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 3:41 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
updated 12:45 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
Alan Elsner says Secretary Kerry's early cease-fire draft was leaked and presented as a final document, which served the interests of hard-liners on both sides who don't want the Gaza war to stop.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
updated 2:18 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Rick Francona says Israel seems determined to render Hamas militarily ineffective.
updated 1:43 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
updated 4:28 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
updated 3:39 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
updated 2:52 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
updated 12:35 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 8:09 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT