On Wednesday, April 29th, the Student Revolutionary Coalition, a student group on the SUNY Albany campus, held an anti-Israel protest together with African American students protesting police brutality. The demonstration was entitled “From Ferguson to Palestine – Resistance is Not a Crime! End Racism Now.” The protest was relatively quiet until a Jewish student of Israeli Moroccan descent, Mr. Jordan Attias, tried to join the crowd. He wore an Israeli flag and a sign that said “Black Lives Matter.” The protesters forbade him from joining their circle and began accusing Israel of hating Africans and not valuing Black lives. Later that day one of the protester’s posted a meme with a picture of Attias holding his sign, followed by the caption: “Zionists be like: We like Black people” – insinuating that it’s incongruous for Zionist Jews to support African American rights. The Meme attracted over 1000 comments over the next few days – many of which were outright racist or anti-Semitic.
“I just wanted to show them that you can support Israel and be against racism in America,” Attias, the president of Aish, a Jewish club on campus, said. “The two issues are totally disconnected. One is a complicated war over territory; the other is simple bigotry. There are tragedies and suffering on both sides of the Arab-Israeli conflict and I’m not minimizing that. However, Jews and African Americans have both experienced centuries of racism and our communities need to unite at times like these – not turn against each other. I felt like this protest was a means of inciting minority groups against each other – Blacks against Jews – even though traditionally we have stood together against oppression.”
As an observer and a campus rabbi, this whole interaction greatly disturbed me and brought to light some reflections on my own perspective on race as a Jew.
Between Two Worlds
Growing up in New York City in the 90’s, being white was not exactly a privilege. I remember often being scared walking down the street in junior high school, on the bus, or even in the schoolyard – simply because I was white. One time I was walking down the street with my mother in broad daylight and some guy on the corner yelled out, “You’re lucky you’re with your mom. If not I would take your hat, your shorts, and your shoes!” Somehow he must have realized that my mom was not one to mess with – although I wondered how my almost 50 year old Jewish mother was really going to protect me had he decided to jump me. If she wasn’t there, though, I was certain that I would be left standing barefoot in my underwear in the middle of 110th street.
White people were constantly the butt of everyone’s jokes in my public junior high school. White men couldn’t jump, didn’t have rhythm, and wore their pants too high. I remember one time in the school yard everyone was making whitey cracks leading one blond haired kid named Matt Biando to exclaim, “I’m not white – I’m Italian!”
As a Jew, I found myself stuck between two worlds. I looked white on the outside – making me ripe for getting beaten up and made fun of by students of color – but on the inside I knew I was a minority – meaning I never felt a part of the White Anglo Saxon Protestant privilege. The elite white majority hated us as much as they hated people of color. Growing up I felt that in many ways I had more in common with my African American and Latino friends than I did with my white friends. My mother never spoke about marrying a Jew – but it was understood that if I didn’t, at least she should be a member of another ethnic minority.
Because I didn’t practice or believe in Judaism for many years of my life, I actually decided at one point to stop telling people that I was Jewish. When I did, the answer was the classic, “I’m of Jewish descent, but I’m not religious,” or “I’m Jew-ish.” To me Judaism was simply a religion.
But in reality, this is far from the truth. Although many American Jews of European descent view themselves as white people who are members of the Jewish religion, Judaism has historically been a tribal or national affiliation – not a religion. In fact according to the U.S. Supreme court ruling of 1987, Shaare Tefila Congregation vs. Cobb, Judaism is in fact a race entitled to protection under the racial discrimination act. Although being a member of the Jewish nation implies a religious affiliation, a Jew will always remain a member of the Jewish people regardless of their religious beliefs. A non-believing Christian is not a Christian but a non-believing Jew is just as much a Jew as the Chief Rabbi of Israel.
Are Jews White?
The skin of some Jews may indeed be white – but their origins are not from Europe. Jews originated in the Middle East. The land of Judea in what is now Israel was the Jewish homeland four thousand years ago. The twelve Tribes of Israel dwelt in the land of Israel until the year 72 BC when the Assyrians conquered the Northern kingdom, sending ten of the tribes into exile. When the Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE, the vast majority of the remaining Jews from the Southern Kingdom of Judea also went into exile to escape the Roman’s harsh decrees, although a number of Jews remained in the land of Israel continuously until the modern era.
The majority of the exiled Jews settled in Babylon (modern day Iraq) and soon moved on to Italy, Germany, France, North Africa and Spain, eventually spreading out to the four corners of the Earth. Since then, observant Jews all over the world prayed three times a day facing Jerusalem to someday return there as a nation. Today, a large portion of Jews in the world are from non-European countries – from North Africa, India, Ethiopia, Yemen, and across the Middle East. There are even Chinese Jews.
The fact that the ancestors of Ashkenazi Jews spent almost two thousand years in Europe – does not make them white. It was an extended stopover like the one I recently spent in Europe on my last flight to Israel. You don’t need a visa for a stopover. And despite almost two thousand years in Europe, Jews were never fully granted rights or citizenship and were never accepted as regular members of society. The Jews lived in fear of their lives from regular expulsions, pogroms, and blood libels. The same people who persecuted the Native Americans and African Americans, persecuted the Jews. In Muslim countries, Sefardic Jews fared slightly better than their European counterparts but were still regarded as second class citizens, and were subjected to high taxes and various forms of discrimination depending on the rulers at the time.
In America, life for Jews was much better – but they still faced powerful discrimination and racism. At the turn of the last century it wasn’t uncommon for stores in certain parts of the country to display signs that read, “No blacks, no Jews, no dogs.” As Jews began to gain acceptance by the general society in the 1950’s, they were at the forefront of civil rights movement to gain similar rights for all minorities. Jews helped found the NAACP, built 5,337 black schools across the south, and two-thirds of the white freedom riders were Jewish. The light skin color of the majority of American Jews definitely aided them in their social integration – but they remained different inside and therefore fought to help other non-white minorities.
Having been there for thousands of years, they felt deeply for the plight of other persecuted minorities. Although anti-Semitism still exists to a small degree in America, Jews have managed to succeed perhaps partially due to the fact that many of them possess the “right” color skin. Nonetheless, no matter how comfortable Jews may feel in American society today, a Jew has still yet to sit in the White House – and Jews will always remain a minority outside of the land of Israel. Today, Jews only make up 2.1% of the American population as compared to 17%, Latin Americans, 12.4%, African Americans, and 4.4%, Asian Americans – making them one of the smallest minorities in the country. Furthermore, they only make up less than .2% of the overall world population.
Israelis and Africans
Israel is definitely not a perfect country and world opinions range from it being an oppressive regime to a haven of freedom and democracy. Criticizing the actions of the State of Israel is totally legitimate. Connecting a complicated territorial conflict to American racism is not. That’s not to deny the fact that different forms of racism certainly exist in Israel. Israel is home to Jews from over 25 different countries and to over a dozen different ethnic and religious groups, all of whom are free to openly practice their religions and cultures. Nonetheless there are certainly tensions between Ashkenazi, Sefardic, and Ethiopian Jews, between Israelis, Arabs, and Russians, and between Muslims, Christians, Jews, Druze, and Baha’i. However, to claim that Zionist doctrine is bigoted towards Africans is simply not true.
There are over 125,500 Ethiopian Jews in Israel today. The Israeli government went to great length to airlift the entire community out of Ethiopia where they suffered from major forms of anti-Semitism for centuries. Although they face numerous challenges and discrimination in Israel, they nonetheless play a major part in modern Israeli culture and many are proud to consider themselves Zionists, even if they are critical of certain aspects of their country.
In addition to Israel’s Ethiopian population, Israeli organizations are at the forefront of offering humanitarian aid and services to developing African nations, in addition to other nations around the world. Some of these humanitarian operations include the following operations:
• The IsraAID emergency response team of 220-persons were the very first to arrive on the scene in the wake of the earthquake in Haiti, in 2010. The delegation treated 1110 patients, conducted 319 successful surgeries, delivered 16 births and left 30 tons of medical equipment behind.
• Israeli ecologists set up model agricultural villages in South Sudan and Rwanda to teach agricultural methods and technologies to the developing nation.
• In 1994, during the Rwandan refugee crisis, Israel initiated Operation Interns for Hope, establishing a field hospital in neighboring Zaire to bring medical aid to refugees.
• Israeli doctors help train local medical personnel in African nations in male medical circumcision with the organization Operation Abraham, in an effort to halt the AIDS epidemic.
• Israeli engineers and medical specialists have erected a state-of-the-art emergency room in Kisumu, Kenya, servicing a population of 6 million. The facility, at the Kisumu East District Hospital, was built in less than a month and is the hospital’s first fully-equipped Emergency Room.
• IsraAid has launched a social-worker training program in the new African state of South Sudan, considered one of the most undeveloped in the world.
In addition to aiding Africans and Haitians, Israel sends humanitarian aid to countries all over the world. The Israeli medical team of 260 members equipped with approximately 95 tons of humanitarian and medical supplies was the largest convoy to arrive in Nepal last week immediately after the catastrophic earthquake.
What about the claim that Israel practices apartheid against Palestinian Arabs?
In the words of Kenneth Meshoe, a member of the South African parliament:
There is a widespread allegation – really a slander – that Israel is an apartheid state. That notion is simply wrong. It is inaccurate and it is malicious and it will not help to promote peace and harmony in the Middle East. Its only purpose is to demonize Israel, and to isolate her in an attempt to delegitimize Israel’s existence. . . As a member of the South African parliament, and in the name of millions of my fellow black citizens of that country – we know what apartheid really was – and I therefore ask those in the United States, Europe and everywhere else in the world who charge Israel with practicing apartheid to please stop doing so. You are damaging the truth, you are damaging any chance for peace in the Middle East, and most of all, you are destroying the memory of the real apartheid.
According to Martin Luther King Jr., recorded on a video clip, “the whole world must see that Israel must exist and has the right to exist, and is one of the great outposts of democracy in the world.” I commend students for standing up against perceived oppression anywhere it rears its ugly head – whether of African Americans, Jews, Palestinians, or Ethiopians. However, to declare that all Zionists agree about any issue – let alone racism – is as bigoted as the racism that they are trying to fight against. There are black Zionists, Arab Zionists, religious Zionists, Zionists who are against the occupation, and Israelis who are against Zionism. There was even a Black Panther movement among Sefardic Jews in Israel in the 1970’s.
This is not a Black and White issue.
Instead of inciting minority communities against each other, African Americans, Jews, and Palestinians must unite in peaceful dialogue to end the trend of hatred, bigotry, and racism that have been plaguing our peoples. Together we can build bridges of understanding to combat the oceans of ignorance that are drowning the earth.