The Racist Tradition of Blackface Is Alive and Well in Israel

The historical context is different, but the balance of power between Blacks and whites or brown people in Israeli society is similar to that in the U.S.

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Tom Yaar as Oprah Winfrey in a skit on "A Wonderful Country."
Tom Yaar as Oprah Winfrey in a skit on "A Wonderful Country."Credit: Screenshot from Channel 12/Keshet

Let’s talk about blackface. About a week ago Israeli model-actor Barak Shamir paid tribute to American basketball star Kobe Bryant, who was killed in a helicopter accident early this year. Shamir painted his entire body brown and produced a series of photographs showing himself in poses that imitated Bryant. He posted a few of these images on social media; in one of them he pouts to make his lips look fuller. The gesture was embarrassing and showed that he lacked all awareness of the racist world in which he lives.

The pictures posted by Shamir, 21, drew harsh criticism. Half of the commenters condemned the tribute while the other half tried to help rehabilitate the damaged ego of the young actor, with claims like “Anyone who knows you knows that it all comes from love,” “People here are in some sort of craze about racism,” or “Ooof, what’s the connection to blackface?! We’re in Israel!” Shamir has since deleted the posts.

It’s not surprising that Shamir’s reaction was: “To all the people who were offended and thought I made a mistake, I regret the misunderstanding, I had no bad intentions, I really tried hard to make a production that would convey something of him [Bryant].” Apparently too little. This act of Shamir’s was an attempt to express appreciation of a figure he admires – but who, in addition to being a famous athlete, was also a rapist (a lawsuit filed against Bryant ended in a settlement out of court) – but he didn’t bother to consider seriously the reality in which he grew up.

Shamir apparently sees Bryant’s skin color as no more than an external characteristic that lacks any political context. That reminds me of one of the most common complaints of whites when they are confronted with their society’s racist characteristics: “I don’t see color.” To tell a Black man or woman that you don’t see their color is to say that you don’t see the oppression that he or she experiences, that you don’t see all our life experiences as a consequence of institutionalized racism. It’s like saying “I don’t see you.” And also: It’s actually saying I don’t see myself as a white man or woman, with all the privileges that entails. White people single out others but don’t want to be singled out themselves, since that obliges them to confront and take responsibility for their power in society.

Many will wonder about people’s right to live in ignorance regarding world history, but that’s the way racism and privilege work: One group has the privilege of not knowing and of claiming that it’s all a matter of tedious oversensitivity, while another group personally experiences the consequences of that same system.

Barak Shamir. The model/actor erased his blackface posts.

Blackface is a term that describes a practice in which white actors paint their body and face black in order to depict absurd caricatures of Black people. In the United States there’s a long tradition of blackface: In the 19th century minstrel shows produced on the backdrop of harsh racial segregation in the North and slavery in the South were popular. The shows contributed substantially to the creation and preservation of racist stereotypes, and portrayed Blacks as lazy, stupid, ridiculous, subservient and ignorant. While white Americans enjoyed these shows, most African Americans saw them as humiliating farces.

The blackface shows denied Blacks the few opportunities they had to display their many talents, and reduced them to the image whites had of them. In effect, the laws of racial segregation, aka the Jim Crow laws, were named after the popular character of a Black slave from the minstrel shows, who was portrayed as a buffoon. This is a good illustration of the connection between cultural performances and more comprehensive systems of social oppression.

Many people tend to think that this tradition is unique to the United States, but actually it is a Western tradition that’s also found in countries such as Germany, Holland, Finland, Great Britain, Austria and South Africa. A cultural tradition that was a direct continuation of the racist and oppressive policies toward Black citizens, blackface has played a central role in the shaping and institutionalization of modern racism.

Although Israel lacks a rich past of blackface, throughout its short history quite a number of shows have been staged in which actors painted their bodies black in order to play characters with black or brown skin. In the film “Sallah Shabbati,” Chaim Topol plays the Mizrahi (Jew of Middle Eastern or North African) character as inarticulate and ridiculous. Several years later, in the film “7 Days in Entebbe,” Ze’ev Revach was chosen to play the character of Ugandan President Idi Amin. His body was painted black and the result was an absurd caricature of an African. The choice of a Mizrahi man to play that role was no coincidence: It was an opportunity for him to acquire status – on condition that he make fun of other weaker groups.

Eran Zarahovitsh wearing blackface to portray Ethiopian Israeli news reporter Brahano Tagania on the television program “A Wonderful Country.” Credit: Screenshot

These dynamics and balance of powers haven’t changed over time. Blackface is a matter of routine nowadays in Israel on the satirical TV program “A Wonderful Country,” with comedienne Tom Yaar as Oprah Winfrey, Eli Finish as Barack Obama and Eran Zarahovitsh as Ethiopian Israeli news reporter Brahano Tagania. In 2015, the Ma Kashur comedy trio dressed up as Ethiopians in a skit about the demonstrations against police violence, and in 2018 when hip-hop singer Kobi Shimoni, aka Subliminal, tried to make a comeback, he painted his body black when making a clip for one of his songs.

This phenomenon is common not only on television and in mainstream culture in this country, it’s also popular in the theater. There isn’t enough room here to enumerate all the times that it’s done – but complaints against blackface are not divorced from Israeli culture.

Although the historical context is different, the balance of power between Blacks and whites or brown people in Israeli society is similar. Black actors are excluded from the bastions of culture and even when they perform they play stereotypical characters such as the policewoman, the cashier, the criminal, etc. This creates a flattened picture of Ethiopian Israelis and their talents and turns them into the Black that is imagined by whites in local culture.

In addition, most of the performances in which blackface is used in Israel are for the purposes of comedy, satire and entertainment. The figure of the Ethiopian in comedy shows is usually an absurd stereotype, speaking with an exaggerated accent and portrayed as naive and as someone who doesn’t know his or her place.

This practice dehumanizes Blacks and perpetuates our image as naturally inferior. At the same time, it is a false presentation of diversity on the screen, when in fact what is at stake is the unwillingness of cultural elites in Israel to accept Blacks into their ranks to play those roles and others themselves.

Criticism of blackface originated with the minstrel shows long ago, but with the reinforcement of the culture of political correctness such criticism is being clearly heard. In Israel there’s a great fear of the growing influence of PC culture – and rightly so. It really is one of the greatest threats to Western cultures based on white supremacy.

A few months ago I came across a skit by the legendary Zehu Zeh satirical ensemble, which deals with political correctness, and sums up the attitude of the elites to a culture that threatens to end white privilege in our country. In the skit Gidi Gov tells the other actors that they aren’t allowed to disguise themselves any longer as women, Blacks or disabled people, because now it’s the PC era and only someone with that identity can play those roles. The actors initially grumble, are disappointed and are unable to understand what it’s all about. In the end they decide, “Today PC is more important than laughter.”

This statement reflects the cliché that the culture of political correctness restricts freedom of expression and art, but in fact it’s about the unwillingness of white people to give up the privilege of insulting and humiliating individuals who belong to oppressed groups. The meaning of political correctness is political sensitivity; it expresses a demand for a safe haven from racism and sexism for Blacks, brown people, women and people with special needs.

It’s always easier to explains such things to Jews, by telling them to try to imagine a commercial or a show on the other side of the world, in which someone ridicules a stereotypical Jew in the name of freedom of expression. Was it all right to broadcast that, one can ask, or would it be considered antisemitic?