The Forward’s Israel correspondent, Nathan Jeffay, has passed on to me a letter he received. Referring to Jeffay’s May 23 dispatch on Maccabi Tel Aviv’s winning Europe’s 2014 basketball championship cup, it states:
“In your article, you mistakenly say that the Hebrew word kushim, when used by Israelis to refer to Maccabi’s black players, is a derogatory racial term. This statement is incorrect. The term kushim appears 20 times in the Hebrew Bible and means ‘Ethiopians.’ Far from being derogatory, it refers to ‘blacks’ as a nationality, rather than as a color.
Of course, it does matter whether one intones the word with respect or with disdain, but that could be said about any word. Just this morning on Facebook, an Israeli friend of mine who is gay, very leftist and holds no racial animosity toward anyone used kushim in referring to black Americans without the slightest pejorative intention. I think you ought to retract and correct your statement.”
“What are your thoughts on this?” Jeffay asks.
My thoughts are that no retraction is called for. The Hebrew word kushi (in the singular) or kushim (in the plural) often is derogatory in contemporary Israeli speech, even when not said with a sneer. But the writer of the letter is not entirely wrong, either. In the Bible, Kush is indeed the name of Ethiopia, the part of black Africa that biblical authors had the most knowledge of, and although kushi no longer means an Ethiopian today, it can refer to black Africans or their descendants nonderogatorily, too.
Whether or not this is the case, however, depends not on the tone of voice it is uttered in, but on where the syllabic stress falls. KU-shi or KU-shim, with the stress on the first syllable, is unfailingly pejorative. Ku-SHI or ku-SHIM, with the stress on the second syllable, is generally not. The reason for this seemingly curious fact has to do with a feature of spoken Israeli Hebrew that, although not found in the grammar books, is widespread.
In Hebrew words and names, as opposed to English ones, syllabic stress tends most often to fall on the final syllable of a multisyllabic word. Thus, to take a few random examples, we have English TA-ble and Hebrew shul-KHAN, English CEI-ling and Hebrew tik-RAH, English SIDE-walk and Hebrew midra-KHAH, English AU-tomobile and Hebrew mekho-NIT, English RA-chel and Hebrew Ra-KHEL, English SA-rah and Hebrew Sa-RAH. Although there are plenty of Hebrew words with penultimate stress, they are not the rule.
And yet in the Ashkenazi-accented Hebrew of the Yiddish speakers of Eastern Europe, the rule was commonly disregarded. Yiddish, like English, prefers penultimate and antepenultimate stress, and prefers applying this to Hebrew too, Yiddish speakers say SO-reh and RO-khel. Similarly, they pronounce their Jewish holidays as Yom KIP-pur rather than the grammatically correct Yom Kip-PUR, SU-kes rather than Su-KOYS and Sha-VU-es rather than Sha-vu-OYS, and do the same with the rest of their Hebrew vocabulary.
Israelis, following the more historically accurate Sephardic pronunciation, say Yom Kip-PUR, Su-KOT and Sha-vu-OT. Nevertheless, certain Ashkenazi stress patterns have crept into Israeli speech, especially into the speech of the less educated. This is true, for instance, of proper names, so that although one will never hear SHUL-khan or TIK-rah from Israelis, one will often hear RA-khel, SA-rah, MO-she, DA-vid, etc.
It also applies to certain words when used slangily. Thus, tskho-KIM means “laughs,” whereas TSKHO-kim means “wisecracks,” and while kha-tu-LAH is a female cat, kha-TU-lah is “pussycat.” In addition, penultimate stress exists in Hebrew in many foreign words that have become domesticated in the language. English “barman,” for example, remains BAR-man instead of becoming the more Hebraic-sounding bar-MAN, and Arabic Ḥ AF-le, “party,” is Israeli KHAF-la and not khaf-LAH.
Which brings us back to the letter sent to Mr. Jeffay. When Israelis call a black person a KU-shi , they are implicitly invoking slangy, uneducated, nonstandard, and foreign or xenogeneic associations — in short, using the word somewhat similarly to the “N-word” in English. (One needs to stress the “somewhat,” because while almost always racist, KU-shi is more superior and condescending in tone than it is vitriolic and hateful.)
This is why, when an Israeli who feels misused says sarcastically, alluding to himself by means of a colloquial expression, ha-kushi asa et shelo, ha-kushi yachol la’lekhet, “The black man has done his job, now the black man can go” — meaning, “I was exploited as long as I could be and then dumped” — he will always pronounce the word KU-shi. It’s a little like an American saying, back in the bad old days when such a thing was permissible: “I’ve been treated no better than a n—-r.”
When they say Ku-SHI, on the other hand, Israelis are attempting to be polite and proper. Still, in language as in economics, bad coinage drives out good, and because it is the twin of KU-shi, ku-SHI, too, has become politically incorrect in contemporary Hebrew. Although it does not necessarily stamp one as a bigot, it is increasingly frowned upon in educated circles. Mr. Jeffay, all in all, was far more right than wrong.
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