Israel’s rabbinate reflects country’s racist streak

The people of Israel have received what they deserve: a rabbinate that is a true reflection of the current racist streak enlarging itself across the entire spectrum of Israeli society, from the streets of south Tel Aviv to the chambers of the Knesset.

By Ahmadiel Ben Yehuda

Israel’s rabbinate reflects country's racist streak
Members of the Black Hebrew community at an IDF ceremony. (photo: Taahmenyah)

Israel’s new Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau wasted no time in putting his foot in his mouth: he allegedly used the Hebraic equivalent of the “N-word” (Hebrew) in chastising a group of Orthodox boys watching a televised basketball game. The new Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef preempted his counterpart, reportedly using the same invective prior to his election (also in relation to basketball, which seems to have drawn an unfair share of criticism from the rabbinate recently).

There can be no patching up of the matter, for whether the chief rabbis continue to hurl their racist slurs or temper their public personas with a more careful “choice of words,” it’s clear where they stand. No pretense of civility will convince us of a miraculous change of sentiment. Their comments reflect the heart of the problem facing Eurocentric Judaism: the stubborn denial of its African roots. I argued that “the assumption that the children of Israel’s ancestors were white is fundamentally flawed” and warned of “misguided policies and worse” in Haaretz last year. Since that time, it’s surely been the “worse”.

For me, there’s no regret that hopes of a “kindler, gentler” rabbinate in the personage of Rabbi David Stav didn’t materialize. In a Haaretz interview, Stav affirmed his “[r]espect for every person, even if he is an Arab.”  “Even if”?!  In the same interview, he advocated “preserving some sort of common fabric of Israeli society. Not at the cultural level, but at the ethnic level.”  Is Israel’s “chosen-ness” a platform to exemplify and exhibit a superior ethnicity, or a superior culture and way of life? The rabbinate’s election slate epitomizes what “democratic” has become: an irrelevant choice between two sides of the same irrelevant coin.

Why should those being denied their right to an Hebraic/Jewish identity – whether Falashmura, Ibo or Black Jewish/African Hebrew Israelite – be more inclined to tolerate the rabbinate’s insolence in the form of a “kinder, gentler” chokehold? Would the terminally ill find a “kinder, gentler” form of disease gratifying? No thanks! I’ll take Lau and his Neanderthal manners. Like the in-your-face bigotry practiced by many inhabitants of America’s “Old South,” at least we know where everyone stands. I prefer my racism “straight, no chaser”!

Biblical criteria for choosing leaders

Those who dare suggest that the new chief rabbi didn’t understand the negative context of the word are again, in denial, or in league with the worst of the haters and bigots. I can agree that there is little contemporary or historical or cultural relevance about 16th century Ashkenazi European culture, but to claim – as did Yaacov Lozowick – that he is victim of “his complete disconnection from the broader cultural universe of most Israelis” is ridiculous. “Kushi” is a derogatory term. Even Israeli children are well-versed in the finer points of connotation, where the acceptable usage of kushi/m begins and ends. Any African who has found himself in certain Jewish neighborhoods knows this well.

“To him, kushim is a biblical term,” said Lozowick, Israel’s chief archivist and former director of Yad Vashem, in defense of Lau. True, but context is everything when interpreting biblical passages. Here’s a lesson from the Torah that the rabbi apparently missed: when Moses delegated authority to his “captains over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens,” he was given criteria by which to ensure the moral legitimacy of they who would rule over Israel. The men (and women) who would lead Israel had to be “wise men,” “understanding,” “known,” “able men,” “God-fearing,” “men of Truth,” and “haters of covetousness.” (Deuteronomy 1:13 and Exodus 18:21)

Obviously, the electors of the next decade’s guardians of Israel’s Jewishness didn’t apply these criteria in choosing Lau and Yosef. (Or did they, since the racist views of these two rabbis were surely “known”?) The people of Israel have received what they deserve: a rabbinate that is a true reflection of the current racist streak enlarging itself across the entire spectrum of Israeli society, from the streets of south Tel Aviv to the chambers of the Knesset. But for such bias to be so deeply entrenched in the institutions of Judaism and so visibly espoused by its supposed holy men is hypocrisy.

Coming soon: A revolution

Israel suffers from a minor case of “warts and blemishes” in comparison to other nations, as Lozowick sees it. “Israel didn’t have the awful cultural baggage of Jim Crow and segregation.” I would think that the experience of the Holocaust would rank as “awful cultural baggage” weighty enough to be a constant reminder – and deterrent – of humanity’s penchant for inhumanity. No, we are confronting more than “warts and blemishes,” much more. Pimples and rashes are symptoms of a condition much more sinister and systemic, for which a “kinder, gentler” cure is woefully inadequate. The dehumanizing rot of racism can only be removed via radical surgery, in the hopes of making way for the regeneration of healthy tissue.

But there is no “Black Panther”-style revolution at the door (of either the American or Israeli variety). No David to confront the looming Goliath – at least not one that we recognize yet. The “ethnic demon” of reticence in the face of a persistent racism has no slayer on the horizon. No one even knows the enemy anymore, which is problematic when under assault. As Yossi Klein recently wrote in Haaretz: “In my opinion, we are dealing with a weak and used-up demon that no longer frightens anyone.” Indeed, last year’s social protests have all but fizzled out.

Let’s be frank. Most talk of a “Jewish democratic state” is just that: talk. Globally, more and more people are realizing that “democracy” – and its attendant choking capitalism – has been little more than hype. Truly good governance is more than holding “free elections.” (It would be worthy to note that in ancient Athens, touted as the “seat of Western democracy,” only 6 percent of its people were considered citizens.) Like the rest of Americana that we are so fond of, inequality is the reality for the masses of people. Despite being one of the richest countries, the United States consistently ranks at the bottom (alongside so-called “Third World” nations) in socio-economic indicators. Across the board, human life – and all life for that matter – has been devalued. As professor Yossi Yonah warned, “the country’s leaders proclaim the importance of the people of Israel… but the existence of these people, here and now, is faltering.” If the vision has faltered, it’s because the leaders have faltered.

Malcolm X invades Israel

African American leader Malcolm X – critical of the practice of American democracy as compared to the principles of American democracy – called it “nothing but disguised hypocrisy.”  While Israel has been inundated with “X” air fresheners, seen dangling from the rear-view mirrors of vehicles all across the Jewish state and territories, most haven’t a clue as to what the “X” represents. It symbolizes the unknown, an identity that was denied or brutally snatched away during the dehumanizing African slave trade. Every few years, Malcolm X’s ideas become resurgent in the African American community, and of course, anything popular presents an opportunity for commercial exploitation. Hence the “X” on T-shirts, posters and air fresheners.  Like all fads (apparently inclusive of well-meaning, but deeply conflicted social protest movements), the popularity waned. Meanwhile, some enterprising Israeli businessman has made a “killing” on a surplus of cheap contrivances that mask foul odors. If only we had something for the stench of racism, greed and inequality that is overtaking our society, something long term. Without the strength of a moral and spiritual foundation, it is impossible for anyone to be rooted in anything for long.

Where are those like unto Isaiah, who would “cry aloud, and spare not”? Like Haggai, who would forcefully demand that we “consider our ways”? A similar silence descended on Black America following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, with clear lessons for Israeli society. One keen view comes from Derek Q. Reeves: “One reason for this silence is that many of those who benefited from the limited gains of the civil rights movement have tended to judge the overall success of the movement vis-à-vis their own upward social mobility and have thus quietly acculturated themselves to the luxury of American middle-class status.” (“Beyond the River Jordan: An Essay on the Continuity of the Black Prophetic Tradition,” Derek Q. Reeves, The Journal of Religious Thought [Howard University School of Divinity], Vol. 47, No. 2, Winter-Spring 1990-1991, p. 52)  However, as the American dream fades and that middle-class existence erodes, we can be sure that the voices of the suffering masses will continue to rise to a chaotic crescendo.

Another African American cultural icon, the late poet-musician Gil Scott-Heron, was perhaps best known for his “the revolution will not be televised”. He was right: this revolution is not being covered on IBA, Channel 10 or CNN for that matter. Revolution is to destroy through change. We who are part of the change are not frightened or discouraged by the apparent power of those who stubbornly resist the change. The change that will make Israel what it is destined to be is well underway. Sadly, Scott-Heron yielded to pressure from the BDS movement on the eve of a planned visit. We would have loved to share our unfolding vision for the real kinder, gentler Israel.

The coming really new world order

In his last book, Chaos or Community: Where Do We Go from Here?, King urged African Americans to be “those creative dissenters who will our beloved nation to a higher destiny, to a new plateau, indeed, to a more noble expression of humaneness.” Revolutionary words by any measure, then and now. But precious few really understand the revolutionary ideas that Martin Luther King espoused, despite his universal posthumous “rock star” recognition. Joseph Chilton Pearce was sharply critical of the way American culture killed Martin Luther King Jr.:

[It] built a monument over his grave as well, making a saint of him, naming streets, boulevards, schools, and institutions after him, at the same time allowing the condition of his people to steadily deteriorate under new words covering the same old cultural travesties. Political correctness, while seeming to promote racial sensitivity, is an agreed-upon form of social lying in which the most biased and prejudiced among us can unctuously say the proper words and thereby cloak our continuing destructive patterns.” (Joseph Chilton Pearce, The Biology of Transcendence: A Blueprint of the Human Spirit, pp. 167-168)

Meanwhile, here in the “Promised Land,” we have an opportunity to really make Israel “a light unto the nations.” Again, a return to our African roots might just be what returns us to our prophetic mission. Europeans don’t really presume themselves to be superior to Africans and other non-whites. They do presume that their dominion is one that is destined to go on forever and that there is nothing that anyone else can do about it. But that’s where they are wrong. Biblical history and prophecy are replete with references to an overturning of world empires and dominions in favor of the righteous. The rabbis ought to know that.

“The world of tomorrow will be Black, and righteous,” prophesied Malcolm X. “In the White world there has been nothing but slavery, suffering, death and colonialism. In the Black world of tomorrow, there will be true freedom, justice and equality for all. And that day is coming – sooner than you think.”  (Murray Fisher, ed., Alex Haley: The Playboy Interviews, p. 45) That inevitability has long been conceded at the highest levels of Western leadership. A 1978 New York Times article referred to then-U.S. National Security Council director Zbigniew Brzezinski thusly: “the United States now accepts that what he called the ‘Eurocentric’ era of the world had ended. By the end of the century, 85 percent of the world’s people will be in Asia, Africa and Latin America…. The United States, Mr. Brzezinski added, is not trying to build dams against the forces of history but rather to channel these forces in a positive direction.” (“Brzezinski in Algiers for Anniversary, Plans Assurance on Sahara War,” New York Times, November 1, 1979)  America’s ideas for a “positive” channeling of “these forces” are clearly not working; what will Israel bring to the table?

When Africans do regain the helm of world affairs, one thing is for certain: we couldn’t possibly do any worse than has been done for the last 500 years. The good news for Israel is that we are all Africans. And once we are reconnected to Africa as in ancient times, we won’t be singing in Eurovision or playing in the Euroleague, which of course would minimize the opportunity for more insults from the chief rabbis. The bad news is that Israel’s psycho-geographical dislocation may harden an already sclerotic heart and prove to be her greatest existential threat.

Ahmadiel Ben Yehuda is a spokesman for the Hebrew Israelites in Dimona, and a member of the International Society for the Study of African Judaism.