Can Israel learn from what is happening with blackface in the US?

Protests rocking US in wake of George Floyd’s killing have caused society and mass media to take a deeper look at their role in historical racism and how racist sentiments exist.

Ethiopian-Israelis in massive Tel-Aviv protest in memory of Yehuda Biagda  (photo credit: A. SHOSHANI)
Ethiopian-Israelis in massive Tel-Aviv protest in memory of Yehuda Biagda
(photo credit: A. SHOSHANI)
Israeli television in recent years has turned into a global success story. 
The American hit "Homeland" is based on Israel's "Prisoners of War"; "When Heroes Fly" is on Netflix; "Suspicion", an upcoming program is based on the Hebrew "False Flag", staring Uma Thurman on Apple TV; and new ABC romantic comedy series "The Baker and the Beauty", is based on the Israeli show of the same name.
In Israel, one of TV's biggest successes is Eretz Nehederet, a sketch comedy show with an emphasis on impressions and political satire.
And Eretz Nehederet uses blackface.
As one episode making a point about refugees pointed out, the show’s cast has a diverse background, with families that came to Israel from across Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. But no one on the show is black. In fact, in its entire 17-year run, it has never hired a black actor in a recurring role.
Instead, it frequently features white actors in blackface. Clips from as recently as this year feature a white actor in blackface, playing an Ethiopian-Israeli, or a fictional news anchor from the Caribbean, in dark makeup and dreadlocks, speaking gibberish.
The protests rocking the US in the wake of the killing of George Floyd have caused society and mass media to take a deeper look at their role in historical racism and how racist sentiments exist. Around the world there has been an embrace of the US anti-racism protests around local issues.
This also has happened in Israel, where leading celebrities and youth have joined social-media campaigns in solidarity. This sheds a light on the shocking, continued use of blackface by some of Israel’s comedians and television programs.
In recent years, awareness of racism against the black Ethiopian Jewish community in Israel has increased. In the wake of 2015 protests, the government invested resources to reduce segregation and discrimination across the board, including the army and local schools.
A lot has changed in Israel since 2015 for Ethiopians. Ethiopian-born film director Alamork Davidian’s Fig Tree was nominated for the Ophir Prize in 2019. Nevsu, the television show with Ethiopian lead roles, burst onto the scene in 2017. There now are prominent Israelis of Ethiopian origin on news shows and in high-profile positions, including the army and the Knesset, where the new aliyah and integration minister in Ethiopian.
The idea that blackface is offensive to black people - as understood now in the US and Europe - has yet to take hold in Israel. When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with Sudanese leader Abdel Fattah al-Burhan earlier this year, many of Israel’s top news commentators – educated people who purport to be liberal and oppose racism – posted a comedy sketch from the 1960s in which Israeli entertainer Arik Einstein, in blackface, portrayed a Sudanese person.
Why does Israel lag behind when it comes to blackface?
The Israeli answer tends to be that Israel doesn’t have the history of American-style minstrelsy, anti-black racism or the legacy of slavery. Nevertheless, as shown in recent years, comedy does not require blackface just like it doesn’t require “white face,” as in using black actors altered to look white. It also doesn’t require “Jew face” to make fun of Jews. The use of blackface was simply a too-easy go-to for these shows that were not sensitive to the changing realities of Israeli life and greater diversity in Israel and awareness of the harm stereotypes and making a mockery of the qualities someone is born with – such as skin color –can have.
Luckily, across Israel things are changing. Racist discrimination in housing, speech against black people, attempts to segregate schools and high incarceration rates for Ethiopians in the army are being addressed.
The elephant in the room is now to hold accountable the news and entertainment industry. With an ample pool of black Israelis, news shows and more should have Ethiopian leads and more Ethiopian faces, not light-skinned actors in makeup mocking Africans.
Saturday Night Live has its own history of using blackface. But the most recent example that the Internet has been able to dig up is Jimmy Fallon playing Chris Rock 20 years ago. Fallon apologized profusely earlier this month and even hosted a special episode of his show in which African Americans spoke about the issue of blackface.
Now, with awareness of and opposition to racism at the top of the agenda in the US, we in Israel should wake up to the fact that its continued use of the practice is tainting its success and has the potential to endanger international partnerships.
It is time to realize that blackface is unacceptable and should be stopped. All we have to do is look at current international political and business realities.