On October 18, Haftom Zarhum, an Eritrean migrant in Israel, was shot and kicked by a mob in Beersheba because they thought he looked like a terrorist. On October 13 in Haifa, an Israeli Jewish man named Uri Rezken was stabbed by another Israeli Jew who thought he looked like an Arab. As he was being stabbed and called a “bastard Arab,” Rezken screamed out, “I am a Jew! I am a Jew!”
These incidents reveal a society that is so tightly wound that people who look dark or Arab might be suspected of being terrorists.
Am I speaking of Israeli society now or of North American society? If mainstream Jewish Israeli society at this moment is afraid of people who look Arab, there is real trouble, since many Jews are also and have always been Arab. So what does an Arab look like? What does a Jew look like? My friend with an Iranian-Jewish father calls herself Israeli because she doesn’t like being seen as an Arab. The extra layer of complexity here is that Iranians are not Arabs, but rather Persian.
A Jew can also be an Arab. Jews have long and deeply rooted traditions throughout the Arab world. Many Arab Jews now live in Israel and North America. Persian Jews, Bhukaran Jews, Indian Jews, Afghan Jews, West African Jews and Chinese Jews are similarly proud of their ancient traditions and lineage. But, in Israel, as well as here in North America, we have a tendency to assume Ashkenazic heritage, and assume whiteness, when we consider Jewishness. But that is not in fact an accurate accounting of current Jewish demographics or history. Jews come in all shades and stripes. A Philadelphia-based organization committed to diversity integration is called “Jews in ALL Hues.”
The first Jews to grace the shores of the New World were not Polish or Russian Jews fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe. They were Sephardic Jews fleeing persecution during the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisition in the 1490s. Via England and the Netherlands, they arrived in what is now Brazil, the Guyanas, Suriname and the Caribbean islands.
These Sephardic Jews were founders of the sugar industry, and they were developers, traders and merchants. And some were slave owners. They founded Jewish communities you can still visit in Suriname, Recife, Curaçao, Jamaica and Barbados. Eventually, they made their way to fledgling port cities of the New World, including New Amsterdam (New York), Providence, Baltimore and Boston, where they were the only Jews around because Ashkenazim would not begin to arrive for many years. So the assumed Eastern European heritage of North American Jewry needs to be nuanced.
On one side of my family, there are four cousins: Sarah, David, Samuel and Benjamin. While I look brown in the summer and tanned in the winter, one boy is blond with blue eyes and white skin; one is described regularly as looking like an East Indian prince; and one has an Afro and blue eyes. Each of us, in France as well as in Canada, gets challenged with the same suspicious questions: “Why do you have such a Jewish name? Are you a Jew?” This might surprise some of you. But in the West, what we think of as the Jewish “look” has been codified, thanks to Hollywood, into something between Woody Allen and Jerry Seinfeld.
I am not interested in demeaning the cultural importance of Yiddishkeit or of Ashkenazic culture as a touchstone for Jewish culture. Before the Second World War, there were three million Jews in Poland alone and cultural life there was luminescent. But let’s not for a minute think that North American Jewish life began at Ellis Island – and let’s not be equally lazy when we make assumptions about identity and Jewishness.
So, what do we do about racism within our Jewish world? It is not a new thing. Recent violence in Israel reflects the difficulty of integrating non-European immigrants into a system largely founded and developed by people of European ancestry. This process has been challenging in Canada as well. And the shared key paradox is that neither of these places was uninhabited before the settlers came in and declared it a new country! What did those original inhabitants look like? Not European, I can guarantee.
All right? Beseder? Gut?