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Israel's Ethiopian Jews face racism, denial

When I first lived in Israel in 2002-03, I attended an Orthodox women’s Talmudic Yeshiva. This yeshiva was renowned for its seriousness of learning Jewish religious texts and allowing women to learn just like the men do. It was also known for its Ethiopian immigrants learning program. Yet in this program, Ethiopian girls were integrated into Israeli religious society by not learning aside their non-Ethiopian counterparts, but in a special program where they were taught more about Israeli history, some textual learning , and the way to run an observant Jewish home according to Jewish law. One way to view why they are taught separately is because they had not much background in Ashkenazi Judaism, or even Sephardic for that matter. Yet there were Anglo Jewish and non-Jewish (converting to Judaism) women in my classes, most of who didn’t even know how to read Hebrew, let alone make a blessing over food.

The way that people fawned over the Ethiopian students also made me feel uncomfortable, for the fawning seemed contrived and as if they were all trying to make up for some invisible wrong. It was patronizing. I tried to ignore all of this because it brought up feelings that I didn’t want to nurture. I didn’t want to see any hint of racism in Israeli society towards Ethiopians. The thought was deplorable and I just labeled it as me overreacting. So I ignored it and went along my merry, black-American way while enjoying a status that was above Ethiopians and taking advantage of that at every turn.

When I made Aliyah and returned to Israel earlier this year, it seemed the color issue included me more than I thought it would. I also had more open eyes as I had become more liberal in my political outlook had fully embraced my blackness with all that it entailed, and stopped seeing Israel as a place that can do no wrong, filled with Jews who are always correct. After the glow wore off, I was an eyewitness to blatant racism towards Ethiopians in the town where I lived, and they were just as isolated a community as they had been when I had last visited. There were so many instances in which I saw Israelis, religious and secular, berate or talk down to an Ethiopian. Each time, the Ethiopian was sweet, calm and with bowed head or nodding in agreement. Some of my friends in my old Israeli town would tell me of the instances in which they saw and heard things being said or done to Ethiopians that made them cringe. While this is going on in the open, there are Israelis that say that nothing of such is happening and that the Ethiopians should be grateful that Israel “saved” them from a terrible existence. The chutzpah!

Ethiopians in Israel have made clear that they feel that they are marginalized and treated like they are the victims of racism and marginalization. For years, they have been voicing themselves against rampant stereotyping, racial profiling and full-on bigotry. In 2009, Israel’s Education Ministry sent out a letter to religious boarding schools in Tel Aviv saying that there had been reports of Ethiopian-born students misbehaving at the city’s central bus station. The letter asked principals to make sure that they sent their students on an alternate route home. In response, Gadi Yevrekan, who directs the headquarters of the Struggle for Social Equality for Jewish Ethiopians said, "The Education Ministry should educate itself first. If I hadn't seen the symbol of the State of Israel on the letter, I would have thought it had been taken from the 1950's of the previous century of the U.S., where there were segregation on buses." Of course the news sites that ran this story got responses about how Ethiopians had forgotten the state that they were in when they were in Ethiopia, and how they're playing the race card against the Jews and how they can't deny that they never had school before they came to Israel. There are also comments stating how the Ethiopians in Israel aren't even Jewish.

In 2006, the Israeli Ethiopians discovered what was happening with their blood donations (donating blood is considered an honor in Ethiopian society). They found out from a report on Channel 2 News in Israel that there donations were not even being used. They were being frozen and disposed of! When Tal Zakul of the Ethiopian Students Union found out he said,  "I meet with youths at boarding schools and talk to them about moving up in life and how important integration is. Every chance I get I explain to them that only a shred of [Israeli] society is racist, and that they shouldn't generalize the Israeli public. But what do I say to them tomorrow? How do I answer their questions when racist discrimination has again been proven, that they are truly being labeled by the color of their skin so it makes no difference how hard they try?"

What was the response from Magen Dovid (the Israeli equivalent of the Red Cross): This:

We must not forget that blood donations exist to save lives, and the guidelines set by the Health Ministry are designed to guarantee that the donor units will be as safe as possible. Anyone who has been exposed to numerous diseases, including Malaria or Mad Cow Disease, may endanger the recipient. The testing the blood goes through is not enough since some of these diseases have a 'window' in which they are undetectable, like HIV, where even a test cannot discover if the blood is contaminated. These guidelines are not an Israeli invention and they are accepted throughout the entire modern world.

The testing is not enough??? Let’s pretend that he's not lying and then think about the fact that the majority of the Ethiopians that donate blood in Israel were born in Israel and have never been exposed to Mad Cow, Malaria or HIV. Also, why not just tell them up front instead of making them think that they are saving people's lives? There are Israelis who won't accept Arab blood and others who refuse to donate blood because they don't want it to go to save the life of an Arab (I heard this being said right in front of me by a woman who refused to donate because she didn't want her blood to go saving a terrorist).

Of course the Israeli government and most Israeli citizens say that it’s not racism that’s the culprit of the unequal treatment of Ethiopian immigrants. Anshel Pfeffer wrote in a 2008 article in Haaretz:

Never was there an aliya in which Israel invested so much money, manpower and diplomatic capital than the Ethiopians. It's true that at times, the government was reluctant to go to such efforts and had to be pressured in different ways to do so —but that wasn't due to their skin color, but simply to the fact that due to their isolation and lack of full historical evidence, a significant proportion of historians, anthropologists and yes, even rabbis, are certain that they are not really descendants of the historical people of Israel.

Of course the Anti-Defamation League denies that racism is at play at all in Israel with regard to the Ethiopians.  Harry Wall, the director of ADL in Israel states, "What causes the distress is bureaucratic ineptitude and a cultural gap between a traditional community and a modern, technologically-advanced, highly-competitive nation." So the reason why Israelis shout racist comments, give racist treatment, toss donated blood in the trash (after lying to in the Ethiopians' faces about it), this is why Ethiopian children do the worst in school, the men are demonized, their Jewishness is questioned, they are called racist names in their faces, are among the poorest in Israel, totally filling the jails (Israelis lie and say the jails are filled with Arabs), cheated at stores, etc… All of that is because Israel is a country that's too fast and too smart? Smell it everyone. The bullshit is sky high—sanctimonious, patronizing, elitist bullshit at that.

I see. So it's not that the Ethiopians are black that causes the racism and discrimination, it's the idea that they're not Jews at all. Is that why Ethiopian Jewish men are demonized? Ethiopian youths and young adults are accused of doing all the crime in Israel (along with Arabs). I guess the best thing to do with that speculation is to stop immigration for Ethiopians to Israel. And that's exactly what the Israeli government did. In August of 2008, Israel allowed their last group of Ethiopian immigrants. They say that all the Ethiopian Jews left in Ethiopia had arrived with that last airlift. Some American Jewish groups put the number of the Ethiopian Jews left behind at 8,700.

Ethiopians also fill the prisons in Israel. Before she signed on with a certain Libyan regime, human rights activist and former U.S. congresswoman, Cynthia McKinney wrote in a 2009 article about the status of Ethiopian Jews in Israel:

The police here have license to pick them up and suck them into the black hole of a farce for a justice system. These beautiful, industrious and proud women represent the hopes of entire families. The idea of Israel tricked them and the rest of us. In a widely propagandized slick marketing campaign, Israel represented itself as a place of refuge and safety for the world’s first Jews and Christians. I too believed that marketing and failed to look deeper.

Ethiopians in Israel do feel cheated and manipulated. They were given all of these promises and ended up at the very short end of the stick. Though when you share this with most Israeli citizens, they will deny it and say that at least it's better for them here and that there are so many Ethiopian fashion models (not really) and that’s proof enough that they get along well in Israel. The ignorance there can be so appalling you’d want to pass out, my God!

No matter how you spin it, Israel has not been a Garden of Eden for the Jewish Ethiopian community. There is clear racism in play within Israel towards them. I saw it with my own eyes—the eyes of a child whose father was a sharecropper in southern Mississippi, and whose great grandfather was born a slave in 1822. I saw it through the heart of one who is a daughter of the Deep South. My father and older relatives told me many stories about what occurred during Jim Crow. I'm not the only Jew in Israel that has said this, but there were many times in which I felt that being in Israel could feel like you were in the in the Jim Crow South when it came to the racism that you see right there in front of you. Israel has to step up to the plate, and Israelis and all Jews who feel that this is unacceptable must make clear that it will not be tolerated.

I made Aliyah to be able to make a difference for Ethiopian children (who happen to score the worst in schools in Israel). I couldn't bear the atmosphere there, so I vowed to be a voice for them and their families in the United States. I hope that this post informed just a bit more about their struggle in a land ruled by a government that they feel lied to them. They feel they were chosen for some public relations campaign to make Israel seem tolerant and progressive, when in fact it isn't.

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