by Dimetros Birku
As I was watching the movie “Dancing Arabs” about a month or so ago, I was concomitantly pondering about experiences of Ethiopian Jews in Israel. The narrative in the “Dancing Arabs” mirrors, in my eyes, a fatiguing struggle of a bright palestinian boy, Eyad,for acceptance in Israeli society. Ultimately, the boy went to the extent of changing his identity and the circumstances under which he did that in itself is a very moving story.
Trading identity for recognition and acceptance is not, conceivably, by any means a pleasant experience. For many,it’s full of volatility with dehumanizing experience and could lead to loss of personality, if not more. The Palestinian boy managed to undertake the change without losing his personality. Undoubtedly, the romance he developed with an attractive Israeli girl and the friendship he fostered with a disabled guy, another interesting character in the movie, did help him manage the change, I would say. The backdrop of the struggle he went through is racism in the Israeli society. And it seems prevalent in the Israeli society in its worst form.
In light of Israeli-Palestinian tension and historical enmity, prejudice and hatred against Palestinians is understandable but not fair or acceptable by any means. What is not understandable is the discrimination against Ethiopian Jews.
Israel went to a great length to bring Ethiopian Jews to Israel. In 1991,Israel had to undertake a secret airlift,Operation Solomon, and brought well over 14,000 Ethiopian Jews in as little as 36 hours ( check out wikipedia on that). And Israel brought more Ethiopian Jews thereafter under its aliya program.
Ethiopian Jews clearly identified themselves with Israel.They locate the origin of their Jewish identity as far back as ancient time and of course they practice Judaism.Conceivably, ‘modernity’ touch which the wider Jewish society acquired in the process of integration in the diaspora and language which Ethiopian Jews didn’t use for a long time could be barriers,among other things, for integration during the early stages of resettlement. However, Ethiopian Jews overcame all that and integrated culturally. Considerably high proportion of Ethiopian Jews in Israel do speak the language now. In fact, second generation Ethiopian Jews barely speak Ethiopian language/s.
The problem is their integration is not accepted, it seems, as something desirable and Ethiopian Jews are even ridiculed as “fake jews.” Recent reports in the media revealed that Ethiopian Jews constitute about 5 per cent of the Israeli population, but 65 Percent of Ethiopian Jews live below the poverty line, only about 5 percent of Ethiopian Jews have college education compared to close to 30 percent of the Israeli population.Unemployment among Ethiopian Jews is shockingly high and many live on social programs. Obviously, all these facts speak, to a great extent, to the fact that the discrimination structural in nature too. Yet, a good portion of Israeli defense force is composed of Ethiopian Jews.
Apparently, most of the world happened to know about the brutality and discrimination against Ethiopian Jews in Israel only a couple of months ago when a viral video was released featuring racist practices in the Israeli society. In the video, an IDF member of Ethiopian Jews is assaulted by two Israeli policemen. Yet, there was even more outrageous discrimination and even crime against Ethiopian Jews, the likes of which was seen in Apartheid South Africa ( And this is another evidence that the discrimination has structural/systemic base.) For example,some time in 2013 it was in the news that Ethiopian Jew women were subjected to forced birth control injection. In fact, data as it relates to poverty,unemployment,housing and education itself clearly supports the proposition that discrimination against Ethiopian Jews is systemic. And the discrimination and brutality is widespread so much so that every Ethiopian Jew family in Israel relate to some form of brutality. Two or so years ago, a shocking video was circulating among Ethiopians on social media. An Israeli bus driver punched a middle aged Ethiopian Jew women in the face in a very clear racist attitude. That is not it. A Knesset member of Ethiopian Jew was assaulted by racist Israelis was made headlines and was widely shared among Ethiopians. Mind you these are just narrative that made it to the media. How many more thousands do have similar experience. It is imaginable in light of the magnitude of the problem.
Now Ethiopian Jews are fighting back.For months now, they took to streets of Tel-Aviv furiously and in great numbers which the Israeli police dealt with harshly. Ever since, determination of Ethiopian Jews to influence change is getting momentum.After series of massive demonstrations and clashes between Israeli police force and members of Ethiopian Jews, Israeli government did try to engage the Ethiopian community vowing to change the situation. In a knee jerk reaction, Benyamin Netenyahu visited Ethiopian Jewish community and promised change. Netanyahu even established a ministerial portfolio to deal with the matter.
It is questionable as to how effective will the policy response be and Ethiopian Jews seem to get that and have become intransigent to call off their protest.
Their skepticism is not baseless. Last week, an Israeli news source, Ynet, published news that proposal to create parliamentary commission to investigate ‘allegations of discrimination’ is rejected in the Knesset meeting -another indication about the role of structure/system for egregious hate and discrimination that Ethiopian Jews are experiencing. If you want a sampling tool to measure the degree of the problem, just read comment section of any article on Ethiopian Jews on Ynet. Some even dare to make it sound as if discriminating against Ethiopian Jews is a desirable religious practice.
What should be done?
Israel does not need to engage Ethiopian Jews. what Israel rather need is to engage the mainstream Israeli society and strategize to deal with deep rooted prejudice which is now sounding like, unfortunately, a hallmark of Israeli society.
Israeli do have experience to draw from on this matter. Historically, Jews did even deny their Jewish heritage and identity in order to integrate and be accepted in a society to which they immigrated. Yet, in many instances that did not help them to escape prejudice. Prejudice against Jews in Europe and elsewhere did have negative economic and social repercussions -among other things.Even before Jewish experience in relation to the Nazi Germany, Jews were subject to discriminations and maltreatment in Europe. They were denied economic opportunities and lived in poverty in most cases so much so that the problem required structural adjustment and affirmative actions. In the 19th century Austria,for instance, a law was enacted to emancipate Jews from Ghetto. A new constitution promulgated by Emperor Franz Joseph guaranteed that political and civil rights are not to be based on religion. Jews had essentially similar experience elsewhere in Europe .
So the first business for the Israeli government need to be dealing with all forms of structural barriers that are trapping Ethiopian Jews in poverty. Secondly, government need to engage the Israeli population, not the Ethiopian Jews, vis-a-vis weakening the social base of prejudice and racial hate.
With regard to Ethiopian Jews, echoing the brutes and repression might in the long term have undesirable outcomes along the lines of social psychology. For that matter, Ethiopian Jews should never bury the Ethiopian part of their heritage in fear of being labelled as“fake jew.”
And finally, Ethiopian Jews community, apart from venting anger against prejudice and discrimination, they need to look into ways of fostering their ties as a community. No question they will pull through this excruciatingly painful experience and will live dignity as they should. They are even people with a great potential to contribute for the liberation of Ethiopia from US backed tribal regime.
Writer can be reached on twitter : @dimetros