Skip to main content

Black Jews remark may hurt Sterling as well

By Robin Washington
April 29, 2014 -- Updated 1703 GMT (0103 HKT)
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
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
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.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 1904 GMT (0304 HKT)
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2256 GMT (0656 HKT)
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 2011 GMT (0411 HKT)
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1519 GMT (2319 HKT)
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1759 GMT (0159 HKT)
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?
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 0258 GMT (1058 HKT)
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.
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 2141 GMT (0541 HKT)
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.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1216 GMT (2016 HKT)
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!
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
America will have its hands full in the Middle East for years to come, writes Aaron David Miller.
November 15, 2014 -- Updated 1617 GMT (0017 HKT)
Gene Seymour says it's part of our pioneering makeup to keep exploring the universe
November 14, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the U.S.-China agreement to cut carbon emissions is a big deal, and Republicans should take note.
November 15, 2014 -- Updated 2129 GMT (0529 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says the Obamacare advisor who repeatedly disses the electorate in a series of videotaped remarks reveals arrogance and cluelessnes.
November 14, 2014 -- Updated 2200 GMT (0600 HKT)
Reggie Littlejohn says gendercide is a human rights abuse against women, with bad consequences for nations.
November 13, 2014 -- Updated 1657 GMT (0057 HKT)
The massing of Russian forces near Ukraine only reinforces the impression that Moscow has no interest in reconciliation with the West, writes Michael Kofman.
November 12, 2014 -- Updated 1455 GMT (2255 HKT)
It takes a real man to make the moves on the wife of the most powerful man in the biggest country. Especially when the wife is a civilian major general.
November 12, 2014 -- Updated 1347 GMT (2147 HKT)
Proponents of marriage equality LGBT persons have been on quite a winning streak -- 32 states and the District of Columbia now allow same-sex marriage.
November 13, 2014 -- Updated 1358 GMT (2158 HKT)
It has been an eventful few weeks for space news.
November 12, 2014 -- Updated 2014 GMT (0414 HKT)
It's too early to write the U.S. off, and China's leaderships knows that better than anyone, argues Kerry Brown.
November 12, 2014 -- Updated 1821 GMT (0221 HKT)
"How can Jon Stewart hire you to be 'The Daily Show''s senior Muslim correspondent when you don't even know how to pronounce Salaam Al-aikum?!"
ADVERTISEMENT