They came from small villages in the Gondar region of Ethiopia. They had beautiful faces, graceful bodies and names we couldn’t pronounce, so they were told to replace Yuevmert with Yuval and Yeshitu with Shoshana. I, like many American Jews, was fascinated with “them” – indigenous Africans who were also Jewish. We were riveted by the saga of the people we'd once been told were called Falashas – even though that was a derogatory Amharic word meaning foreigner or exiled – and their plight in Ethiopia. We welled up and beamed with pride when Israel managed to transport 14,325 of these Ethiopian Jews to Israel in just 36 hours.
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I was a college senior when Operation Solomon happened in May 1991. At the time, I was one among many American Jewish college students who were concerned about anti-Israel sentiment on campus. To us, that Israel would airlift thousands of Africans and bring them to Israeli soil as welcome citizens made a farce of the “Zionism Is Racism” resolution passed at the UN in 1975. That resolution continued to taint the debate over Israel’s legitimacy, and we were among the thousands of activists who argued for that resolution to be revoked, as it was in December 1991, six months after Operation Solomon.
A year later, I came to Israel as a graduate student to do an in-depth study of how well Ethiopians were being “absorbed” into Israeli society. How did Israel deal with its most disadvantaged immigrants relative to how immigrants and asylum seekers were dealt with in other Western nations? In Sweden, I had met Iranians and Iraqis languishing in hostels for refugees, yearning for a new life and finding it impossible to break in. I was excited to tell the story of how different things were in Israel, how Ethiopians were welcomed with open arms and a generous basket of services to help ease the transition.
There was truth in that – but it wasn’t the full truth. Most of the Ethiopians I visited that year were living in caravan parks, ugly little trailers in the mud on the outskirts of cities or smack in the middle of nowhere. The Ethiopian newcomers struggled – to acquire Hebrew, to adjust to first-world technology, to accustom themselves to Israeli norms and behaviors. I also met Ethiopians who had come earlier, in the 1980s (including on Operation Moses in 1984) and who were years ahead in the process of trying to settle into Israeli society. These Ethiopians shared their experiences with me, and quickly took some of the glow off the “success” story of the mass aliyah from Ethiopia. People experienced discrimination and racism in all walks of life. When it came to getting those immigrants out of the caravan parks and absorption centers and into real neighborhoods and schools, however, some of the latent racism in Israeli society started to bubble to the surface.
Many mistakes were made in those initial years. The kessim, the Ethiopian Jewish spiritual leaders, were not recognized by the state as legitimate. Many young people were sent away to boarding school in an effort to make them properly Israeli, further complicating family lives that had already been through an upheaval. Young people were tracked almost exclusively into religious education – perhaps that would satisfy the rabbinic authorities’ doubts as to their Jewishness? – but emerged finding it difficult to find a rabbi who would marry them. A lucky and talented few managed to find success in universities, the army and workplace, but a much larger majority were left on the margins.
Change takes time, the optimists said. The adults who came on this aliyah en masse would find it difficult to readjust and might never fully be integrated. But their young children, and the children born here, would be native Israelis with every opportunity to succeed.
More than two decades on, however, the racism that existed then is not only still present in Israeli society, but in some ways may be worse, in that the ignorance is less excusable and the anger and awareness of young people more palpable. The video that showed police beating an Ethiopian soldier, sparking protests last week, is not a lone incident. Far from it, says Shimon Solomon, a veteran immigrant from Ethiopia who was a Yesh Atid MK from 2013 to 2015.
“What we saw in the video is nothing compared to what goes on, in fact it was less shocking that what happens to people in our community at the hands of police,” Solomon told me. “When we speak to people in their neighborhoods, we hear that it’s happening all the time, that the police allow themselves to act brutally and take people aside and beat them for no reason. We turned to the police and ask them to fix this situation, but it just continued like nothing happened.”
Fentahun Assefa-Dawit, the Executive Director of Tebeka - Advocacy for Equality and Justice for Ethiopian Israelis, says the problem is not just police brutality.
“When an Ethiopian applies for a job, as qualified as he might be, as impressive as his CV might be, he is not going to be invited for the interview because he has an Ethiopian name,” Assefa-Dawit told journalists on Monday as we were heading to a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who set meetings with Ethiopian leaders to try to calm the situation. “When a local Rabbinate office refuses to register a couple who wants to get married because they’re Ethiopian, when you see a school that says we cannot take more children because they have a quota of how many Ethiopians they will enroll, you can imagine what the feeling of young people will be,” Assefa-Dawit says.
The color-blind Israel I hoped to discover never did exist. Israel is perhaps no better and no worse when it comes to racism than is America, with its much longer and complex history stretching back to slavery. But the other forms of discrimination and oppression practiced here on a daily basis, including an occupation that turns 48 next month, perhaps make it easier for people in power – even when power simply means a gun and a nightstick – to justify their behavior. The events of the past few days should give the nation a wake-up call. Things here must change in a substantial way, and this generation won’t wait another 20 years to see a difference.