From Rabin Square to Baltimore, Outrage Puts Bias and Prejudice in Harsh Mirror

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Ethiopian Israelis clash with police officers in a protest in Tel Aviv, May 4, 2015.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

Besides the color of their skin and the continent of their origin, the Ethiopian Jews of Israel have almost nothing in common historically with the African Americans of Baltimore. They came to Israel voluntarily, not by force; they were embraced upon arrival, not enslaved; they were accorded equal rights immediately, not made to fight for them for centuries on end; they did not suffer from official discrimination, or Jim Crow laws, or malicious deprivation or malignant neglect.

In the space of less than a generation, in fact, many of them have catapulted with flying colors from lethargic, pre-modern Amhara to frenetic, hi-tech Israel. Ethiopian doctors, lawyers, army officers, computer programmers and beauty queens aren’t just models for Jewish Agency posters and hasbara presentations: they are true, albeit very partial, portraits of a reality completely divorced from America’s troubled racial history.

Nonetheless, the confrontation at Rabin Square on Sunday night was similar, and even more unruly, to the violent confrontations that took place in Baltimore, Ferguson and other American cities this year. The spark of the protests – police brutality – was exactly the same, as were their underlying causes of poverty, resentment and mistrust for authority. Even the statistics cited by Ethiopian activists, of disproportionate police arrests, criminal proceedings and levels of incarceration, sounded as if they had been lifted directly from the annals of urban America and its beleaguered justice system.

And despite their disparate history and circumstance, the majority of Israelis were surprised by the sudden outburst of acrimony and rage, just as many Americans were taken aback by the intensity of African-American exasperation that has come to the fore in recent months in the wake of the Florida killing of Trayvon Martin and the deaths by police of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Freddie Gray. Many Americans had conveniently adopted the narrative of a “post-racial America” following the election of its first black president, Barack Obama; many Israelis had just as willingly hailed the heroic rescue of Ethiopian Jews two and three decades ago in Operations Moses and Solomon and the overarching concept of Jewish solidarity before banishing the community from their consciousness and leaving it to its fate.

For most Israelis, Ashkenazi and Sephardi alike, the very concept of “black Jews” is novel: their ancestors, whether descendants of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, as they themselves believe, or of the converted Agau tribe of South Arabia, as most anthropologists maintain, had lost contact with the bulk of world Jewry for nearly 2000 years. Though Jews may have had their unfair share of modern slave trading, the concept of slavery was alien to most European, African and Asian Jewish communities. When Ashkenazi Jews used the pejorative Yiddish word for black – “shvartze” – they were thinking of olive-skinned North African and Middle Eastern Jews, not ebony-toned Jews from “beyond the Mountains of Darkness,” where King Alexander, according to some Jewish traditions, first encountered them.

Like many post-Holocaust Jews around the world, most Israelis see themselves as a persecuted minority, not a prejudicial majority: this worldview, fostered and propagated by successive Israeli leaders, has served to immunize them from serious self-scrutiny of their own biases and partialities. Even after North African Jews rioted in Wadi Salib in 1959, the Black Panthers made Golda Meir’s life miserable in the early 1970’s and the establishment and success of Shas made clear the extent of lingering North African resentment against the so-called Ashkenazi elites in the ‘80s and ‘90s, it was only in 1997 that Ehud Barak apologized for the condescending attitude of the ruling Mapai party towards the waves of North African immigrants in the 1950s, and even then he was roundly condemned by many outraged Ashkenazim.

And while sporadic mention is made of individual incidents in the media, none of Israel’s other Jewish ethnic groups have seriously confronted their own blatant streaks of bigotry: Ashkenazi Orthodox schools continue to shun Sephardi children, Arab-born Jews are extraordinarily harsh towards Israeli Arabs and many Russian-born Jews are more or less disdainful of anyone who isn’t a Russian Jew like themselves. Each of these groups views itself as a victim of prejudice rather than perpetrator; most have been happy to sweep their own racial preconceptions and animosities under the rug, under the pretext of security considerations or “we’re all Jews, aren’t we?”

Some Israelis are dismissing the outpouring of outrage in Tel Aviv on Sunday night as an excessive manifestation of the griping and grievances of the latest wave of new immigrants: the early Russians mistreated the Poles, the Poles mistreated the Germans, the Germans mistreated the Romanians, the Romanians mistreated the Iraqis, the Iraqis mistreated the Moroccans and so on and so forth, like the Passover Haggadah’s Had Gadya song. They forget that the color of their skin sets the Ethiopians visibly apart from everyone else, or that Israel’s rabbinical authorities only recently and grudgingly accepted their very Jewishness.

Some right-wingers are now propagating cynical and condescending narratives of the Ethiopians being manipulated by leftist anti-government forces. Others portray attitudes towards the Ethiopians as a byproduct of Israeli society’s overall oppression of Palestinians, which spreads from the outside within. Within hours after their protests, the Ethiopians were already being used as pawns to score larger political points.

Many people expect this wave of protests to dissipate and go away. Perhaps. Another possibility, however, is that the Ethiopian Israelis won’t make do with window dressing and hastily convened committees devoted to wasting time; that they will refuse to accept the expressions of contriteness and soul-searching being hurled at them now. We’re talking about people who miraculously and obstinately clung to their Judaism for a millennium or two, through thick and thin, against overwhelming odds and in the most difficult of circumstances: not only are they unlikely to go away that easily, they might very well spur other downtrodden and disenfranchised groups Israeli Jews – as well as Arabs – to follow in their wake.

At best, Israelis would be forced to take a long hard look in the mirror and to finally acknowledge the deep blemishes of prejudice and discrimination that continue to permeate their society. The good news for the Ethiopians is that they are a small community, that the history of their neglect at the hands of society is relatively short and that the prejudice being directed against them is not a deeply ingrained social and cultural phenomenon, as it is in America. Places like Be’er Sheva, in which they are concentrated, will be easier to cure than Baltimore: if there is a will, as Herzl said, there’ll probably be a way. 

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