to criminal acts.
    There was once rampant discrimination of Ashkenazis against Sephardis in Israel, when Sephardis’ cultural backgrounds put THEM at a disadvantage. But we have since seen Sephardi jews rise to the highest positions in the country. Once social circumstances are equalized over time, then the evidence-based discrimination can disappear.

  • Pinchas Baram

    Brooklyn’s Jewish Press recently ran an article by a rabbi who’s principal of a day school. He was lamenting the fact that derogatory racist remarks were very common in the kids’ conversations– and that their parents thought nothing of it. Whereas parents were very upset if told their kids weren’t studying hard, etc.

    So much for the false assumption that many make, that the ultra-Orthodox operate on a higher moral plane. Bubkes! As for periodic reports of sexual abuse, pedophilia and the like in the closed orthodox communities– and how such is usually denied or covered up– I won’t even go there…

  • len

    please stop with all the handwringing.Jews in the United States are on the top of the list as the most Liberal in the country,how much more soul searching can a faction be.Stop preaching to the choir and try to get the other factions in America to be more sensitive to the plight of blacks in America.Actually you would do well to get the black community to be more sensitive to their own kind they are the biggest pepetrators of the “N” word,and yes it is disgusting that my children hear that word on a regular basis in their high and middle schools day in and day out multiple times a day,but its not coming from Parents of my children my friend its coming from the black kids themselves,so where is the real problem Bub!!!!

  • Many Blacks are anti Semite.