The Souls of Israel’s Black Folk

Affinity with any culture is something acquired. We acquired and assimilated Israeli culture at a cruel, excessive price

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New immigrants arrive in Israel from Ethiopia during Operation Solomon, in 1990.
New immigrants arrive in Israel from Ethiopia during Operation Solomon, in 1990.Credit: Nathan Alpert / GPO
Fekade Abebe
Fekade Abebe

Thirty years ago, in May 1991, thousands of Ethiopian Jews came to Israel over the course of two days, in an airlift called Operation Solomon. In general, commemorations of such symbolic moments in the immigration of Ethiopian Jewry are full of yearning, collective sentiment in the spirit of Zionism and the mythos of the ingathering of the exiles and salvation, while provoking nearly no questions.

The purpose of this essay is to shed light on questions that could create discomfort, to deflate the myth. Now is the time to attack the monopoly of the “Israeli melting pot,” on how we understand our lives and shape our Israeliness and how we seek to be present in Israel’s social fabric.

Ever since the first immigrants from this community arrived – most of them in the late 1980s and early 1990s (although the very first came in 1934) – the generation that dreamed of Jerusalem has climbed up the road of Israeliness. This generation, the pioneer corps, worked tirelessly and almost without complaint to forge a path for itself and its children. It moved slowly and with difficulty, but persistently.

Only those of us who saw and experienced this Sisyphean struggle on a daily basis, who were there to pick up the feet that faltered from the difficulties of the journey – during which both institutional and non-institutional actors heaped humiliation and scorn on them and trampled their dignity – can understand the astonishing devotion with which these people struggled to live here and the personal, familial and societal effort they invested.

This journey laid the groundwork for thought and self-examination among the second generation. For several years now, we’ve been witnessing the budding of self-awareness, self-respect and self-actualization. Amid the gloomy reality of its struggles, this generation’s soul has emerged.

Its “self” still isn’t sufficiently clear; it’s still necessary to remove the screen of the melting pot, which obscures it. Nevertheless, this is a generation that has discovered its power, even if only blurrily. Slowly but consistently, this generation is examining the social, political, cultural and economic burden it carries on its back, the heavy weight of social humiliation that was always hidden under the dubious term “integration problems” and the forgiveness it has shown as a collective for decades now.

This began with our forgiveness when unfounded doubts were cast on this ancient and unique community’s Judaism. This forgiveness resulted in the community’s priests being ground into the dust and prevented young couples from marrying like their ancestors had for hundreds of generations.

The religious traditions that had preserved this community were erased in one blow by the criminal demand that they undergo pro forma conversions. This demand was accompanied by systematic, institutional contempt for our bodies and our way of life, and it gave the country’s medical institutions a green light to inject our mothers and sisters with Depo-Provera to dilute the birth rate among the community .

The forgiveness with which we accepted the mistreatment of Ethiopian-Israeli women’s bodies also enabled community members’ donated blood to be thrown into Israeli society’s physical and cultural trashcans. And our forgiveness over the blood scandal gave the police a green light to declare open season on Ethiopian-Israeli boys and men, enabling them to arrest them, strip them, beat them, throw them out on the side of the road and, in the end, even shoot them without fear of having to give an accounting.

This forgiveness also helped preserve the existing social structure and saddled community members with unflattering labels such as “quiet” and “nice” – that is, people who can make do with minimalistic living conditions and who don’t make social and political demands. Every time we did come with such demands, we were required to maintain the “quiet” that had characterized us so far.

Ethiopian Jews land at Ben Gurion Airport as part of Operation Solomon, in 1990.Credit: Nathan Alpert / GPO

But the community’s new generation, which was born or grew up in Israel, is no longer graced with excessive forgiveness. This generation refuses to continue the status quo or accept it as a given.

In May 2015, and again in 2019, protests led by young Ethiopian-Israeli social activists broke out. These protests were the result of a severe crisis of faith between the community and the establishment, especially the police and the Justice Ministry department that investigates police misconduct.

The activists leveled harsh accusations at the police, saying their conduct was racist, discriminatory, disrespectful and unfair. These claims were based on cases of officers shooting and killing young men from the community, numerous cases of young men who were beaten and/or arrested, and a general feeling, backed by data, of discriminatory treatment by the police in particular and the establishment in general.

This struggle generated and discovered a new vocabulary. The protests were a vocal, desperate challenge to everything that tramples us and to everyone who show indifference to us, and they promised persistent resistance. This isn’t a matter of personal or communal pride, nor is it a fight over honor; it’s almost an issue of physical survival, a basic refusal to be trampled into the dirt.

At the same time, it became clear that any struggle by community members alone would have limited power, so they had to recruit other segments of society that are also experiencing growing alienation from our civic, political and economic system, which doesn’t work for them and even deliberately harms them. These groups, which have been pushed to the margins of society, are well known – Israel’s Arab, Druze and Bedouin citizens.

These groups have been consistently and systematically prevented from realizing their personal and collective desires for many years. They feel that Israeli society sees them, wrongly, as a social, cultural and national threat. And in this sense, there’s no doubt that Blacks (and Arabs) are indeed a social and national threat that Israeli society seeks to defend itself from.

This makes the Ethiopian community’s shared existence as Blacks in Israel’s white space the key question. The impossibility of convincing people that a Black person isn’t a threat to the white space raises another fundamental question: Is coexistence possible without the Black man’s space being reduced to a minimum, without his body being an easy, immediate target in the eyes of the people responsible for the white space’s security?

As long as we ourselves don’t play an active, dominant role in developing an answer to this question, there’s a risk that it will remain unanswered. The first step in this direction is a thorough examination of the history of our relations with Israeli society.

And from this standpoint, the time for reforms based on the status quo has passed. Now is the time for more drastic changes, to ensure that we, together with other groups, can obtain better, more suitable living conditions.

Israel has citizens who live as if they were foreign subjects. There’s an educated generation among these groups whose members aren’t working in their own fields of interest, the fields they studied. This means we must rethink our mode of political action.

Ethiopian Israelis protesting the police shooting of the teenager Solomon Teka, Jerusalem, 2019. Credit: Emil Salman

The Ethiopian community’s political behavior has always reflected a right-wing, nationalist worldview, one of demonstrative and sometimes exaggerated patriotism. It’s worth pausing on this point and asking some question.

Why don’t we, members of this community, show complete solidarity with refugees and asylum seekers in Israel, people who for years have suffered humiliation and venomous scorn from right-wing, nationalist political and social groups? Why doesn’t the social struggle by Israel’s Arab citizens provide a basis for social and political cooperation? What has to happen for us to understand that clinging to nationalism and patriotism won’t protect us from the next bullet fired by a police officer at one of our young men?

“Black consciousness” (Negritude) didn’t exist among members of this community before they came to Israel. What creates Black consciousness isn’t an emotional state, a preference for certain things or customs. Rather, the development of Black consciousness after the community moved to Israel is a direct product of the social and political reality here.

This Black consciousness brought with it a plethora of cultural, social and political identity problems. In general, most members of the Ethiopian community have coped with the problems Black consciousness created via an unbridled embrace of Jewish nationalism. But this consciousness, which was embraced by members of the community enthusiastically and without reservation from the very first, over time encountered schools of thought that rejected not just the community’s Judaism but the very fact that Blacks were physically present in Israel.

Despite this, the community was more enthusiastic about integrating and assimilating into society than any other group in Israel had been. As evidence, how many of us abandoned the meaning-laden names our parents gave us? Or abandoned our mother tongue, the language in which we learned to think, and which, through hundreds of generations, kept the dream of Jerusalem alive? How many of us abandoned the customs of our parents’ homes with regard to religion, culture and tradition?

To become who we became here, we had to reinvent ourselves based on a model we ourselves didn’t determine. We had to submit ourselves completely to the imaginary melting pot and disconnect from our original identities, our cultural roots, our religion, our music and even our names.

Anyone who thought they were “lucky” enough to assimilate into Israeli society thanks to these unilateral steps, discovered later on the falseness of this thought.. Affinity with any culture is something acquired, and we acquired and assimilated Israel’s cultural dynamics at a cruel, excessive price. This was forcefully demanded of us as part the “reeducation” we had to undergo to enter a different place and social class, Israeliness.

The result is that in recent decades, ever since the major waves of immigration took place, we have been pushed away, but have also pushed ourselves; we have been distanced, but have also distanced ourselves, both wittingly and unwittingly, from the cultural world, the customs, the language and the history from which we came. The problem is that all of these are an inseparable part of our self-definition, our self-perception and even the way people assign value to themselves and to the place and culture from which they came.

Few people are interested in thinking about the history of our relations with Israeli society in such terms, but that is the meaning of this history. If we, the members of this community, truly want to close all the cracks in our consciousness and self-perception that have been created by basing our thinking and our awareness on foreign foundations, we must quickly transition from a Jewish national consciousness to a sociopolitical one.

It was possible to discern the first signs of this process among the young Ethiopian Israelis who staged amazing protests in the country’s streets, only to discover that we lacked the one small thing that makes the difference – social and political power.

Fekade Abebe is a doctoral student in philosophy at Tel Aviv University.

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