by Dr Yvette Alt Miller
As a teenager, kids — including some in his Jewish school — would sing rap songs containing that offensive slur around him. Each time they’d come to the N word in the lyrics, they’d pause and look at Lev. Sometimes they would yell out the N word louder than the other words. Lev would pretend not to hear, but the pain was horrible. He wanted to fight his tormentors, but his parents worked with him, convincing him not to. They advised him to be patient and to talk with people who slighted him. “They taught me patience; patience is what helped me get through it.
“The use of the N word really ticks me off,” he says. There’s such a horrible history associated with it; once Lev learned more about it he was even more pained by its use. Even now that he lives in Israel, he hears the N word in rap music, and tries to educate people not to repeat it. “Israelis used to say it around me until I explained the history — I said this is a word that’s not used as a good thing.”
Many of the people currently posting on social media in the United States, saying that they want to help eliminate racism might do well to heed this warning: the N word, even if it’s ostensibly used in an “artistic” way, is a hateful word that should never be used.
At other times, kids made jokes about Lev’s skin colour and Ethiopian origins. Even when they felt they were simply being funny, their insensitive remarks often made Lev feel out of place. This type of racism was particularly pervasive in the Jewish community, Lev observed. “In school I was one of the fastest kids, one of the strongest kids, so they would use that to joke around,” Lev recalls. “‘Oh, he can run fast because he’s Black or African’ — those jokes.”
Another common stereotype Lev disliked was that he liked rap music — “they want that stereotype (of rappers) to be every Black person,” he observes. Making these broad assumptions strips away Black people’s individualities, implying that all Black people are somehow alike simply because of the colour of their skin.
At times, the humour was more obviously barbed. There was a time in high school when Lev came to school wearing a black shirt. “Hey Lev, put on a shirt!” several students teased him. The teacher didn’t say anything.
After high school, Lev immigrated to Israel. His mother is Israeli, and he’d grown up loving Israel as the Jewish homeland. “I made aliyah because of the Jewish people and because of my parents” he explains. “My parents gave me everything I could have wanted and dreamed of in America and more. Moving to Israel is a thank you.” He also wanted to serve in the Israeli Defense Forces to defend his country.
Tragically Lev has encountered racism in Israel as well. He’s noticed that Israeli Jews from Ethiopian families sometimes embrace African American culture, recognizing a community similarly beset by racism. He advises his Ethiopian friends in Israel to embrace their own rich Jewish culture instead. “You have a different culture, you’re raised differently,” he explains — still, the common sympathy can be strong as Ethiopian Jews watch the American Black experience from afar and recognize much of the own racism and police brutality that Ethiopian Jews face in Israel too.
In both the United States and in Israel, Lev has found racism to be pervasive. “It’s every day, it’s every second — this type of light racism (of jokes and minor slights). It floats in the air. People try to wave it away, but as long as you have it racism will stay.” Lev has started speaking up, pointing out small instances of racism and racist assumptions when he sees them — he’s found that he has to say something every day.
Lev’s parents and siblings still live in suburban Chicago and he’s been following the news avidly, reading about protests against the murder of George Floyd and the riots and looting that have spread across the country. He understands the frustration of Black Americans who have been subject to violence and racism and oppression that many white people simply can’t conceive of. He mourns the violence, which he doesn’t support, and feels he understands the peaceful protests as many thousands of African Americans have stood up and said enough.
When he watched the video footage of George Floyd’s arrest and murder, Lev says it reminded him of his military training —and seemed to be a classic case of what not to do when apprehending someone.
Floyd’s death came just a few months after the February 23 shooting of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old man who was murdered while out jogging in Brunswick, Georgia. That murder reminded Lev of terror attacks he’d witnessed against Israeli soldiers years earlier. Still living at home in Chicago, Lev remembers seeing footage on the news of an Arab terrorist ramming his car into a crowd of Israeli soldiers. After watching that horrific attack Lev told his mother that he was going to move to Israel and enlist to help protect the Jewish state.
“That kind of hatred behind the murder of Arbery is disgusting and horrific. I had the same feeling that I had when I saw a car hit Israeli soldiers: another person killing someone because of the colour of their skin.”
Today, with so many Americans and others around the world asking what they can do to help stamp out racism, Lev has some advice we all need to hear. Be kind. Be sensitive. Don’t joke about other people’s differences or try to taunt them. Look at others as fully realised people, not simply as walking embodiments of the colour of their skin. “It’s pretty simple: Treat a black person like you treat yourself, like you treat any other person.”