Three activists, a Palestinian citizen of Israel, an Ethiopian Israeli, and a veteran Mizrahi organizer discuss the applicability of Ta-Nehesi Coates’s ‘Between the World and Me’ to their struggles in Israel.
The killing of black men by police in the United States has, over much of the past half-decade, thrust the issue of American racism back into the media spotlight. High-profile shootings of young, unarmed African-American men, such as Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, were a sign that even the election of a black man to the highest office in the land could not eliminate what many view as an epidemic.
Those killings have a global context as well. In May 2015, thousands of Ethiopian-Israelis took to the streets across the country, protesting the brutal, unprovoked police beating of Demass Pikada, an Ethiopian-Israeli soldier in uniform. Five months earlier, a Palestinian citizen of Israel named Khair Hamdan was gunned down while fleeing officers in his home village. In both cases, Ethiopian and Palestinian activists adopted variations on a rallying cry whose power has become as indomitable as it is ubiquitous: “Black Lives Matter.”
The prominence of police killings in the Obama era also gave rise to a new cadre of black public intellectuals, often called upon to delineate the black condition to those who could not possibly comprehend it. Chief among them has been Ta-Nehisi Coates, who has become America’s foremost public intellectual on matters of racism and race, after publishing a number of landmark essays in The Atlantic on mass incarceration, white supremacy, the legacy of Barack Obama, and reparations for African-Americans.
Earlier this month, Coates’ widely praised book, Between the World and Me, was published in Hebrew, a mere two-and-a-half years after its initial release. The book, written as a letter to his son about the unremitting legacy of white supremacy, became a bestseller and went on to win the National Book Award for Nonfiction.
Over the course of 175 pages, Between the World and Me weaves personal, biographical vignettes from Coates, who grew up in crack-ridden Baltimore of the 1980s, with the larger narratives of state violence against African-Americans — most painfully in the shooting death of a friend, Prince Jones, by a police officer in 2000. The outcome is a pessimistic rumination on the past, present, and future of both the black experience in America and its negative image: the power of whiteness. The book’s release coincided with the surge of police killings, the rise of Black Lives Matter, and the coda of the Obama years.
The decision to translate Coates into Hebrew is not an obvious one, both practically and politically. While the Hebrew book market is saturated with successful, recently released English-language novels, more politically charged books often take years to be translated — due mostly to low demand and a dearth of willing translators — and are generally released by small publishing houses to little fanfare. That means classic texts such as Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex or Franz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, both published more than half a century ago, only made it to the Israeli market in the mid-2000s. By the time their impact might have been felt, their urgency and relevance had waned significantly.
When Zohar Elmakias, a doctorate student of anthropology at Columbia University, read Coates’ book in the summer of 2015, she knew it needed to be translated, and that she would be the one to do it. An Israeli of Moroccan origin, Elmakias grew up in the working class city of Ramle, populated mostly by Mizrahi Jews and Palestinians, studied film at Tel Aviv University, and previously worked as an editor at Haokets.
Elmakias had been a fan of Coates from his essays in The Atlantic, but it was Between the World and Me, with its sweeping prose and similarities to her experience growing up in a city most Israelis associate with crime and poverty, which truly captivated her. She says she fantasized about the inspiration it could have for different groups struggling against oppression in Israel. She spoke to a friend who immediately put her in touch with Debbie Eylon from Hakibbutz Hameuchad—Sifriat Poalim Publishing Group, who jumped at the opportunity and supported her at every step.
“There are so many pieces of writing that just go by the wayside or that take decades to translate,” Elmakias says. “It is rare that things move this fast and work out. With Between the World and Me the stars just aligned; it felt like a miracle that it was even happening in the first place.”
Adapting the slang of Coates’ youth to Elmakias’ own experience growing up in one of Israel’s roughest cities, however, proved to be one of the more challenging parts of the project. “I tried to ask myself what it would sound like for Coates to grow up in Ramle. I didn’t grow up around gangs, but like Coates, I actively calculated my walk home from school, so as not to run into people who might want to harm me. The project was just as much about translating the words as the actual lived experience for an Israeli audience.”
The book’s Hebrew release also comes at a pivotal moment in Israel, in which the parallels to police violence in the United States have become harder to ignore. That, for Elmakias, only heightened the sense of urgency. “I wish this book existed 15 years ago so that I could have read it in high school,” she says. “It didn’t, and there is a reason for that, because the violence was not out in the open. What we are seeing in the U.S. is an escalation in violence against minorities. In Israel, that violence is far more visible — we feel the immediacy of it. That’s why this book is so urgent here as well.”
That demand and urgency could be felt at the book launch, an event not typically associated with building political alliances, where three leading activists from different struggles joined Elmakias to relate their experience to that of Coates. Abed Abu Shehada, a local Palestinian activist from Jaffa, likened Coates’ writings on police brutality to the recent shooting death of Mahdi Sa’adi, a 19-year-old Arab resident of Jaffa, by Israeli police. The killing led to several days of rioting by local Arab youth, most of whom have felt the wrath of the police personally. “When I read this book, I thought about every young Arab man who has ever been the victim of police cruelty. Every one of them has a story.”
Efrat Yerday, an Ethiopian-Israeli and one of the leaders of the Ethiopian struggle against racism in Israel, wondered about the relevance of racism in the United States to Israel. “I ask myself whether Coates’ experience is the same as mine, whether a black woman in America shares my experience,” she said. “What Coates proposes is that we cannot keep searching for the ‘ultimate black.’ After all, who is the ultimate black? Is it the Palestinian from Jaffa? The Ethiopian from Kiryat Moshe? The Mizrahi woman? The asylum seeker? Coates says we need to break out of these categories and speak about whiteness as a human invention that serves the people who view themselves as white.”
Like his critics, Yerday also challenged Coates for his undisguised pessimism vis-à-vis the future of his country: “I wonder whether in Israel we can, as oppressed groups, say that pessimism is here to stay. I don’t think we can allow that for ourselves. We need hope, and the fact that we are at a theater in Jaffa, and on stage we have people in different shades of black and brown, gives me hope.”
At the end of the evening spoke Reuven Abergel, a veteran social justice activist and one of the founders of the Israeli Black Panthers, a group of Mizrahim who in the 1970s challenged Israel’s discriminatory policies against Jews from Arab and Muslim countries with mass demonstrations. Abergel, having recently lost much of his eyesight, had to have the book read to him. “This book is actually my story,” he told the crowd. “At the age of nine, I was already in jail in the state of the Jews. What could a nine year old have done to merit prison? When you grow up such a reality, you do not ask questions — the only question you ask is ‘how do I survive this moment?’”
“When I formed the Black Panthers with my friends,” he continued, “it was the first time I ever felt a kind of freedom — to say whatever I wanted, to stand strong in the face of the state and the police. But the first form of oppression we faced was from our parents and from our community, who cooperated with the regime. The first time I was beaten at a protest was by black cops. They were police officers who grew up with me in the neighborhood, whom I knew back in Morocco. They were crying as they [beat us], but that was their livelihood. I also cried, because I wanted to tell a story. Reading this book, I understand that there are other groups in the world who are telling my story.”
At the start of the evening, Elmakias told the crowd she hopes the book will serve those who need it most. “This book is another tool for us to use when we talk about the change we want to see in this place, in the violence we experience on a daily basis. So that each of us can say: ‘this is another weapon I have at my disposal.’”
Speaking a few days after the launch, she softened her approach. “It might sound silly, but I want people who are currently engaging in struggle to read this. It is incredible to see these books being sold in central Tel Aviv, but I want it to be sold in Jaffa, in Ramle, in Jisr a-Zarqa — anywhere one can find a bookshelf. I want some teenager to steal it from the library because he feels just how important this book is for him. That’s my dream.”