Being an African-Israeli: 'Israeli Society Has Become the Most Intolerant in the World'

'If we take all the Jews that came from North Africa, we have a substantial group' of Africans in Israel. What if there was a radio show to reflect that?

Itay Stern
Itay Stern
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Avishai Tzaghon Baruch, left, and Shlomo Shmuel of the radio program “Afrikan”. “I present myself as a proud African.”
Avishai Tzaghon Baruch, left, and Shlomo Shmuel of the radio program “Afrikan”. “I present myself as a proud African.”Credit: \ Moti Milrod
Itay Stern
Itay Stern

More Africans than non-Africans live in Israel, claims radio DJ Avishai Tzaghon Baruch. “If we take all of North Africa — Algerians, Moroccans, the Tunisians, Ethiopians, Egyptians — we have a substantial group.”

Tzaghon Baruch, together with stand-up comedian Shlomo Shmuel, presents a new and unique radio program in the Israeli entertainment sphere, called “Afrikan” - which places the spotlight on African culture and its affect on Israeli society. They broadcast a mix of popular music from Ghana, Mali, Zimbabwe and northern African countries such as Morroco, interview young Israeli artists of Ethiopian origin, and explore the cultural connection (or plagiarism) linking Western music and African artists.

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“‘Afrikan’ breaks many stereotypes and myths that people have about Africa, such as that there’s only poverty, hunger and backwardness there,” says Shmuel. “It’s a rich continent that was robbed, but it is still full of culture and art that many in the West also draw from. For example, Beyonce and Jay-Z are now doing their On the Run tour, the promotional poster for which was inspired by a 1973 Senegalese movie.”

Both of them claim to have a split identity: Tzaghon Baruch was born in Ethiopia and moved to Israel with his family at the age of two. He now creates documentary films and children’s animation for the IETV channel (the Israeli Ethiopian Television). Shmuel was born in Be’er Sheva 31 years ago and grew up in the southern twon Ashdod.

“I present myself as a proud African,” says Shmuel. “In the end, it’s pretty clear that I am African. It’s impossible to escape that. Although we feel Israeli, I need to say that I am Israeli for them to know that. I don’t need to declare my African identity.”

Tzaghon Baruch says that he “prefers African culture over Western culture,” adding: “If you would suggest that I go to hear an African band or a [classical music] concert, the choice is easy. I didn’t grow up in a household listening to Mozart and Bach and Beethoven, but instead music with a lot of beat.”

Shlomo, your stand-up is very socially oriented. In it you express a powerful and funny outcry over the treatment that Ethiopians receive in Israel.

“Yes, because that’s reality. Stand-up is a kind of tragedy. If something works perfectly, there isn’t much to laugh about. My stand-up is filled with social issues, and I present my Ethiopian identity in it. Even if it’s a disadvantage, let’s laugh about it.

Shlomo Shmuel. “We have become a very unhealthy, egotistical society."Credit: Moti Milrod

"People often tell me that I go too far talking about racism. Then I tell them that they hear a 20-minute monologue from me, but I have lived it for 31 years. I deliver it to you in humorous fashion, but when I went through it, it wasn’t funny at all.”

Tzaghon Baruch adds: “I need to prove all the time that I’m Israeli, but no one disputes my being African. It’s the first thing they see. Young Ethiopians feel it all too well, and because of that, many are restoring their Ethiopian names. You have a lot of non-Ethiopian friends before the army, yet somehow, when you get out of the army, all the non-Ethiopian friends disappear,” he says. “Suddenly you understand what racism is. You understand that you want safe surroundings.”

Don't ask us to express our pain

Israeli radio, like local television, has started making a progress in recent years when it comes to presenting the Ethiopian community. In addition to the success of bands and artists such as Cafe Shahor Hazak (aka Strong Black Coffee), Axum and Avior Malasa, the television series “Nebso,” that focused on Israeli Ethiopians, was renewed for a second season.

Tzaghon Baruch. “I need to prove all the time that I’m Israeli, but no one disputes my being African."Credit: Moti Milrod

Even some actors are making a name for themselves, such as Ruti Asarsai and child star Oshrat Ingedashet. Still, many of them avoid discussing the distress of the community.

“There is a demand of sorts that Ethiopian artists express pain and anger in what they are doing, but it isn’t fair,” says Shmuel. “It’s as if the economic situation weren’t good and I asked every young performer to sing about it. We want this freedom. A black person lacks absolute freedom and enjoys only limited liberty,” he says. “Europeans can now wear African dress, and it will be cool, but if I wear Western clothing, then I am becoming Ashkenazi. It is something that I will need to fight my whole life. It’s the most concealed level of racism – the expectation to behave in a certain way.”

Tzaghon Baruch provides another explanation: “It’s very hard for Israeli society right now to digest an Ethiopian singer who will give all that he has in the critical sense,” he asserts. “Those who do it won’t make it to the stage. On the other hand, if someone would open the door, he would create an opening for other Ethiopian artists. When Cafe Shahor Hazak started, there weren’t too many [such artists], but today you see many young guys with YouTube clips.”

Shmuel says Ethiopians study acting but don’t get noticed. “It’s important that Ethiopians write [their own television] shows because it’s important which side tells the story. You have to go and do it, so there will be more actors and screenwriters. These are professions that are economically risky, and because of that they are reserved for people of a relatively high economic status.”

Ethiopian immigrants hold up photographs of their relatives during a demonstrationCredit: REUTERS

Tzaghon Baruch: “There isn’t a lot of Ethiopian representation in children’s programming either. And let’s not talk about commercials.”

Shmuel: “When I studied advertising, I studied psychological perceptions of the field, and I realized who is perceived as a trustworthy person. The person doing casting is not the problematic one. He is just doing what everyone expects of him. The problem here is much deeper. It is a matter of education.” On children’s shows, he adds, it’s clear that the children are not highly trained actors “so there is no reason not to take Ethiopian children.”

“I believe it will happen,” says Shmuel, who asserted that the United States is a country with more highly racist attitudes than Israel, but where blacks have made a breakthrough. “They reached a situation in which they dominate culture and sport. Hip-hop is fashionable. They gave them an opportunity and look where it led. Israel is very small and trying to survive. Any hatred or racism comes out of fear. [Israelis] fear what is different, the unknown.”

“Israeli society has become the most intolerant in the world in recent years," says Baruch. "If a decade ago I somehow stopped hearing the word “nigger” (“kushi” in Hebrew) in the streets, then in the past two years, I have heard it all the time. Our government is letting this happen. People are less tolerant today even toward Ethiopian immigrants. It is no coincidence that the community protested in 2015,” he said, referring to protests that erupted over police violence directed toward members of the Ethiopian Jewish community.

Shmuel: “We have become a very unhealthy, egotistical society. Politics are probably dividing us. Because of this, it is so important to provide a program like ‘Afrikan.’ People at the top need to understand this value — of being together.”

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