Opinion

They Didn't Want Ethiopian Jews in Israel, Either

It is terribly confusing, this combination of being both black and Jewish. It is confusing because racism based on skin color does not differentiate between citizens and non-citizens, between Muslims and Jews

African asylum seekers outside an Interior Ministry office in Tel Aviv, January 2018.
Chen Brill Agry / Amnesty International Israel

The public debate in Israel over the expulsion of asylum seekers to some African country is becoming increasingly charged. The more interesting part of the discussion how those who support deportation and the Israeli government are trying to walk a fine line and claim the decision has nothing to do with the deportees’ skin color, insisting they are “work infiltrators” and “illegals.”

I thought about going to one of the Knesset hearings on the subject and starting a provocation: to speak up to one of the MKs and thereby lead him to the “logical” conclusion that a black woman attending a discussion like this must be a “work infiltrator.” Then he’d discover that I’m an Israeli citizen of Ethiopian background who feels so comfortable here that she dares open her mouth in the Knesset and criticize it, just like a first-class citizen.

It is terribly confusing, this combination of being both black and Jewish. It is confusing because racism based on skin color does not differentiate between citizens and non-citizens, between Muslims and Jews, and if Israel is instinctively against blacks then there is no reason it will not be against me too.

My imaginary Knesset member might say to himself: What a shame we didn’t take seriously the Litvak Report (for Prof. Yosef Litvak) that we labored over in the Absorption Ministry in 1973, and in which we explained clearly and unequivocally that the Ethiopians will find it difficult to integrate in our advanced Israeli society. Even the Israeli ambassador to Ethiopia, Hanan Aynor, wrote in 1973 that the Falashas were “primitive, illiterate, downtrodden and sick.” (From the doctoral thesis of Dr. Chen Tannenbaum-Domanovitz, “Zionism is Colorblind: The Debate Over the Immigration of Ethiopian Jewry (1970-1985),” 2013, in Hebrew).

In the report, which the Immigrant Absorption Ministry disavowed after it was published in the media, was written by Litvak after the panic that struck the ministry after the courageous halakhic (Jewish law) ruling by former chief rabbi Ovadia Yosef that Ethiopian Jews were Jews in every way.

The attempt to claim that deporting the asylum seekers is not a matter of racism is really a failure of logic in light of the history of the immigration of Ethiopian Jews. This is not the first time that Israel has been forced to deal with black people. It is impossible to separate the present deportation of black people and the fierce opposition of Israeli governments since the founding of the state to the aliyah of black Jews, which relied on excuses related to their halakhic status. After all, we know that even after the Law of Return was applied to Ethiopian Jews, the government still raised many difficulties.

Eleven years passed, during which thousands of them died in refugee camps in Sudan and on their way there, and Israel delayed the inevitable until Operation Moses in 1984.

We also know that Israel was very excited about the aliyah of Russian-speaking white people and even made changes in the Law of Return (amending the law in 1970) on behalf of this aliyah, while at the same time it rejected the aliyah from Ethiopia. Three years later, the Interior Ministry headed by Arye Dery – excuse me, Yosef Burg – issued deportation orders to five young Ethiopian Jews who were described as “infiltrators.”

The attempt to color the matter of the deportation in shades of legality, which are supposedly unrelated to the fact that we are talking about black people, is nothing less than deceit.

Efrat Yardai is a social activist and university lecturer.