“I’m embarrassed by how race is treated in the Jewish community.” –Ben Faulding
Ben Faulding wears the word that expresses his identity insecurity in Steve Rosenfield’s provocative “Jews of New York What I Be Project.”
Sometimes your Ancestry collides with life in the nexus of conflict and contradiction.
And the force of that collision is summed up in a single word.
“The potentially inflammatory pejorative ‘schvartze’ — the Yiddish word likened to the N word — was scrawled across the forehead of … Ben Faulding, a 30-year-old Biracial Hasid from Crown Heights whose father is Black,” wrote acclaimed #Blewish journalist Simone Weischselbaum, for the New York Daily News.
The image of Ben Faulding, with schvartze painted on his forehead, is the question, the answer, the thesis, antithesis and synthesis. It’s bloody chains and swastikas. Middle passage and pogroms. Holocausts–plural--blossoming into the PTSD that snakes through our DNA.
When you are born and live at the intersection of two contested tribal identities–African American and Jewish–you know that even though some Jews fought in, supported in and died in the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, the one core rule to attaining the “White” status granted to immigrants who play the assimilation game is that you must consider Blackpeople less than whatever you happen to be. And your password into the club is a slur.
Ben Faulding wasn’t attacked—he volunteered his forehead as canvas for Steve Rosenfield’s “Jews of New York What I Be Project,” featuring photos of young people with provocative words and phrases written on their bodies. Rosenfield selected the messages based on interviews with each subject.
“Schvartze” on Faulding’s brown forehead captures the “squeeze” of being born to warring tribes. In the hierarchy of Jewish religious practice, Hasids are at the top—considered the most devout, literal practitioners of the faith. Though Faulding identifies as Hasid, he can’t escape the racism in his tribe.
The image, Faulding told the Daily News, “’[Is]…about me expressing my insecurities. I am embarrassed how race is treated in the Jewish community … It’s completely personal,’” he added. “’I didn’t expect it to spread.’”
It spread because it represents not just Ben Faulding’s situation, and the well-documented beef between Blacks and Hasidic Jews in Crown Heights, Brooklyn over the years. It also represents Israel’s apartheid-like treatment, of Ethiopian Jews and Black, non-Jewish migrants from other parts of the African continent hoping for asylum in “the Holy Land.”
As Haaretz Jewish World News reported in the piece, ‘A Schvartze is a Schvartze is a Schvartze—Affirmative Action for Ethiopian Jews, “4000 Ethiopian Jews died in 1983-85 trying to reach Israel. Some were murdered. Many starved to death. Many more died of dysentery and other diseases … Still, to Orthodox Jews (except for parts of Bnei Akiva and Shas), especially Israeli haredim and American Orthodox Jews of all affiliations, Ethiopian Jews are simply schvartes, with all the negative connotations that word implies.”
Some Israeli people aren’t too happy about non-Jewish Black Africans either. As Independent journalist and filmmaker David Sheen, who documents anti-African racism in Israel, reports, “…May 23, 2013, marked exactly one year to the day when a thousand Jewish Israelis ran rampant through the streets of Tel Aviv, smashing and looting African-operated businesses and physically assaulting any dark-skinned person they came across. Sadly, the Israeli economic, political and religious establishment – who were in large measure responsible for the pogrom – did not respond by working to quash the racism, but rather ramped up their efforts to expel all non-Jewish African people from the country.”
I feel squeezed to near-suffocation when I see news reports of Israelis acting like they’re in the Ku Klux Klan, screaming, “I’m proud to be a racist. It is our right to be racist,” and “We don’t need to wait…round them up!” at anti-African rallies.
And the few Israelis who stand up for the Black Africans are met with comments like, “May you be raped!” “I’ll stick a pole up your ass,” and “You’re married to a nigg**–get out!”
None of this is surprising, given Israel’s relationship with Palestinians or the United Nations’ occasional claims that “Zionism is racism.” But I view that conflict through a political lens, knowing that my financial support as a US taxpayer trumps any opinions I might have about that apartheid. I feel Israel’s treatment of Ethiopian Jews and non-Jewish Black Africans much more personally.
Wherever I go, just as in America I am branded nig***, in any Jewish context on the planet, I am a schvartze. While there are levels of Judaism, I don’t see levels of nig***-ism—not here, not in Israel, not anywhere in the world.
Those universally recognized code words for White Supremacy have only one meaning:
“I am better than you, I am in power, and I always will be. You are dirt, you are scum, you are less-than-human.”
These slurs words contain the whistle-and-sting of whips, the clang of chains, the hiss of skin split open, and the collective agony of unhealed wounds. We are branded by every letter, every syllable, and every message they bear. Ben Faulding has the courage to broadcast the “squeeze” he finds in his personal crossroads and contradictions.
So while folk on both sides debate whether we #Blewish folk qualify to self-identify as Black or Jewish according to their ever-shifting “rules,” one thing is clear: we sho ‘nuff qualify for the slurs—undiluted, uncut, unambiguous—each and every time.