Israel’s k-word controversy

Terra incognita: Israel’s k-word: Can Holon teach us a lesson in racism?

By Seth J. Frantzman, March 5, 2014 (The Jerusalem Post)

At a conference at the Ruppin Academic Center, the mayor of Holon, Moti Sasson, sat beside public officials and sports personalities and delivered a racist attack on Israeli sport and black people, according to media reports. “I don’t want to see foreigners in [Israeli] sport; if you want to see kushim, watch the NBA,” he said.

Subsequently he made a strange apology, explaining, “The use of the term ‘kushi’ had no place, it was meant, obviously, to refer to the foreigner players.”

There could be several reactions to this sequence. First it could be condemned on the face of it as racism against black people and specifically black athletes. It could be seen as xenophobic ignorance; attacks on foreign players, bashed for being black as well as foreign. One could go further – as AFP did – and claim, “Israeli mayor calls black basketball players n-word.” In AFP’s retelling, Sasson said, “if you want to watch n****s, you have the NBA for that.”

Harsh, racist language.

Holon should be ashamed either way. But this can serve as a learning experience. Every racist incident should be an attempt to learn; because if we don’t learn from it, than we don’t improve. The goal should be a society without mayors who feel they can let loose with stereotyping terms and racial abuse. We can learn by looking at some of the pitfalls in the racism debate in Israel.

Sasson’s comment was eerily similar to one made by the newly elected Ashkenazi chief rabbi in August 2013. In a speech to yeshivah students he said they should concentrate on Torah and that television was a distraction, especially sports. “Why do you care,” he admonishded them, “if this team of kushim who get paid in Tel Aviv beats that team of kushim who get paid in Greece?” The Lau comment was berated in the secular media, and he was tarred as a racist. But people came to his defense. Yaacov Lozowick, the chief archivist of the State of Israel and former director of Yad Vashem, defended Lau with a convoluted apologist’s brush: “The entire concept of ‘nigger’ is foreign to Israel,” he wrote. “If one insists on attaching an ethnic slur to the word ‘kushi,’ it would probably be the Yiddish word ‘schwartze,’ which is indeed mildly derogatory, but in a belittling and condescending way, without any hatred attached.”

“Indeed, given the Rav Lau’s upbringing and cultural world, he was probably reprimanding the yeshiva students for admiring schwartze folks whose strength is in their brawn, rather than Jewish scholars.”

Lazowick claimed that the real problem was PR, and someone should remind Lau that his words carry greater weight now. He claimed that reporting “kushi” as an offensive term similar to the n-word was part of an anti-Israel agenda. “Israel-haters would have us believe that the word ‘kushi’ means ‘n****,’ [which] is outlandish,” he wrote.

But we need to do some serious thinking about why we look so hard to make excuses about what should be blatantly obvious. Why did they use the k-word? Let’s be honest: it isn’t about the Bible. Basketball players are not biblical. So we aren’t discussing the “kushite woman” Moses married. When they use the k-word, they mean “the blacks.”

Hebrew has a word for black: “shachor.” So these men could have said, “if you want to watch black people play basketball, watch the NBA.”

Sasson admitted as much when he apologized and then backtracked by noting he meant only the “foreigners.”

What he seemed to imply was that he didn’t mean to offend black Jewish Israelis, since his whole point had been about getting more Israelis into sport. They know the difference between saying “black” and saying “k****”.

Lazowick’s strange theory about words and race needs to be confronted here. To recap, he claims Israel has no “concept” of the n-word, which he argues only has special meaning because of slavery and Jim Crow and the long history of racism of America. But that implies a black person who has immigrated to the US from Kenya, like President Barack Obama’s father, should not be offended by the n-word because they don’t share the history of the African-Americans. That is patently ridiculous.

It is the use of the word and its degrading racist abuse and generalized stereotype and dehumanizing nature that harms; one doesn’t necessarily need slavery, too.

In the Lazowick theory, if we never had slavery or segregation the n-word would be almost ok. Here he brings in the Yiddish term often used as a way of talking about black people and claims it has “no hatred attached.”

Except how does he know? I’ve heard many people talk about the “dirty schwartzes” and the “schwartze rapists.”

You get the point. Hatred is implied already by the inability to treat a black person as a human and instead label them as a group. Not everyone who uses the n-word uses it in the most harsh manner, but that doesn’t mean there is an excuse.

Let’s return to the chief rabbi’s comment again. If it had not been basketball players, but, say, hockey players, would he have said, “what do we care if one group of white people in Toronto beat another group of white people in Boston?” No. Would he have said, “what do we care if one goy beats another goy?” More likely. But then why were the American basketball players not subsumed into the “goy” category for being non-Jews? Precisely because of the need to add a layer of animosity of a derogatory term “blacks” onto the word.

The k-word term turns up too often in Israel because of a flippant manner in society. Kobi Niv at Haaretz wrote last month, pondering what the reaction would be if “Yair Netanyahu were to date a black woman – a kushit, to use the term the Bible uses for Moses’ wife but which has become a derogatory epithet?” It is interesting that he acknowledges the abusive nature of the term – but then uses it anyway, and for no reason. Why did he need to put it in his article, when “black woman” would have sufficed? Similarly, a kibbutz activist working with Beduin in Rahat once told me he worked with “Habeduim Hakushim,” namely the Beduin of African heritage who form a portion of the population and are often discriminated against by the Arab Beduin. Why “kushim,” when several other descriptive words would suffice? There hangs over Israel a need to justify, to find a “historical” excuse for racialist terms in order to de-fang them. This doesn’t make sense. “Kaffir,” used against blacks in South Africa, was adopted from the Arab slave traders in the area who used it to describe the “infidels” of Africa. So one could say that initially, it was not racist. But that’s irrelevant, because it’s racist today. The mental gymnastics it takes to turn the k-word into a milquetoast noun are similarly disingenuous.

Is it wrong for the foreign media to catch out Israelis on their racism and translate the Hebrew k-word as the n-word? If people stopped calling basketball players kushim, wouldn’t the media have nothing to feast on? Instead of misdirecting critique at the foreign media, local racism should be held to account. The k-word is only used in a negative context, it is a racist manifestion that should be stamped out. Period.

Couldn’t Chief Rabbi Lau have just said, “who cares which foreign team wins in basketball?” Why bash the players’ race? Why not let them be humans, individuals? And why excuse this strange dislike of foreigners, black or white? (Although if they were white they would not be subjected to this abuse. End of story.) So the lesson is clear: we must confront the racism, we must demand that it stop, and we must start treating every person as an individual, and not as some group to be castigated by any terms, biblical or modern.

One response to “Israel’s k-word controversy

  1. Pingback: What Can Marmite Tell Us About Diaspora? – A Jew in the Motherland | New Voices·

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