JERUSALEM — On Tuesday, global news agency Agence France-Presse put out an item that quickly went viral, under the headline "Israel mayor calls black basketball players niggers." (Editor's note: GlobalPost chose to substitute "the N-word" in its edited version of the AFP headline.)
In case anyone misses the point, the article begins: "An Israeli mayor was quoted Tuesday as referring to black basket-ballers playing for professional teams in his country as 'niggers.'"
Here's the problem: Moti Sasson, the mayor of Holon, may well deserve criticism for all kinds of things, but he did not by any stretch of the imagination user that particular racial slur.
The word, in fact, does not exist in Hebrew.
Saying he preferred to see Israeli players on Israeli teams, Sasson used the word "kushi" to refer to foreign players in general, adding that he could watch them in the NBA. (He also apologized, immediately, for using the word.)
So what's "kushi"?
It is an old word derived from the name of the Kush mountain range, used in the Bible in a neutral manner to identify Africans.
In the last 20 years or so, copying American English usage, Hebrew-speakers have started using the word "shakhor" — meaning black — to describe people of African origins, and "kushi" has come to be seen as denigrating. Usage of the word is considered unacceptable among schoolchildren referring to classmates of Ethiopian parentage.
English-speakers may protest that the N-word too, was not always considered as offensive as it has been in the 20th and 21st centuries. But “kushi” is still worlds away from the hate and history embodied in America's most-charged racial epithet.
Even fifteen years ago, "kushi" was a commonplace compliment among Israelis of Ashkenazi origin, implying they had caught some sun in a way that reflected their new Mediterranean home, and no longer looked freshly arrived from Europe. "Until the mass immigration of Ethiopians," the linguist Rubik Rosenthal points out, "kushi was a term of affection." The mass immigration Rosenthal is speaking of was only in the 1990s.
AFP often finds itself in linguistic conundrums when it comes to its coverage of Israel. For example, alone among world powers and all other journalistic outlets, the agency has been known to refer to Tel Aviv as Israel's "capital."
There are definite problems in Israel regarding racism toward people of African origin — Ethiopians, Eritreans, Sudanese. The same AFP article that wrongfully refers to Tel Aviv as the nation's capital correctly describes a protest in which 30,000 illegal migrants, mostly of African origin, recently took to the streets in Tel Aviv. Israel’s health ministry only recently investigated allegations that Ethiopian women had been forced to take contraceptives to reduce birth rates as a condition for immigration. A government official later said that the allegations were true, but the authors of the final report said that while they had found troubling data regarding subsequent birth rates, they could not substantiate the allegations, which had originally run in a documentary.
So yes: Israel has some serious problems to sort out regarding race. But Moti Sasson's word choice isn't the best example.