Qualifying for the Slurs

“I’m embarrassed by how race is treated in the Jewish community.” –Ben Faulding

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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.”

Watch the video

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.

 

A Black-hyphen-Jewish Seder in the Land of Civil Rights

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When I couldn’t find a #Blewish Seder in Atlanta, I did the next best thing: took my son Calvin, 22, to a Black-hyphen-Jewish Seder in The Temple, a local synagogue.

The Atlanta-slash-Black Jewish Coalition has held this event on alternate years since 1982, when they forged an alliance to ensure that the Voting Rights Act was renewed, and stayed together ever since.

ImageThis Seder was held 11 days before Passover, on Thursday, April 3, to honor the eve of the 46th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination.

Calvin and I had attended a Black-slash-Jewish Seder in 2007, when we lived in Montclair, NJ, a liberal, progressive town outside of New York City. My late mother, Rosalyn, came with us and as “a mother who speaks Yiddish and jazz,” (to borrow a phrase from #Blewish author Lisa Jones Brown), she was thrilled. But Calvin, then a teen, wasn’t so interested in his roots, the food was bland, and conversation stalled when I tried to explain being Black and Jewish to the folks seated at our table.

So I didn’t have high hopes for the Atlanta Seder. I knew much more about Black Atlanta than Jewish Atlanta and had next-to-no experience with Southern Jews.  I prepared to be annoyed at best, and deeply disappointed at worst.

But I was pleasantly surprised. The people at our table (a good balance of Blacks and Jews) took Calvin’s explanation of our identities in stride (perhaps because he slightly resembles famed #Blewish rapper Drake), the conversations were pleasant and the food was fantastic.

I don’t usually like matzoh balls, but theirs were superb, floating in chicken soup that rivaled my mother’s (and beat any NYC deli I’d seen). The brisket was truly divine, and I even had more than one helping of gefilte fish, which I normally avoid. In a nod to Black culture, fried chicken sat next to the brisket, and there was a side of mashed sweet potatoes.

The heart of a Seder is The Haggadah–a script for a choreographed ritual meal. Haggadahs can vary widely in style and tone. This one, read by Father Jeffrey Ott, O.P., of Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church and Rabbi David Spinrad of The Temple, hit just the right notes.

Along with the traditional Jewish script (which had sufficient English translations of the Hebrew for everyone to follow along), their Haggadah included relevant quotes from Julius Lester, Bob Dylan, Nelson Mandela, Langston Hughes and Barack Obama. References to the enslavement of Black Africans were interwoven with the story of the Jewish exodus from Egyptian enslavement.

ImageAnd a sign of progress: an orange on the Seder Plate to represent gays, lesbians and others who are marginalized within the Jewish community.

Sure Calvin and I seemed to be the only #Blewish folk in the room of about 200. And there were no great moments of synthesis. But the Father and the Rabbi did a great job, the energy was positive, and it was a beautiful way to honor a moment of blending traditions in a part of the country that still bears blatant signs and attitudes of Jim Crow. As the room vibrated with the traditional song of gratitude, “Dayenu,” and the strains of the civil rights anthem, “We Shall Overcome,” I felt my mother’s spirit smile down upon us.

Every group should have the equivalent of a Seder: a yearly ritual meal where each bite symbolizes ancestral history, tradition and culture. From time to time, different groups could share their meals with people they view as different from themselves. The 2014 Atlanta Black-hyphen-Jewish Seder was still very much about the hyphen, but it was also a warm, enjoyable reminder that when people reach past barriers to break matzoh and explore commonalities, the results can be deliciously divine.

Harry B and Jay-Z: Are We Missing the Point in this So-called “Beef”?

 

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What does the so-called “beef” between 86 year-old singer/actor/activist Harold George “Harry” Belafonte, Jr. (aka Harry B) and 44 year-old hip hopreneur and major cultural force Shawn Corey Carter (aka Jay-Z or Hov have to do with how we address the urgent issues consuming us today? .

First, a quick recap:

In August, 2012, Harry B was asked by The Hollywood Reporter if he was “happy with the image of members of minorities in Hollywood today.” He said,” I think one of the great abuses of this modern time is that we should have had such high-profile artists, powerful celebrities. But they have turned their back on social responsibility. That goes for Jay-Z and Beyonce, for example. Give me Bruce Springsteen, and now you’re talking. I really think he is black.”

(Note: I have to give a Blewish side-eye to Harry B, trying to challenge Jay-Z’s “Blackness” when he left his Black wife and children to marry a White, Jewish woman).

Beyonce

The following week, Beyonce fact-checked Harry B via the Wall Street Journal with a list  of her charitable activities.

Harry B “declined to immediately return the [Wall Street] Journal’s request for a comment.

Jay-Z remained mum about his charitable deeds, listed in Look to the Stars.

Magna Carta Holy Grail

Nearly a year later, Jay-Z responded via lyric on the “Nickles and Dimes” track of his new “Magna Carta Holy Grail” CD:

“I’m just trying to find common ground/ ‘Fore Mr. Belafonte come and chop a n*gga down/ Mr. Day O, major fail/ Respect these youngins boy, it’s my time now/ Hublot homie two door homie/ You don’t know all the sh*t I do for the homies.”

Read the full lyrics here.

 

That lyric rekindled the public debate. In response, Hov said in an interview with RapRadar that, “I felt like Belafonte he just went about it wrong.Like the way he did it in the media, and then he big’d up Bruce Springsteen or somebody. And it was like, “whoa,” you just sent the wrong message all the way around…Bruce Springsteen is a great guy. You’re this Civil Rights activist and you just big’d up the white guy against me in the white media. And I’m not saying that in a racial way. I’m just saying what it is. The fact of what it was. And that was just the wrong way to go about it.

In that same interview, Hov explained his commitment, and respectfully extended the olive branch to Harry B and other elders:I have to challenge even our guys that have done so much for us…I have to challenge them to be honest and … to at least have the dialogue with us to understand. Of course you hear these buzz words, “Hublo homie,” … but you don’t understand …  this song is about dealing with survivor’s guilt and how to go about charity.  So let’s have that dialogue, period, and let’s hold each other accountable.  

He shared his approach to philanthropy, and his claim that “my presence is charity”:”Things that I feel are important, I help … sometimes it’s on TV, sometimes it’s not and that’s cool with me. I connect with the things that I think are important, I help in my way. This is going to sound arrogant, but my presence is charity: you know how many people are inspired by my story [of growing up poor in the projects].

Days later, a year after his initial jab, Harry B went on MSNBC singing a different tune: “I would hope with all my heart that Jay-Z not take personally what was said. I would like to … say to Jay Z and Beyonce: I’m wide open, my heart is filled with … hope and the promise that we can sit and have a one-on-one to understand each other.”

So while they’re at least talking about taking this to a higher level, what are WE doing to address the urgent issues (insert your own list here) threatening our non-celebrity lives?

Countless folk in social media have invested untold hours pontificating on this high-profile spat. But the real conversation isn’t about celebrity antics. If they can set aside their differences to potentially join forces for the greater good, then something useful might come of this situation.

There are urgent, life-and-death issues demanding our attention. We need to transcend this rush to bash-the-celebrity and let their antics fuel our own R/evolution.

We all have our differences. But if we can’t move beyond the ego-fueled obsession to be more “right” than the person who sees things differently, we are doomed.

If we can’t understand that true and lasting change, the kind that makes life better for people, comes ONLY when folk can “put their egos at the door,” and decide that their common cause is more powerful and important than the fact that have varying perspectives, then we’re giving in to the status quo.

It’s about priorities.

It’s about understanding the nature and requirements of social change.

It’s far too easy to be social media “keyboard activists,” squandering our time, talents, energy and emotion on knee-jerk social media responses to what celebrities say and do while our lives and futures are in danger.

I don’t care whether you think either of these public figures was right, wrong, or justified in their comments. They are relevant only as a mirror in which we can observe ourselves and opportunities to evolve, individually and in community.

We’re never going to agree or reach consensus on how we see the world or experience the many aspects of this life. Forget that! Better to study the REAL nature of social activism, of movements that have achieved positive change and contributed to tangible progress. In every case, folk agree that the larger cause is worth setting aside individual differences for the greater good.

Caricom

Witness the recent example of the leaders of 14 Caribbean countries joining forces to fight for slavery reparations and genocide, from France and the Netherlands. There are differences in their cultures, and perspectives, but they seem to be setting those differences aside in the name of justice.

If Harry B and Jay-Z can do the same, then every one of us—before we rush to choose “sides” in this or the next celebrity “beef,” should examine where OUR prejudices, biases, criticisms and judgments might be holding us—and our communities—back.

Martin and Malcolm

Just imagine if Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. had joined forces.

In the spirit and in tribute to WHOEVER you admire, and WHATEVER inspires you, let’s use celebrities as inspiration rather than distractions, and be about the business of saving our lives, our children, our families, our communities and our world.

Harriet Tubman if only they knew

Let’s not be the ones that Harriet Tubman described when she said:

I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more, if only they knew they were slaves.

Let’s KNOW what we have to do and set aside our differences to get it done. Otherwise we’ll be forever enslaved on the plantations of our minds.