The Ugly Truth Behind Donald Sterling's Racist Comments

The L.A. Clippers' Jewish owner used an inelegant choice of words when justifying his racist remarks by saying blacks are treated like dogs in Israel, but he wasn't as far off the mark as we would like to believe.

Rabbi Eliyahu Fink.
Rabbi Eliyahu Fink
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Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling attends a game in Los Angeles, January 10, 2014.
Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling attends a game in Los Angeles, January 10, 2014.Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Rabbi Eliyahu Fink.
Rabbi Eliyahu Fink

I am doubly embarrassed by Donald Sterling’s contemptible, racist comments that surfaced this week. Once as an Angeleno and a second time as a Jew. Indeed, the world’s most racist basketball franchise owner is one of our own. Worse, in the course of his rantings, Sterling attempts to justify his racism by invoking his people and our homeland.

“DS: It's the world! You go to Israel, the blacks are just treated like dogs.
V: So do you have to treat them like that too?
DS: The white Jews, there's white Jews and black Jews, do you understand?
V: And are the black Jews less than the white Jews?
DS: A hundred percent, fifty, a hundred percent.
V: And is that right?
DS: It isn't a question - we don't evaluate what's right and wrong, we live in a society. We live in a culture. We have to live within that culture.”
(via Deadspin)

My initial reaction was outrage and disgust. How dare this despicable human being lie about his fellow Jews and Israeli culture to hoodwink his girlfriend into believing that it is acceptable to mistreat black people? I was outraged. After all, black Jews are obviously not treated like dogs. White Jews do not really think that black Jews are less than white Jews. Preposterous! The nerve of that man!

Then I realized that, while Sterling’s choice of words was inelegant and imprecise, he wasn’t lying. Too often, white Jews do treat black Jews poorly. We do have a bit of a race problem in our communities.

Ashkenazi bias against Sephardic Jews is common. Examples abound. A few years ago, Ashkenazi girls in Immanuel stayed home from school because their school had been desegregated by court order. Israeli courts found that there was in fact discrimination in Immanuel.

Many Orthodox Jewish communities still divide themselves along ethnic lines. Social groups are often formed based on skin color or ancestral heritage. Because many Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews prefer to pray in synagogues of their own tradition, it can be hard to reach across color lines. I myself have heard Ashkenazi acquaintances use racial slurs and ugly stereotypes when referring to Sephardi Jews. I can only assume that the people using this kind of language took for granted that I would be comfortable with their epithets. I am not.

Many Orthodox Jews live in insular communities. When one lives without outside influence it’s easy to fall into the trap of xenophobic tendencies and even outright racism. Without friends and colleagues from diverse ethnicities, one may rely upon stereotypes that would be debunked after just one encounter. But diversity is not a value in Orthodox Jewish communities while insularity is a value.

Additionally, many Orthodox Jews do not imbibe in popular culture and media. Thus, there is no external force that is informing them that the old stereotypes and prejudices are factually incorrect and morally wrong. It can be difficult to navigate around negative feelings about people outside one’s group without data to deconstruct those firmly held beliefs. The result is a culture that tolerates blatant discrimination against minorities and no social stigma against using racial epithets.

Of course, there are many Orthodox Jews who would never dream of thinking white people are superior to non-whites. The community is trending in the right direction, but there is work to be done yet. Just last year, a prominent Orthodox politician used blackface as part of his Purim costume. He did not even know that people find blackface offensive. He found out pretty quickly once the media started reporting his faux pas. But he learned his lesson, and hopefully the rest of the community will continue learning these lessons.

But it’s not just Orthodox Jewish communities that need to improve. The African migrant worker issue in Israel has uncovered pockets of racism in the secular Israeli communities as well. Violence and hateful speech targeting African asylum seekers and others prompted President Shimon Peres to issue this reminder to the citizens of Israel in 2012. “Hatred of foreigners contradicts the fundamental principles of Judaism. I am well aware of the difficulties faced by the residents of south Tel Aviv [and other similar areas], but violence is not the solution.”

Donald Sterling had no right to say that white Jews treat black Jews like dogs. That’s simply not a true statement. He is also incorrect that black Jews are less than white Jews. Jews are Jews no matter their pigment. Colors are for artists. Skin tone is the color of one’s skin.

It’s true that some Jewish people do not treat all ethnicities equally. But there are people of every race, creed, culture, and color who discriminate. That’s not something Jewish people do more than others. But we can do better. We should do better. Our insular communities can do more to prevent xenophobia and our diverse communities can do more to see past color and beyond stereotypes.

Yom HaShoah is an excellent time to redouble our efforts to make sure that Donald Sterling is the last of his kind. We have been victims of discrimination and hate enough times to know better. Let’s commit to making Sterling’s offensive comments about his fellow Jews even more preposterous than they are now. This Yom HaShoah let’s broaden "Never Again" to include all hate and discrimination so there is no comfortable place for new Donald Sterlings in our society.

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