The plight of Ethiopian Israelis.
Photo from the Israeli Defense Forces Flickr.
By Joe Winkler
On April 26th, an Israeli soldier was walking with his bike in Holon, south of Tel Aviv. A police officer, responding to claims of a suspicious package in the vicinity, asked the soldier to leave. When he wouldn’t immediately do so, the policeman began to beat him. A second officer joined the fray and together they subdued the soldier, crushing him to the ground under their shared body weight. The soldier, Damas Pakada, an Ethiopian Israeli, claimed that one of the officers said, “I’m doing my job and if I need to put a bullet in your head, I would do it. I am proud of my job.” Pakada was taken into custody for assault and only released after footage of the attack was placed on social media. “I feel terrible and humiliated,” Pakada said. “This is a disgrace to the State of Israel. It’s because of [my] skin color.”
The Ethiopian Israeli community flocked to the streets by the thousands to protest racist police brutality. They turned violent; the crowds would not back away and the police fired tear gas and stun grenades culminating in injuries to both officers and the protesters. About a month later, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with the soldier and Ethiopian Israeli communal leaders. “We cannot accept inflammatory rhetoric, racism, looking down on people and the beating of an IDF soldier,” Netanyahu said. But on June 14th, the Attorney General of Israel announced that the police officer would not stand trial. He had found no evidence of racist misconduct, and concluded that Pakada initiated the altercation.
These Jews are exiles in their own homeland.
These clashes signify decades of social injustice. There are 135,000 Ethiopian Jews in Israel, less than 2 percent of the population. Yet, while 21.8 percent of Israelis live below the poverty line, according to even conservative estimates, 52 percent of Ethiopian Israelis are living in poverty. In 2013, only 55 percent of Ethiopian high school students born in Ethiopia and 53 percent of second-generation Ethiopian high school students passed their exams, compared with 64.2 percent of the general population. Ethiopian Israelis make up 30 percent of the juvenile prison population. Most shockingly, in 2014 it emerged that 30 percent of both male and female Ethiopian Israelis enlisted into the Israeli Defense Forces were jailed at some point during their service. They face discrimination on a near-daily basis while seeking jobs and housing, in schools, and at the hands of police. These Jews are exiles in their own homeland.
While Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin have offered apologies to the Ethiopian Israeli community, political elites to police officers to social workers deny the existence of systemic racism, always quick to contrast their tepid situation to the raging racism in America. Instead, they claim these tensions stem from cultural differences and that Ethiopians refuse to fully integrate into Israeli society. Eliezer Jaffe, an Israeli social worker, explains that:
Although they are Jewish, Israeli Ethiopians are also viewed as threats to Israel’s social fabric, illustrating how Jewishness intersects with whiteness
While Israel may claim to be color blind, it has an agenda to preserve Jewish identity. According to the Law of Return, any Jew or person of Jewish ancestry can become an Israeli citizen. Yet the inhumane treatment of non-Jewish migrants in Israel has gained international attention over the years. Since 2006, an estimated 60,000 migrants from Sudan and Eritrea have crossed into Israel over the Egyptian border, seeking asylum. With few exceptions, these migrants are held in internment camps and deported without their consent. According to President Netanyahu, these “infiltrators” threaten Israel’s Jewish social fabric.
Although they are Jewish, Israeli Ethiopians are also viewed as threats to Israel’s social fabric, illustrating how Jewishness intersects with whiteness, or how a certain type of Jewishness interchanges with whiteness. Their treatment of Ethiopian Jews shows how whiteness is not purely a matter of skin color, but a matter of acceptance and integration within society.
The quasi-official narrative of the Ethiopian Jews’ arrival in Israel goes something like this: a poor, backward, African group of Jews was found, festering in the jungles of Ethiopia and it fell upon mighty Israel to save them because they couldn’t save themselves. In two daring, heroic, courageous rescues, Israeli airlifted over 15,000 Ethiopian Jews. They arrived in Israel to the wild celebrations of the whole country, embracing this long lost family. But first person accounts, and the history books solely tell the stories from the perspective of powerful Israeli political players. Rarely, if ever, do they give a voice to the experience of Ethiopian Jews themselves, their leaders, the thousands who left their villages, walking into danger, uncertain of their fates. They are stripped of their autonomy and humanity, while the Israelis act as their white saviors.
Once they arrived in Israel, Ethiopians quickly learned that they were outsiders. The Rabbinate, a body of Orthodox rabbis who control many religious and cultural aspects of Israeli society, required the Ethiopians to convert to Rabbinic Judaism. In Ethiopia, they were known as Beta Israel, and practiced a type of Judaism with emphasis on purity, which even included an order of Ethiopian Jewish monks. Their religious hierarchies, systems of law, the languages spoken, and values, are often divergent, even if they stem from shared sources. These differences challenge the presumption that Jewish identity in Israel is singular and authentic.
In addition to their Jewishness coming under attack, Ethiopians were discriminated against because of where they had come from. In 2009 it emerged that the Israeli Red Cross simply dumped donations of Ethiopian Israeli blood in the mid 1990’s because they feared there would be higher incidence of AIDS. That same year, semi-public schools closed their doors to Ethiopian students because of their Ethiopian descent, and a bus driver would not allow a black woman on his bus. He asked her, “were there buses in Ethiopia? In Ethiopia you didn’t even have shoes and here you do, so why don’t you walk?”
In 2010, questions arose about the plummeting numbers of births in the Ethiopian community. Activists and feminists uncovered that the Israeli government had pushed Depo Provera, a controversial birth control injection, on Ethiopian women as a prerequisite to immigrating into Israel. Both global health and internal Israeli governmental guidelines, dictate that only certain severe cases warrant the drug because of risky side effects that include period irregularities, vaginal bleeding, osteoporosis, depression, mood swings, rage, and an inability to give birth for up to two years. Yet Ethiopians were continuously prescribed the drug. The report by a feminist group in Israel, Isha L’Isha, Woman to Woman, concluded, the Israeli state displayed, “a paternalistic attitude toward women of Ethiopian origin” and that “women did not get crucial medical information and their right of choice regarding their bodies, families and lives was severely curtailed.” It was a more insidious version of the white savior narrative, where the Israeli government treated Ethiopians like objects to be manipulated rather than a people capable of making their own decisions.
While looking at these images of the protests in Israel, I find it hard not to think of Baltimore and Ferguson and countless other cities in the United States where police brutalize black populations, where black lives are constantly marginalized and discarded. Can a comparison of these two civil unrests teach us anything about the global, universal mechanisms of racism?
I think the similarities not only lie in how the racism manifests itself (segregation across all markers of social life and success), but also how racism is veiled and excused. In a sense, the Civil Rights movement in America serves the same function as the Israeli airlifts. Both shrouded in false mythology, they serve as excuses to deny racism based on skin color. If we white Americans can somehow cling to the passage of the Civil Rights and the Voting Rights Acts as a moments when the country finally came to it moral senses and changed, we can convince ourselves that there is no more work to be done. Instances of racism are merely an anomaly; it has nothing to do with us. The plight of blacks today is of their own doing. It’s black on black violence, hyper-sexuality, and hip-hop, not us. If only they could play by the rules. If only they wouldn’t resist arrest. In Israel, any claim of racism can simply be countenanced with the heroism of the airlift. How could you claim that we are racist when we saved you? Why can’t you just be grateful and fit it?
In truth, necessarily so, we are blinded and brainwashed by our whiteness. We don’t see it. We don’t feel it.
Any behavior among blacks that signals unhappiness and unrest in America is criminal, ignoring that we’ve created a situation so dire that violence is a sane response. It is only when it is too extreme to ignore that we deem outrage to be appropriate, and even then that racism is treated as exceptional. Dylann Roof is depicted as mysterious manifestation of evil rather than explicit example of the racism connected to the multiple instances of police brutality, or the daily outrages of de facto segregation.
In Israel, Ethiopian Israelis face these same problems because of their skin color while the manifestations and foundations of their discrimination emerge through structures of Jewishness. Judaism in Israel is supposed to signify a Judaism that overcame the horror of the Holocaust to build a home for all Jews, of all kinds. Racism, against other Jews especially, clashes with perhaps the most fundamental tenet of Zionism: the equal worth and value of all Jews and the equal claim of all Jews to belonging in the land of Israel. But they don’t. Instead, a monolithic form of Judaism, ultimately a very white, European version of Judaism reigns, reinforcing racist notions. What results is the silencing of other voices that fall outside this acceptable form of Judaism in the same way that America raises the ideology of the good American: hard working, prosperous, obeying the dictates of law and order, into the pinnacle of citizenship thereby criminalizing those that do not fit into this mold.
This ignorance about the systemic power of whiteness is simply another function of its oppression. In truth, necessarily so, we are blinded and brainwashed by our whiteness. We don’t see it. We don’t feel it. In contrast, the oppressed never feels confused about the oppressor. They know them urgently and intimately. If we truly want to know about the power and privilege of whiteness we need to listen to those in the black community. As James Baldwin, one of the best diagnosticians of white society, wrote in The Fire Next Time, “whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves.”
Baldwin continues that African Americans know whiteness as a weapon, created, reinforced and defended to render black people as voiceless and one-dimensional. Whites believe their superiority to be natural while the oppressed understand it as mythological. Baldwin explains:
These same dynamics play out throughout the world, including Israel, in which Israel’s egalitarian rhetoric and mythology flounders against the claims of its black citizens. White people let you have your rights in this country, white people saved you from Ethiopia. You are either a slave or a saved slave, forever in debt to our kindnesses.
Even the most-well intentioned interrogation of ourselves will be fruitless if we don’t look beyond our experience. Especially in a world in which whiteness, by default, seeks to erase blackness, we need to make room for this otherness in our lives. We to make the concerns of the marginalized the urgent concern of the majority. We must begin listening. We certainly are not taught to listen by the institutions we know. In fact we are indoctrinated not to listen. Led to believe we need to fear black voices and experiences, we denigrate, or at best, pity them, but we do not listen. The most recent example being when Waller Country Judge Trey Duhon recently took to Twitter to alert the world that Sandra Bland was found with THC in her body, as if that somehow justified her brutal arrest, and her still questionable death. To listen would be to hear the challenges against our lives, our privilege, the myths of white supremacy that permeate our lives, our histories, the organizations of societies. Given America’s consistent inability to listen, I found it hard to feel hopeful. But we cannot indulge in cynicism. These are the obligations of whiteness.
Joseph Winkler is a freelance writer living in Harlem. He’s working on a memoir about leaving rabbinical school for the confusions of secular life.