Thursday, August 1, 2013

Kushim and the "Nigger" Word

There's been a bit of excitement in the anti-Israeli twittersphere this week, following an unfortunate statement by the brand-new Chief Rabbi, David Lau, that yeshiva students ought to spend their time learning Torah and not watching basketball games, where "one bunch of kushis beats another bunch of kushis". Racism! shouted the badmouths. Jim Crow! Apartheid! If even the Chief Rabbi shamelessly uses the N-word in public, what better a demonstration of the profound rot of Israeli society!

But did he? The story of the word Kushi is actually more interesting than that.

First, it must be stressed, the word itself comes from the Bible, where it is used repeatedly, and so far as I know, exclusively, to describe people with black skin. The Bible doesn't seem to have anything against black people, and even the story where Miriam apparently made some derogatory statement about her kushi sister-in-law seems mostly to indicate the opposite: Moses himself was married to the black woman, and right after making the statement God himself struck her with a horrible skin affliction and she was publicly thrown out of camp for seven days.

As recently as the early 1970s, kushi was the perfectly innocuous word in the Hebrew language for black. Then the Americans began fiddling with their own language, renouncing the word Negro and replacing it first with Black, then with Afro-American. Those parts of Israeli society which are closely attuned to things American decreed that the ancient Hebrew word must also be expunged, because of the awful cultural baggage of Jim Crow and segregation.

But of course, Israel didn't have the awful cultural baggage of Jim Crow and segregation. For all its many warts and blemishes, Israel doesn't have the same historical complexes and traumas as the Americans do, just as the French Russians and Japanese don't have them. The way history works is that each group has its own story, its own radioactive themes, and its own indifference to the sensitivities of others. History makes a difference, but it makes a difference in different ways and different times and places.

The entire concept of Niggers is foreign to Israel. If one insists on attaching an ethnic slur to the word Kushi, it would probably be the Yiddish word Schwartze, which is indeed mildly derogatory, but in a belittling and condescending way, without any hatred attached. Indeed, given the Rav Lau's upbringing and cultural world, he was probably reprimanding the yeshiva students for admiring schwartze folks whose strength is in their brawn, rather than Jewish scholars whose strength was in their brain. I'd be very surprised if the Rav could formulate a coherent paragraph using the words Jim Crow, Brown vs Board of Education and Ralph Abernathy; on the other hand, if you're interested in the impact of 3rd century legal thought in Babylon on 13 century Jewish Metaphysics, I'll bet he can give you a fascinating lecture.

Someone needs to impress upon the new Chief Rabbi that his words now carry greater weight than they did last week, and he's got to be wise in choosing them. Demanding of him that he unlearn the language of the Bible because Israel-haters would have us believe that the word Kushi means Nigger is outlandish.

Anyone who tries to convince you that Rav lau is Bull Connor is shining a spotlight at themselves and proclaiming that their agenda isn't truth, it's to harm Israel no matter how much they need to distort.

7 comments:

Silke said...

at the British National Archives the lecturer bemoans (amongst other woes) the problems involved in finding out whether an ancestor was black because it is so seldom recorded.

https://itunes.apple.com/de/podcast/untold-histories-black-britons/id208318433?i=108531288&mt=2

Untold histories: black Britons during the period of the British slave trade, c. 1660-1807

Media keep telling me how incredulous and amazed kids were in post war Germany when they saw their first black face. I was four at the time and I didn't have any of the reactions I am told it was normal to have.

Sometimes I think such ideas stem from writers plagued by über-vivid imagination syndrome and happen to be so useful to other writers that after a time "normals" start feeling weird if they don't have the feelings a "normal" is supposed to have.

Recently the media had a debate in Germany on PC-efying children's books as if kids all through the ages - at least in rural areas - hadn't manage to live with their grandparents talking differently from their parents and again from their peer group.



joseph said...

I'm wondering where the word "kike" fits in your hierarchy of derogatory terms. My understanding is that it originated with the so-called "Temple Emanuel" Jews, that is, rich German Jews in New York City, alarmed at the influx of "the great unwashed" Eastern European Jews to their turf. With time it was picked up by the goyim to refer in a hostile way to Jews in general. Instead of taking on the role of apologist for those who casually employ these racial and ethnic slurs, you might want to take a look at the underlying inhumanity that spawns the use of such terms. You may find that the seeds of National Socialism are more prevalent at home than you might imagine.

Avigdor said...

Really? Miriam, a prophetess responsible for the birth of Moses himself, who led the women in song at the sea, so close to the divine that she died with a kiss from G-d - so that her soul would not be escorted by an angel - was concerned with Zipporah's "race"? This is a highly superficial and uninteresting reading of the text.

What text? The text.

*Show Rashi's Commentary

Hi Yaacov! And Silke! ;) Long time

Upper West Side Mom said...

If basketball was a sport that was populated mostly by white player like hockey is do you think R. Lau would have said " where one group of white people beat up another group of white people"? Of course not. He's very provincial and it's ridiculous that the cheif Rabbi of Israel would say what he said. And yes he's actually a little bit racist because only someone who is would say something like that.

Yaacov said...

UWSM - if the rabbis I was subjected to 40 years ago are anything to go by, the answer is a resounding Yes. Of corse, in those days it was soccer and soccer players, not basketball, but the sentiments were the same.

I'm not defending the rabbi for what he said. I'm insisting that he didn't say what some people attributed to him.

Bambanik said...

Well, I think there would have been no need of mentioning any skin color to express the disgust of yeshiva students watching baseball games on TV.
What extra information does it give though?

Paardestaart said...

Well, obviously the information that the contestants were hired hands and certainly no Israeli players. He added the information that the yeshiva boys weren’t even rooting for their fellows at all, so why should there be so much excitement in who would win.
The man was right of course. While it still seems OK to cheer on 'your' team, people apparently have to hide the fact. Therefore anybody pointing out that this is certainly not your team is a chauvinist ànd in this case a racist. You are not supposed to notice the fact that black people have a different origins from yourself - if you are white that is. Chauvinism is a forbidden sentiment as well and officially doesn't even exist.
It’s just that the rabbi is not yet as well versed in the intricacies of pc hypocrisy as the rest of us are, bless him. Wish there were more like him...