Please take me away from this earthly plane because I can’t with this: Israeli model Barak Shamir, a huge basketball fan, decided to pay tribute to his idol, the late Kobe Bryant, in a truly disturbing and very much not okay way: by putting on blackface. Not just blackface, reader — full-on black body. It took three hours of make-up application, and plenty of willing and perhaps even enthused participants, to put together this tribute, and at no point did anyone stop this production to ask the warranted question of: “What the actual, actual fuck?!”
Shamir posted the original photoshoot on his Instagram on what would’ve been Bryant’s 42nd birthday with the following caption: “Kobe, you were a role model for me. I grew up trying to imitate your mimicries on the field. One of the reasons that I keep on playing, is that I learned so much from you — not just as a basketball legend, but also as a great person. You are a legend on the field and outside of it. I miss you Kobe, happy birthday, Mamba.”
לא זה כל כך מביך בשבילו אני לא יכולה כאילו מה הוא עושה לעזאזל ואיך זה נראה לו לגיטימי- pic.twitter.com/hHb61JkVXK
— 𝐧𝐨𝐚 ♍︎ מנהיגת כת איטס א פאמילי שואו (@itsafamillyshow) August 25, 2020
Apparently, one thing he didn’t learn about? The fact that Kobe was a Black American who came from a world in which putting on blackface is an awful reminder of oppression. Seriously. You know what would have been a great tribute to Kobe Bryant? Literally anything else.
The Israeli entertainment show Erev Tov posted a picture of the photoshoot on Instagram, asking their Instagram followers if they thought this was legitimate or not. Israeli actress Alona Tal, who I’ve loved and admired since her days in Veronica Mars, was not having it: “It’s so embarrassing. I’m sure he’s a very handsome model but this is so tactless,” she wrote.
Israeli model Titi Aynaw, a former Miss Israel and an Ethiopian Jew, also responded to the post: “I suppose there aren’t black models in Isreal that we had to color Barak’s skin black, forget about the fact that in the U.S. this would not be acceptable, to say the least! #whitecountry”
But if you think that all comments echoed Tal and Aynaw’s 100% right sentiments, you are wrong. Heck, even the show’s host, Guy Pines, went on to seriously reply to his own show’s question in the comments, defending Shamir by writing, “in Israel disconnected from the American context it passes, but in the U.S. they would stone him [wow, what a choice of words]. It symbolizes an unforgivable period in which African Americans were not allowed to perform in front of white people. they would pain singers and actors in black to play Africans, often in mockery. But Barak Shamir in Israel of 2020 does not live this and admires Kobe — I would not crucify [again with the word choices] him over this.”
Sure, blackface in Israel does not have the same violent and historic connotation with systemic oppression that it does in the U.S. But that still doesn’t make it right in a country where the mistreatment of Black people, from Ethiopian Jews to Eritrean and Sudanese refugees, is prevalent.
It’s also an especially jarring tribute to someone like Kobe Bryant, an American basketball player who was outspoken against racism and who spoke about the value of education to counter it. A man who, after the murder of Eric Garner, wore “I Can’t Breathe” shirts during pre-game warm-ups.
(As an aside, I know that a lot of us have problems with Kobe’s legacy because of his 2003 rape case. It should also be mentioned that Shamir posted this tribute at a time when thousands of Israelis are taking to the streets to march against rape culture after a horrific rape case in Eilat. So yeah, if this wasn’t problematic enough, there’s that.)
Putting on blackface during a time when millions of Americans have taken to the streets to protest against racism and police brutality is not okay. It is not okay in the U.S., it is not okay in Israel, and it is not okay in Norway. It is not okay now. It is not okay ever. It is painful, gauche, and insensitive. Period.
This isn’t the first time I’ve seen blackface used by Israeli entertainers. I grew up watching Israeli political parody shows like Eretz Nehederet where blackface was a frequent feature. As Lahav Harkov and Seth J. Frantzman write in this excellent article from this June, the show, one of Israel’s most popular TV programs, continues to do so: “Clips from as recently as this year feature a white actor in blackface, playing an Ethiopian-Israeli, or a fictional news anchor from the Caribbean, in dark makeup and dreadlocks, speaking gibberish.” So if Shamir got the message that this is somehow okay, I hate to say this but it wasn’t all on him.
Shamir has since deleted his original post and set his Instagram account to private. Before deleting his homage, he posted the following apology, according to Mako: “A lot of teenagers follow me and I wanted them to absorb a bit of what I admired in my youth, I really put a lot of effort into putting together a production that will pass on some of him… There are those who say this matter in a different way from what I wanted to project, to everyone who was hurt, mad, and thought I made a mistake — I’m sorry for the misunderstanding.”
The… misunderstanding? Misunder-friggin-standing?! The only misunderstanding is Shamir persistently missing the chance to understand what so many of his followers were trying to explain to him.
It’s beyond time for Israelis to stop with blackface. It’s not okay, not in Instagram posts, not for Purim costumes, and not for Israel’s most successful political parody show. It’s not okay as a tribute, or as a joke. And if you want a Black character in your show or photoshoot, please, please, just cast one. There are plenty of talented Israelis who will not have to put on blackface to play one.
Photo by Melodie Jeng/Getty Images