Monday, July 6, 2009

Kuznetsov: Everybody is a Racist – Only Russians Think it Legitimate to Express It

You've got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You've got to be taught
From year to year,
It's got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You've got to be carefully taught.

You've got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff'rent shade,
You've got to be carefully taught.

You've got to be taught before it's too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You've got to be carefully taught!

Oscar Hammerstein, Jr.


An American Jewish lyricist – the greatest lyricist the musical theater has ever known – set Broadway ablaze with those lyrics in 1949. An America that had fought a bloody war with the "Japs," the "slant-eyes," the "yellowskins," had yet to come to grips with their home-grown racism against the "Negroes." The lyrics were timely then, and they are timely now.

No Israeli Jew could ever begin to write anything like that. The Israeli Jewish experience teaches the opposite. So much for being a light under the gentiles.

You see, although you've got be taught to hate and fear, it is a lesson easily learned. The harder lesson is how not to hate and fear. And that lesson has to be taught over and over again, in the schools, at home, in popular culture, and in houses of worship.

As an upper middle-class American Jew growing up in the sixties and the seventies, I learned the lesson of racial, ethnic, and religious tolerance, repeatedly. Only when I grew older did I learn that others were not so fortunate. I learned about the American bigots, the Jews who talked about schwartzes, the Protestants who talked about the Jews, the whites about blacks and the blacks about white.

Of course, when I became religious, I learned of Jewish ethnic stereotypes and prejudices that were supposed to be harmless. "Polish Jews can clean, but they can't cook." "Hungarian Jews can cook, but they can't clean. And they have garish chandeliers and slipcovers on the sofas." The Sephardim – the "Franks" (pronounced by Litvaks, 'Frenks') – they were one step above the Arabs. Kurdish Jews were a half a step. When my niece, a religious Zionist Jew wanted to marry another religious Zionist Jew, her father had a fit – the boy, from a good family, was a "Frenk". End of that relationship.

And let's not forget women, or goyim, spics, Arabs, or schwartzes.

Israelis of all persuasions are not warned in the schools about bigotry. Most won't get it in the homes. And it is certainly not in their ethnically-segregated culture. Secularists hate the religious; religious hate the secularists; left hates right, and right hates left. What brings secular and modern orthodox together is hatred of Arabs, and, occasionally, haredim. But the latter is mellowing.

And there ain't no "National Brotherhood Week," either.

Apparently, things are worse in the Former Soviet Union, a hotbed of ethnicities and nationalities. Most of the Russian Jews who made aliyah at the end of the last century – close to 20% of Israel's population, apparently -- were taught very well to hate. At least, they were not taught not to hate.

You see, racism is actually learned quite easily. It is the embarrassment about racism which is hard to acquire, and which is rare commodity in Israel.

All this brings me to the series of articles by Lili Galili that is appearing in Haaretz about the Russians. I pasted it below, but read it here. The Russians have already made a great contribution to Israeli society; they are educated and cultured. But bigotry and racism doesn't appear to be a grave sin in their eyes.

Where is the shame?

Why don't Russian-speaking Jews trust Obama?


By Lily Galili


In the past two weeks, in advance of U.S. President Barack Obama's visit to Russia, chapters of the Bible have become hot current events items in the Russian-language media in Israel. This is not necessarily a matter of an increasing link to the Jewish sources, but rather the use of verses found relevant to eroding the American president's legitimacy.

The Torah portion "Noah" has become particularly popular, and especially his son Ham. This Ham - whose name in Russian also means a very crude person - was punished in the Bible by having his skin turn black, with all his descendants doomed to be blacks destined for a life of slavery. Another very popular text lately is a verse from Proverbs: "Under three things the earth trembles, under four it cannot bear up." The first of the heralds of evil, according to the verse, is "a slave who becomes king."

Each of these chapters is important in itself, but the real sparks are created by the connection between the two: Ham the black man who is doomed to eternal slavery and brings suffering to the world when a black slave becomes king - or in this case, ascends the throne of the presidency of the United States.

The large community of Russian-speaking Jews in America is not enthusiastic about the new president either. But here there is an interesting cultural difference. While Russian speakers in Israel proudly proclaim their rejection of political correctness, their colleagues in America have actually internalized what is politically correct. They are far less preoccupied with the color of the president's skin, and focus on his Muslim background. That is considered legitimate.

The curse of Ham and the White House

Last Thursday, at peak viewing hours, Channel 9, the Russian-language Israeli television channel, devoted its weekly tradition program to the story of Noah and his sons Shem, Ham and Yefet. It should be noted that in terms of halakha (Jewish law) ,"Noah" was not the weekly Torah reading that week: The choice to discuss it of all things was deliberate and designed to create a link to current events.

David Kun, one of the channel's important anchors, moderated the program; alongside him sat Rabbi Eliyahu Essas, journalist Alexander Wiesman and famous professors from the Russian-speaking community. The lengthy broadcast began with a series of doleful pictures of slavery, of the type seen at the time on the American TV series "Roots," which was about the history of black slavery. From here the discussion turned to Ham, Noah's son, who was punished by having his skin turn black. "A slave of slaves shall he be to his brothers," said Noah regarding Ham's son Canaan - a punishment for the fact that when Noah became drunk and was rolling around naked in his tent, Ham called his older brothers instead of covering his father's nakedness.

The question that preoccupied the members of the panel who gathered in the Channel 9 studio was whether the black man can overcome this curse; it was mentioned that the curse of Ham was never revoked in the Torah. The discussion also sled to the question of whether there is genetic slavery or only a slave mentality. To illustrate that mentality, they showed the picture in which President Obama is seen talking on the phone with the Israeli prime minister, with his feet on his desk.

Although the speakers were for the most part cautious in their replies, the contexts left a bitter aftertaste of racist provocation. Obama, they said, is a direct product of the trend of political correctness that began in the U.S. in the 1960s. For some reason that didn't sound like a compliment. The impression left by the program, in the final analysis, is a direct line ostensibly connecting Ham, Kunta Kinte of "Roots" and Barack Obama. Toward the end of the discussion one of the participants even mentioned that according to King Solomon, the world will experience major shocks when a slave becomes king, "exactly the situation at which we have arrived today."

Channel 9 is not the only Russian-language media outlet that used biblical metaphors for political purposes to bash Obama. Vesty, the leading Russian-language newspaper, which is published by Yedioth Ahronoth, headlined one article about Obama "Ibn Hussein," and published a long essay dealing with the issue of "a slave who becomes king." Its author, Dov Kontorer, one of the leading columnists writing in Russian, decided that the earth really will tremble under the man Obama, who even in king's clothing will remain a slave.

Haters, not racists

The verse "a slave who becomes king" has appeared recently in the right-wing media in Hebrew as well, which expresses legitimate political views of protest against Obama. But the Russian-language media in Israel differ in their vehement style and the use of racist declarations. "The next president of the U.S. will be a lesbian Hispanic woman," said Edward Kuznetsov, the first editor of Vesty, not necessarily joking. "We are all racists, only the Russians think it's legitimate to express that without the prohibitions of political correctness. Or, as we tend to say in a paraphrase on anti-Semitism, 'we aren't racists, we simply hate blacks.'"

From her professional experience his wife, Larissa Gerstein, a former deputy mayor of Jerusalem, knows that the Russian-speaking community in America has internalized the rules of political correctness. Every week Gerstein conducts two hours of conversations with listeners to Radio Davidson in Russian. The broadcasts cater to a public of about 600,000 Russian speakers on the East Coast.

In the conversations, which are conducted from her home in Israel, Obama is the main subject. Not necessarily because of his skin color but because of his Islamic roots. "They curse him from morning to night," says Gerstein recalling the conversations. "It is clear to the Russians that what's important is the religion into which you were born, rather than the formal religion you have adopted. That's how it was in Soviet Russia, and that's the ingrained viewpoint. The listeners naturally speak about Hussein Obama, and the rest is clear."

In America the Russian romance with Obama died out even before it started. While about 80 percent of American Jews voted for the Democratic candidate, about 80-85 percent of the Russian-speaking Jews there voted for Republican John McCain. Now there are only signs of a further deterioration in relations - Gerstein says that many listeners attribute to Obama and his Jewish staff a conspiracy to destroy Israel.

Similar sentiments are heard from Avigdor Eskin, who speaks from Jerusalem with Russian speakers in Chicago. Eskin, who long ago returned to religion and has changed his political orientation as well, enlists the Jewish sources to analyze the situation that has been created: "A Pharaoh has arrived who does not remember Joseph," he says of Obama.

From things that have been written in Russian in America, what emerges mainly is fear of Obama the Muslim. If in Israel they are afraid that Obama's administration will undermine the special relationship with Israel, the Russian-speaking Jews in America express open fear that Obama will turn into what they call "a catalyst for a new wave of anti-Semitism." Because of Islam, because of his policy.

In advance of Obama's visit to Russia, large "babushkas" have been distributed all over Moscow: One of them bears the faces of Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, others bear those of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and former U.S. president George W. Bush. Beneath the pictures of Putin and Bush, which were published on the Internet, a Russian talkbacker who identified himself as a Jew wrote: "A dream that will not return."

Channel 9 responds

In response to a question regarding the nature of its program, Channel 9 said: "We emphasize that the moderator only asked a question regarding the validity of the curse of Ham, and did not establish any facts. The purpose of the tradition programs is to explain the viewpoint of Jewish tradition on current events of all kinds. On the program under discussion we tried to clarify whether according to Jewish tradition there could be prejudice against Obama because of the fact that he is the first black president."


Eric said...

I believe it was a leading US Reform ( I know which one but am unable to authenticate) rabbi in the 20's who said A Jewish state in the Middle East, give them 50 years and they will be just another shiekhdom. Too bad as far as race relations (among other things) are concerned he turned out to be right.

Ibrahim Ibn Yusuf said...

Do you think MEMRI would be interested in a translation of those Russian-language programs?

Responsible Citizen said...

Well this doesn't surprise me. I hear these sorts of comments all of the time from the chevra at the Russian Heritage synagogue here in Chicago.

Margaret said...

Thank you for taking the time to talk about tolerance, and for the opportunity to consider further what it means.

Nothing brings home one's own lack of cultural competence quite so emphatically as becoming intolerant in response to perceived lack of tolerance in others. To feel that others are lacking in respect is bad enough (from my perspective), but what truly ignites my emotions is to hear hatred voiced toward others, even if not directed specifically at someone. Recently, I've had difficulty restraining myself from responding in the same manner.

Reminded of the importance of training, I wonder if, without the critical ear it imparts, others recognize when they are voicing hatred. Do they understand that when hatred is given voice, hatred is often the reaction? Are they satisfied to receive it in response, or surprised?

The more information one has about such situations, the better one is prepared for the next encounter. And now I am reminded of questions to ask, of myself and others, that will help me adhere to standards of behavior I believe, with heart and mind, have purpose.

Mike said...

Jerry, after reading your post, I was on the verge of hating those bl.... Russian Jews. Its hard to be a saint :-)

Anonymous said...

English translations I know about don't say that God turned the skin of Ham or Canaan black. Where does that interpretation come from? Is it explicitly in Russian bible translations?

Jerry Haber said...

Anonymous, from wikipedia:

The Torah assigns no racial characteristics or rankings to Ham. Moses married a Cushite, one of the reputed descendants of Ham, according to the Book of Numbers, Chapter 12. Despite this, a number of early Jewish writers have interpreted the Biblical narrative of Ham in a racial way. The Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 108b states "Our Rabbis taught: Three copulated in the ark, and they were all punished — the dog, the raven, and Ham. The dog was doomed to be tied, the raven expectorates [his seed into his mate's mouth], and Ham was smitten in his skin." {Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 108b} The nature of Ham's "smitten" skin is unexplained, but later commentaries described this as a darkening of skin. A later note to the text states that the "smitten" skin referred to the blackness of descendants, and a later comment by rabbis in the Bereshit Rabbah asserts that Ham himself emerged from the ark black-skinned.[2][3] The Zohar states that Ham's son Canaan "darkened the faces of mankind".[4]

There is an excellent book on the Curse of Ham by David M. Goldenberg

Eric said...

Christian missionaries pointed to slavery and the "curse of Ham" and said that dark skinned people, even if emancipated in law, could only escape slavery if Jesus cleared them of this sin visited upon them by Ham. This was used both in America and Africa.

Anonymous said...

"from wikipedia:"

Are you kidding? Since when is wikipedia an authoritative source?

And you are supposed to be an academic so you should have more disdain for wikipedia than the general public.

It just shows how base academia has become. It's a joke now days.

Evildoer said...

Maybe you should include this video in the blog. It explains everything.

Jerry Haber said...


I almost didn't publish your wikipedia crack because it fell under the rubric of "ABSOLUTE DUMBEST COMMENT IN THE WORLD" (sorry, Keith)

I am not resting on the authority of Wikipedia. I am resting on the authority of the Talmud cited by Wikipedia. If they miscited it, let me know.

That's Talmud,spelled T-A-L-M-U-D

But the truth is, I have found some wikipedia articles to be excellent, particularly if they are on controversial topics, since many people around the world contribute to them.

I always tell my students that they can look at Wikipedia entires (they will, anyway) to get their bearings on a topic and to find sources. But then they should go and see the sources for themselves. That's what I do, and that's what all academics do.

Of course, if your read the New York Review of Books, you will see that wikipedia articles are often cited.

Now, I didn't have to cite wikipedia, I could have cited the Talmud. But a) I didn't check the Talmud, and b) give credit where credit is due.

Mike said...

Well, I found the Wikipedia entry very instructive. It’s interesting to learn that originally, Ham (or Cham) was not black. He became black, he darkened progressively, layer by layer. Interesting also, to learn the sexual undertones of his biblical sin.

A few years ago, I read a paper on the Hamitic theory and its influence on the Rwanda genocide. This racial theory flourished in the 19th century thanks to Gobineau and a few others. According to this theory, the Hamitic race was a sub-group of the Caucasian race, who did establish first in North-Africa and migrated down the Nil to reach sub-Saharian Africa and notably, the big lakes in Central Africa. In this racial/mythological theory, the Hamites were supposed to be superior to Negroid populations, thanks to their biblical ascendance. They were supposed to be blacks, but with a white ascendance, the aristocrats. The German and Belgian missionaries in Central Africa took these racial theories for granted, thought that the tall and elegant Tutsis were Hamites and protected them because of their special biblical status. Ironical to think that the lineage of Ham, who, in our mythology, became black, and in a way inferior to us whites, was considered in Central Africa being whiter and superior to other populations, like the Hutus or the Pygmies. It makes you think about the relativity of beliefs and mental representations…

Eric Mendelsohn said...

If I have the time I'll create a wikipedia entry for the Magnes Zionist in the next week or two, then you guys can edit the hell out of it.

Anonymous said...

This is the anonymous who asked the question about the origin of the God turning Ham's skin black myth, not the anonymous who questioned Wikipedia as a source.

I remember once reading of a liberal religious Zionist group, of which the son of Ernst Simon was involved, whose goal was to demonstrate to other religious Zionists that exchanging land for peace and otherwise being nice to people and not being a racist, was compatible with orthodoxy and religious Zionism. Is that group still around?

Jerry Haber said...

Hi Anonymous,

That group is nominally around, in the sense that its members are not dead. I saw Uriel Simon a few days ago at a restaurant. One of their leaders, Avi Ravitsky, is still paralyzed and brain damaged after being struck by a bus.

The group was one of the casualties of the failure of Oslo and the Second Intifada. They died with the Zionist left, of which they are a part.

A second group, also launched with much fanfare a few years ago, Realistic Religious Zionism, also died.

Meimad died with the elections.

There is a loose coalition of groups that runs a website called yud bet heshvan (Rabin
's assassination date)

That's all, folks