One of the notable fetures of last month's Gaza War was the use of social media by both sides to promote their virtues and to denounce the crimes of their enemy. Indeed, one of the victories for the Israel Defense Forces were the reverential profiles that began appearing of their "whiz kid" head of new media, "26-year-old snowboarder" Sacha Dratwa.
As the war was ending, however, Dratwa suffered a self-inflicted social media setback. Reports emerged that, in September, he had posted a self-portrait on his Facebook page, his face covered in mud. The caption: "Obama Style".
Ben Decker, writing his first article for EA, writes to Sacha to ask if the new media specialist has reflected on the incident and what it means for himself, for Israel's military, and for Israeli society.
As the head of the New Media desk at the IDF, even as a 26 year-old, you presumably would have the maturity to understand how a mud-covered face and its accompanying description might be perceived by millions of people around the world as racist. Yet it seems that you are genuinely baffled by the reaction to your recent "Obama Style" post in blackface on your Facebook page --- as you told one person who questioned your motives, " I'm not racist, please stop to spread lies about me."
Since you are such an expert in digital media, I would assume that you have other people in mind when expressing yourself on the Internet, and moreover, that your goal is to broadcast content to large audiences. Yet, as the debate over your post escalated, you announced, "I have decided to restrict access to my page, in order to protect my privacy and prevent further cynical use of the information therein."
Now I appreciate that you face difficulties in your job. Some people may have zero context for evaluation of your Facebook page. Myany of them likely get information from state-controlled media sources whose governments' foreign policies are fundamentally anti-Israel.
Yet I have to ask: is this the face of tolerance that the Israeli Government wants to project to the world?
Tell you what --- before you respond, let's have a look at the history books.
According to Eric Lott's seminal work Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class, “Blackface is burnt cork or grease paint applied to the face, worn by white men who caricatured blacks for sport and profit…and were dressed in outrageously oversized and/or ragged Negro costumes.”
Blackface first appeared in the 1840s in American minstrel shows, when white actors imitated black culture and, in the process, exacerbated negative stereotypes about African American slaves. Rather than fighting this, African Americans had to join in: the only way they could perform in the shows was to don blackface as well.
As Americana moved from the minstrel show to vaudeville theatre in the early 20th century, blackface began to disappear; however, pop culture icons such as Al Jolson and Fred Astaire still donned it on more than one occasion.
Sacha, you might respond to me that Jolson made blackface acceptable, even to African Americans. In The Jazz Singer, celebrated as an expression of the liturgical music of Jews with the imagination of African Americans, Jolson made jazz the new prayer of the American masses, and the black makeup in which he expresses his misery is more than appropriate, given African American history. And Jolson, with many African American friends, was involved in the fight against racial discrimination throughout his career.
Sacha, you might appeal that your blackface was addressing my Jolsonian school of tolerance, in which I was taught by my father that it is our moral obligation as Jews to support and empower those who are less fortunate. You might join me in my current home to deal with the issue that שׁחורים (blacks) in Israel are considered to be of second-class social status, a relegation exacerbated by the animosity toward Sudanese refugees coming via the Sinai Peninsula over the Israeli border.
Sacha, you might make that case to me, but somehow I don't think any of this was in your thoughts when you snapped your self-portrait.
That Facebook photo from September, which re-emerged in the aftermath of Operation Pillars of Defense in Gaza, could not be farther from the brand of Judaism that I have come to know and appreciate. My 26th birthday falls on 10 December, International Human Rights Day, and according to the United Nations website, this year spotlights the rights of all people --- women, youth, minorities, persons with disabilities, indigenous people, the poor and marginalized --- to make their voices heard in public life and be included in political decision-making.
So because we are almost the same age and because we both move in the realm of digital media, I have to confess to you that --- far from making a profound point about African American history and the need for tolerance --- you acted from one or more of three impulses: ignorance, stupidity, or racism.
To take this a bit farther, if the new media director of the Israel Defense Forces acts in a racist manner towards African Americans, what does that say about the institution as a whole?
A conclusion for us to discuss: if you are not removed from your post and, more importantly, sheltered from criticism in the Israeli media, this episode will mark an incredible lapse of judgment by the IDF and Israeli society, taking credibility away from the Jewish State's perceived moral authority. (For the record, I do believe that Israel and the Jewish Diaspora have a moral obligation. as ambassadors of our religion, to do the right thing and respect the rights and desires of others --- you know, the Jolsonian school of tolerance). I could go into all of the potential ramifications for Israel's diplomatic and military manoeuvres, but that's not the point --- because this is an inherently cultural issue, not a political one.
Another question to start our conversation: if this is the way the IDF feels about blacks, then what does this indicate about its attitude towards other ethnic, racial, and religious groups?