Being Jewish and Black

Michael Twitty,  a Jewish African-American culinary historian,  endured humiliating treatment at Ben-Gurion Airport. (abstracted from Haaretz, with additions)

Michael Twitty is an Orthodox Jew who teaches Hebrew in Jewish schools in the United States.  He is a lso a convert and the editor of the culinary blog  Afroculinaria. Mr. Twitty was in Israel during Hanukkah as a special guest of the Jewish Film Festival held at the Jerusalem Cinematheque.

When Michael Twitty arrived back at the Ben-Gurion Airport to fly home  to the U.S. he was interrogated rudely, his Judaism was called into question, his personal effects were taken from him – and he seethed with anger and humiliation. During the check of Twitty he was separated from his partner, who is non-Jewish and white. He was asked the standard questions. When asked if he  had been to Israel before,” Twitty that he had come in 2004 as part of Taglit, Israel’s Birthright project intended to encourage diaspora Jews to make Aliyah … immigrate to Israel.  Seeing Michael Twitty’s face, the agent was incredulous.

Twitty went on to explain to the agent that he has converted to Orthodox Judaism. “She asked me why I was in Israel. I explained I was invited to the Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival, which could also be easily verified. She then asked what I did for a living, and I explained I was a food writer and taught Hebrew school in America. She really didn’t understand some of what I was telling her, and besides that her look changed to a tight disingenuous smile… Both my friend and I deduced from her body language that she did not believe a word out of my mouth, she looked really disturbed, even worried. In fact, had she checked, she would have found out that I won a first-place essay prize from Birthright that year.”

The woman consulted with someone, and then a different agent, a man, came over and “asked me the standard security questions, rapid-fire. He asked me a lot of questions about who packed my bags and what was in my bags. He asked me even more questions to verify my Jewish identity. Did I speak Hebrew?… He asked me if I converted Orthodox, and I said yes.”  Twitty even showed his him pictures of his conversion certificate. “He asked ‘How did you get this? Who gave you this paper?’… He asked me what shul (synagogue) I belonged to and when I went there and for what purpose. Every few sentences he would reverse the order and re-ask the same questions… I used as many Hebrew/Jewish terms as I could muster.”

At the next stage of the check-in process, Twitty was questioned by a third security agent, “who did a short repeat interview of what I dealt with downstairs, only this time I was more adamant about being Jewish… He was adamant about re-asking the same questions about weapons and liquids and assumptions that I was working with someone. I didn’t get it.” Twitty noticed that “all of the Black people I saw that evening were in the same line [as I was], including an older African American woman in a wheelchair. There were several Arab or Muslim women in the same line.”

Twitty  adds, “This was a lovely trip to Israel before that moment… I know that my experience was not uncommon and I know some groups get far more scrutiny, face detainment, imprisonment or worse. I was scared, upset and offended. I knew it wasn’t that bad in the larger scheme, but I was also keenly aware of the double standard based on color and appearance.” It felt, he says, “like someone had hit me with a bat in the stomach. It was just a reminder of how some people will never see me as Jewish… I thought being a ‘guest of honor’ meant something.”


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