Skip to main content

Black Jews remark may hurt Sterling as well

By Robin Washington
updated 1:03 PM EDT, Tue April 29, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Robin Washington looks at comments attributed to Sterling that slam black Jews in Israel
  • "You go to Israel, the blacks are just treated like dogs," said a voice reported to be Sterling's
  • Black Jews face adversity, but to compare them to "dogs" is out of bounds, he says

Editor's note: Robin Washington is a research scholar for the San Francisco-based think tank Be'chol Lashon and co-founder of the Alliance of Black Jews. He lives in Duluth, Minnesota. He was previously the editor of the Duluth News Tribune. You can follow him on Twitter @robinbirk. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- If the first thing you've ever heard about black Jews in Israel came out of the mouth — allegedly, still, for now — of L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling, I'm sorry to hear that. The reported rambling of an octogenarian billionaire in what sounds like a bedroom fight with his 30-something mistress probably isn't the best source for dissecting geopolitical religiosity.

"You go to Israel, the blacks are just treated like dogs," the Guy Who Sounds Like Sterling said on the recording leaked by Somebody Perhaps His Mistress.

Here's the full exchange:
The Guy: "It's the world! You go to Israel, the blacks are just treated like dogs."
The Mistress: "So do you have to treat them like that, too?"
Guy: "The white Jews, there's white Jews and black Jews. Do you understand?"
Mistress: "And are the black Jews less than the white Jews?"
Guy: "A hundred percent, fifty, a hundred percent."

On the surface, Sterling might have a point — even if no one can make any sense of where he was going with it — that dark-skinned Jews have experienced adversity in the Jewish state. But to say ''dogs" isn't quite kosher.

Robin Washington
Robin Washington

Israel touts with pride successes like Operation Solomon, its airlift of Ethiopian Jews in 1991 — where in one push, more than 14,000 were transported to Israel over 36 hours — to escape persecution in a homeland where the religion has been practiced since Biblical times. There's no question that life, especially the fact that they are alive, is better in the Promised Land.

Yet it hasn't been overflowing with milk and honey. Ethiopian Jews are among the poorest Israelis, with 72% living below the poverty line and unemployment affecting as many as six in 10 Ethiopian men and three-quarters of women, according to the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston.

Consider also that many came from villages without electricity or running water, and that 70% were functionally illiterate in their native Amharic and never learned to read or write Hebrew. It's obvious they'd have trouble integrating into an industrialized society.

Frustrations boiled over two years ago in the city of Kiryat Malachi, when thousands demonstrated against discriminatory practices, including apartment owners who refused to rent to Ethiopian Israelis.

That's bad. But dogs?

IP Funny: Putin, Obama, Sterling
Writer: 'Let's not stop at the easy part'
Donald Sterling's wife: He's not racist

"That's insane. That's disgusting," said Avishai Mekonen, an Ethiopian Israeli filmmaker living in New York.

"Basically, this man is stupid. He doesn't know any history of African people," said Mekonen, who in his film "400 Miles to Freedom" documented his own harrowing escape from Ethiopia as a child, getting separated from his family and nearly dying in the desert.

The other side of the Ethiopian Jewish story counts successes like members of the Knesset, writers and musicians, and Yityish Aynaw, the current Miss Israel.

While acknowledging that assimilation and rejection are real, Mekonen said: "There's a lot of change from what happened in the '80s. We had the issue of language and communication and culture. They see us as different, but year-by-year, it's improved."

That's because the community isn't just sitting there taking it, he says.

"They don't give up. They're doing something. We have a voice."

If it's necessary to prove Sterling wrong (requisite disclaimer again: assuming it's him), Mekonen's message of empowerment flies in the face of the repeated theme on the tape that the world is racist and there's nothing you can do about it.

"It isn't a question. We don't evaluate what's right and wrong. We live in a society. We live in a culture. We have to live within that culture," the guy in the recording says to sum up his black Jew narrative — which, by the way, isn't clear about who he's referring to.

"Which people is he talking about when he says 'black Jews?'" asked Mekonen. "That could be people from North Africa, Asia, India, Israeli Arabs"— all with very different cultures.

Shocking. Can't believe that (a guy that sounds like) Sterling would stereotype them.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:10 PM EST, Mon November 24, 2014
If Obama thinks pushing out Hagel will be seen as the housecleaning many have eyed for his national security process, he'll be disappointed, says David Rothkopf.
updated 8:11 AM EST, Tue November 25, 2014
The decision by the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney to announce the Ferguson grand jury decision at night was dangerous, says Jeff Toobin.
updated 3:57 AM EST, Tue November 25, 2014
China's influence in Latin America is nothing new. Beijing has a voracious appetite for natural resources and deep pockets, says Frida Ghitis.
updated 4:51 PM EST, Mon November 24, 2014
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a press conference in the capital Tehran on June 14, 2014.
The decision to extend the deadline for talks over Iran's nuclear program doesn't change Tehran's dubious history on the issue, writes Michael Rubin.
updated 2:25 PM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
updated 7:44 AM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
updated 6:29 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
updated 8:34 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
updated 3:12 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
updated 10:13 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
updated 8:21 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
updated 5:56 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
updated 3:11 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
updated 8:45 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
updated 10:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
updated 12:59 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
updated 9:58 PM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
updated 4:41 PM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
updated 8:21 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
updated 7:16 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
updated 11:07 PM EST, Sun November 16, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT