Two sides of Israeli Race Relations on Yom HaAtzmaut...

Almost every city and town in Israel puts on a big show for Yom HaAtzmaut, Israeli Independence Day (yesterday). This year, Kiryat Bialik has a new mayor whose basic campaign platform boiled down to "Let's Spend Lots of Money so that We Look Better than Kiryat Motzkin," so true to form we had a fabulous Yom HaAtzmaut show.

Fireworks are just part: we also had a free concert from THREE major Israeli artists (Sarit Hadad, Beit HaBubot-- a really great young band-- and Dag Nachash, who sadly we didn't see because by that time it was midnight and pretty cold out). Israeli artists spend Yom HaAtzmaut eve traveling from town to town performing. The night after Yom HaAtzmaut, Sarit Hadad was on a comedy TV show joking about how she couldn't even remember which town she was in most of the time... although the punch line had to do with thinking she was in the Phillipines when she played for a community of mostly senior citizens. If you lived in Israel, you'd understand why!

As we waited for Beit HaBubot to arrive from wherever they had performed last, different youth singing and dance troops performed. Some of the performances were incredible-- the "prachei Bialik" were a group of Ethiopian young people singing Hebrew songs with that Ethiopian twist-- pure voices, swaying dances, harmonies. They sang one song that was a hit from the Sheba Choir, a choir of Ethiopian kids that was very popular in Israeli back in the early 90s. If you listen to music during sefirot, check out this youtube video to discover the Sheba choir:

(Our Kiryat Bialik kids actually sounded more beautiful, despite the fact that they were just a group of four or five!)

Celebrating Ethiopian singing seems to be trendy in Israel today, with the success of one of my favorite bands in the world, the Idan Raichel Project. I saw them perform in New York City and I'm very tempted to go see them again in Haifa in June. Idan Raichel gathered together singers representing all origins of Israeli life-- Iranian, Ethiopian, European, Yemenite, Argentinian, even Sudanese-- and forged an incredible blend. This video doesn't have the greatest sound quality, but it shows the magical visual and sound fusion of their concerts:

I love the way that immigrant cultures in Israel-- somewhat as they do in the US-- remain distinct to the point that the discussion around our barbecue table yesterday centered around Romanian vs. Iraqi cooking (and yet, this discussion was generated by a wonderful couple in which the girl is of Iraqi descent-- with a Russian name--and the guy is Romanian-Polish). I love that we celebrate Ethiopian dance as an integral part of Israeli Independence day. The Ethiopian aliyah has been a fiasco in some ways, with Ethiopian adults essentially time traveling hundreds of years forward into a modern world they were unprepared to handle. But Ethiopian kids seem to be proud and contributing parts of Israeli society, so I think Ethiopians will only become more prominent in Israeli life during the years to come.

Then, though, when one of the other (non-Ethiopian) youth dance troupes was performing, I saw something that honestly disturbed me. This group-- of about 10-12 year olds-- broke from the traditional songs of the other groups and instead performed a hip-hop dance montage to songs that included "I Like Big Buts" by Sir Mix-a-lot. Hardly what I would consider Zionist, but hey, it's a fun song. Then, towards the end of their performance, a kid came out with a mask that looked like Sambo-- a horribly caricatured black face. He was wearing a hat, overalls, and was dancing in those loose, floppy movements I have only seen in black-and-white footage. And nobody in the audience seemed to react.

I suppose to the dance choreographers, this was simply a "funny" iconic image from another culture-- one they probably didn't really attach to racism but more to a cute dance style. After all, they liked African-American culture enough to dance to a mix of hip-hop music on Israeli Independence Day. Obviously, we don't have the history of race relations that the US has had that renders the US-- finally-- sensitive to such horrible stereotypes. Israelis use terms casually that shock Americans, including, say, the n-word.

But I can't believe that those Ethiopian girls were entirely blind to the racist undertones in the performance after their beautiful dance. They actually walked past me in a line (returning to their own seats) as the performance was going on, and their faces looked grim... I felt like disappearing into my seat. I was once in a clothing store when a white sales girl tried to point out an Ethiopian sales girl by saying, "the black girl" (in English), and she got such a glare from the Ethiopian girl. It reminded me that not all Israelis see casual references to race as benign.

It is refreshing to live in a country that doesn't hold by "political correctness" and where people actually say what they think, but sometimes I wish Israelis were more sensitive. In fact, I'm hesitant to post this in a public forum at all, except that I want your opinions. Is this just my American-ness showing through? What do you think about the state of racial relations in Israel? Was I right in being shocked by this performance, and do you think I should do anything about it (say, complain to the city council)?


  1. We went to the show in Ofra, since our granddaughter was in it. The kids were of "all colors." Besides the many shades of "white," there were Ethiopeans and Bnai Menashe. YOu can see them on me-ander and my youtube and WEJEW.

  2. Dunno-hard to say... but perhaps a complaint would help other people realize the undertones.

  3. We definitely have all kinds here, not question about it.


  4. Argh... no question, of course.

  5. Hi,
    got here from Lisa's blog..
    The question of "race relations" in Israel may be new but it isn't nonexistent. Remember the Boublils and the Friedmans last year? (or was it earlier this year)?
    Israel has a clear hegemony of one racial group - whites, to be blunt - over others. Even the standard modern hebrew pronunciation is fully ashkenazi rather than sephardic. And 'horizontal inequalities' -- economic and social inequalities based on race, not on income - are increasingly visible.
    If Israelis are planning on preventing race relations from getting any worse, they need to begin now.

    I would complain to the city council, if i were you!

  6. Thank you for the input! I think I will complain to the iryah for the "blackface"-style dance... thanks for reinforcing to me that I am not overreacting.

    Mo-ha-med, I see the Ashkenazi-Sephardi divide as a little different from this dance at the Yom HaAztmaut celebration. I think this performance was truly the result of ignorance-- ignorance (combined with indifference, I'm sure) about the history of horribly dehumanizing racism in the US that created this kind of caricature. The Ashkenazi-Sephardi divide, on the other hand, is the result of the unequal conditions under which the different aliyot occurred, and the power balance that left secular Ashkenazim in control of early cgovernment. I'm surprised you say the modern Hebrew pronunciation is fully Ashkenazi rather than Sephardi-- I'd always thought it was the other way around. (For example, Ashkenazim have a "saf" while in modern Israeli Hebrew, a "taf" is always a "taf.") But definitely there are serious inequalities between ethnic groups in Israel, and in some ways the Ashkenazi-Sephardi relations are much more like modern US white-black relations... I've heard that the "black panther" movement in Israel was started by Sephardim! Definitely a post for another day.

  7. You are right that it is different from the 'black mask' dance, of course. Lucky for Israel, you don't have the racial relations baggage (eeeh... slavery?) that the US has. Or that European colonizing powers have with their citizens from former colonies, for that matter.

    But I believe that it is a race issue still. A haaretz article a little while back (titled "their mother is from Morocco") discussed the taboo of bringing up the subject..

    And of course, remains the 'other' race issue in Israel - Jews and Arabs. Surely another post :)

    Re: pronunciation, I believe sephardis (well, Mizrahis, to be more precise) traditionally pronounce the ע ס ק ח the way Arabs do; in modern Hebrew these letters have been simplified to their closest 'Latin' letter (a, s, k, and spanish j). And I may be wrong, but i don't think any newscaster speaks like a sephardi..

  8. Yeah, I think they are race issues of different scales, and if anything Ashkenazi-Sephardi relations are MORE of an actual race issue. The "black mask" thing was much more ignorance of the seriousness of the racism it represents. But yes, lots of material for race posts here... oy.

    I believe Ben Yehuda was the one to use Sephardi pronunciations when he brought Hebrew back to life, and we use Sephardi inflections-- for example, Ashkenazi Hebrew says SHAbos while Israeli Hebrew (and Sephardic Hebrew) says shaBAT. Same letters, totally different pronunciations. But maybe what really happened was that we ended up with Sephardic Hebrew spoken with an Ashkenazi accent... if that makes any sense. To an Ashkenazi ear, it sounds like we're speaking Sephardi Hebrew, just like I think I speak Israeli Hebrew, but the more subtle differences didn't translate... like the "chet." I never thought about it that way before, but it's kind of an interesting idea!

    I see so much happy coexistence here, though. I know SO many people who are mixes of Russian, Moroccan, Polish, Yeminite, Ethiopian, what have you... much more than I saw biracial people in the US. At some level I think all Jews in Israel feel very much like the same family whatever their origins. Although of course, as you say, Jewish-Arab relations are another story altogether.

  9. Well, Maya, you know one more person of mixed Jewish heritage. I am Lithuanian/Galitzianer/Russian on one side and Syrian/Palestinian on the other (from the days when Haifa was considered to be southern Syria and the Jewish community was Syrian). -Jewish comes after all of the above.

    In response to the "black girl" remark, I would have said, "She is our sister. Let's not refer to her in such a derogatory manner." But, I would have to look up some of these words in Hebrew, LOL.

    I believe this is much more than newly-awakened American sensibilities, but part of the process of bringing Jewish unity to the fore. We have been spread out all over the world and become very different in one another's eyes.

    On the subject of Jew-Arab relations, which is not a racial issue but something else entirely, I am not willing to compromise. Our government does too much of that already.

  10. I just got linked to this blog earlier today, and have been working my way through the posts. Just wanted to let you know that this post has had me on youtube for the past hour or so watching hadag nachash videos. The sticker song is the first modern Israeli song that i ever really got into, but listening to the rest of their songs (and reading along the english translations), I really love all of them. I thought that you would particularly like this one entitled rak po- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ikjiMbJIG8g

  11. the thing is Ethiopians don't tend to sympathize with African Americans and such they're like the lone rangers...well the ones in Ethiopia and the rest besides Israel I guess. A similar thing happened to me when I went to Israel last summer. Some of my friends, me and my cousin who lives in Israel went to ask about one of our passports and the lady at the desk glared at my cousin who looks like I assumed the typical Ethiopian in Israel and where in Ethiopia she would be considered pretty dark for a northern ethiopian. And the lady turned to me, which is wierd because I'm a Beta Israel myself but I was raised in Canada, and smiled and told me in English to go to the black woman at the second desk. I was like "the black woman? doesn't she have a name or something" and she said to me " yes, the black woman the ethiopian" and she laughed and said " you've probably not seen black jews much around have you..." and she tried to explain to me how MY people came to Israel as Jews. I was slightly offended by the fact that she glared at my own flesh and blood like that but the fact that she assumed I was Armenian or Greek, according to her, when I later told her what I actually I am and believe it or not her face was a mix of embarrassment/awkwardness/disbelief and she gave me a look that said "is-that-even frikin-possible-'cause-she-has-green-eyes-and-olive-skin-with-light brown hair", I'm used to people getting my race wrong and the usual face I get from Israeli's when I start speaking Amharic on the phone or saying hi to Ethiopian friends they're like WTF, but it stung a little hearing those things she said in a terrible tone. But when I was going to ask the lady why she was glaring at my cousin, my cousin stopped me saying that it's common in Israel. I understand the racism is also there for mizrahim's and other groups as well. But how long is it before people realize that they have greater enemies besides the people that are in their army from the same faith serving the same country and the same G-d. I just feel sorry for my people who are equally if not greater constantly hated and bashed by non-jewish Ethiopians. Most non-jewish Ethiopians have this wierd horrible pleasure from talking and hearing about the jews of ethiopia facing racism by the rest of Israel. Israel should be united and fighting the enemy not picking each other's skin. Trust me, 'cause here in the west once we tell them we're Jews they don't give a d*** they will go on and on about how me and my family have probably killed innocent Palestinian children when I lost my own two brothers and 7 cousins to this endless war and lots and lots of people to suicide bombing so I am immune to all of those Amnesty International information they preach to me about human rights.


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