OPINION: Blackface, cultural appropriation and Jew-on-Jew racism

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OPINION: Blackface, cultural appropriation and Jew-on-Jew racism

"Racism is never a prank," writes Hen Mazzig following the release of a racist YouTube video made by Israeli students stereotyping Mizrahi Jews.

Hen Mazzig is a former lieutenant in the Coordination of Government Activities in the Terrorities. He shares his story with campuses and Jewish communities around the world.

Students at the Horev girls high school in Jerusalem in a Purim skit mocking Mizrahi Jews. (Screenshot)
Students at the Horev girls high school in Jerusalem in a Purim skit mocking Mizrahi Jews. (Screenshot)

It couldn’t have been more than a few minutes after a Purim video by religious high school girls from Jerusalem’s Ulpana Horev (an Ashkenazi religious girls’ high school) went viral online on Thursday, April 13, that my phone began buzzing off the hook.

I was also flooded by social media messages from countless strangers who had read my recently published book, The Wrong Kind of Jew: A Mizrahi Manifesto. The vast majority of the messages expressed everything from sympathy to horror. But remarkably, some attacked me for stirring up unwarranted contempt for Ashkenazim.

It all started with a YouTube video that sat for weeks online before being widely noticed. It was entitled “If the Ulpana [Jewish school] was Mizrahi.” In it, the students present themselves in blackface while acting out degrading stereotypes of Mizrahi Jews.

Hen Mazzig

Some apologists on Twitter dismissed the video as everything from a joke with no harm intended to an innocent teenage prank. But the fact is that no matter who promotes it, racism, in this case toward Mizrahim and all people of colour, namely the black community, is never innocent or a prank.

These students should have known that the practice of Blackface is a racist act in which white performers darken their skin to portray caricatures of black people.

In the past, blackface was painfully commonplace in minstrel shows and Hollywood films.  Its advocates believed it had justifiable entertainment value, but the reality is that blackface has been used to reinforce harmful stereotypes about black people, perpetuate racism, and maintain white superiority.

Despite its harm, some have continued to use it to score publicity points. Namely, the use of blackface by British Jewish comedian (of Ashkenazi decent) David Baddiel, about whom I and others have been openly critical, for the use of blackface to portray Black footballer Jason Lee. It resulted finally, if belatedly, in an apology. Or American comedian Sarah Silverman who said she lost a job over wearing blackface makeup in 2007.

There is no getting around it. The practice of blackface is not only offensive to people of colour (in this case, Mizrahim), it is inherently racist because it relies on caricature and mockery and insults black people based on racist stereotypes.

Let’s not jump to blame these children (after all they are still weeks away from their 18th birthdays) for their horrific racist behaviour.

Blackface reinforces the idea that black people are less intelligent, capable, and less human than white people. It is a form of cultural appropriation that erases the history and experiences of black people and reinforces the notion that their culture and identity can be commodified and exploited for entertainment.

That is exactly what the Jewish girls from the Ashkenazi Ulpana did in what they later called “a humourist video.” The video’s goal was to generate laughter by highlighting the contrast between stereotypically polite Ashkenazi education and manners: the girls diligently reading books, sitting quietly at the table, playing classical piano, and vulgar Mizrahi girls jumping on the table, dancing to loud Mizrahi music and throwing items in the air.

But let’s not jump to blame these children (after all they are still weeks away from their 18th birthdays) for their horrific racist behaviour.  Those needing the most attention are the teacher who appears in the video, the community, the religious Zionist politicians who nurtured and shaped these girls’ values, and the parents who failed to speak up to their children or the sect that is represented at this school.

A number of the people who reached out to me as this horrific video was going viral were people who are well aware of the dominant narrative, both in communities like this one, and in Israel itself where even today, the culture and traditions of Mizrahi Jews who count sages like Maimonides among their numbers, are dismissed as backward and less civilised.

As I wrote in my book, Zionist Ashkenazi Jews would often celebrate me for speaking about the hardships we’ve endured in the Arab world but would “then do nothing to end the inequalities and mistreatment we experience at the hands of our Ashkenazi brothers and sisters.”

I have dedicated my life and platform to speaking about antisemitism towards all Jews, for Holocaust education, even as I have stood up against this kind of blatant Jew-on-Jew racism. That didn’t stop the critics on social media, such as one angry troll who went as far as writing that my stand on this bigotry is “vilifying Ashkenazim and making us out as Kapos.”

We are overdue for a Cheshbon Nefesh, a serious soul searching. Jews who love being Jewish and who love Israel, whether it is because of our food, our culture, or our music, need to remember that Mizrahim are an essential part of who we are as the very air we breathe in this country.

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