The Ethiopians’ Problem: For Most Israelis Black Is Black

We don’t have a common identity and culture, so separate ethnic cultural ghettos are preferable to a uniform national wilderness.

yossi klein
Yossi Klein
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Protesters against police brutality toward Ethiopians in Jerusalem, April 30, 2015.
Protesters against police brutality toward Ethiopians in Jerusalem, April 30, 2015.Credit: Lior Mizrahi
yossi klein
Yossi Klein

So this week the Ethiopians have passed their admission exam into Israeli society. Their predecessors in this test were the immigrants from the former Soviet Union, the Russians as we call them, who stubbornly refused to accept the rules. They didn’t want to be Israelis, they kept to themselves, they cherished the culture they had brought from home and looked down on us.

It cost them dearly; we called them drunks and prostitutes, but now they’re on the inside. The Ethiopians, less strong and more black, were thankful just to be here. They tried hard but their blackness injected a bit of dopamine into our brain's racist lobe.

On the brink of despair, the Ethiopian protesters turned angry and violent. They have no neat demands, and they’re filled with frustration that’s hard to address.

Frustrated protesters have always upset the established order; the Mizrahi Jews from the Middle East and North Africa, for example. In Haifa 56 years ago, they burned Wadi Salib; in Jerusalem 44 years ago, they trampled on the grass. And in Tel Aviv four years ago, the social protesters made a mess on Rothschild Boulevard.

On Sunday, television commentators complained that “the protest has no leadership.” The reporters wanted order; they wanted a spokesman. They didn’t want to have to crowd in with everybody next to the shawarma stand and get sprayed by water cannon.

There’s plenty of blame to go around — for the prime minister, who only intervenes if there are maps and cameras, and for the police, whose low-paid officers are just as frustrated as the protesters. But the brunt of the blame goes to the system, which demands that immigrants give up the little they have and accept the little we’re willing to give them.

We demanded that they give up their culture and identity for a culture and identity about which we ourselves are basically clueless. But our main demand is that they just take that black off their faces already. What’s with all this black, we ask — are you guys Sudanese refugees or something?

But black doesn’t come out in the wash. Black immediately makes us condescending. And condescension leads to discrimination and racism that excuses the discrimination. We think we can moderate it, but there’s no such thing as “a little” racism or “racism-lite.”

Lucky the black refugees aren’t Jews, lucky they didn’t serve in the army — this way Mizrahim can dish out to them everything the Ashkenazim dished out to the Mizrahm. And afterwards, we can all say — hey, who are you calling racist?

Knowing there’s someone below you is always a good way to boost your self-esteem. I may not have much, you tell yourself, but at least I have my culture and identity.

And then comes this other guy trying to push his way in with his culture, food and skin color. You won’t accept him until he’s just like you. You demand the same of him that was demanded of you: that he change. The problem is, even with all the best intentions, black won’t turn to white and, unfortunately, we’re not so keen on all that blackness.

After what happened Sunday in Rabin Square, it’s time to admit: We are not one people. We are immigrants from different countries who have several versions of one religion. We don’t have a common identity and culture, so separate ethnic cultural ghettos are preferable to a uniform national wilderness.

We are not Mizrahim or Ashkenazim. We are not yet Israelis. We’re Jews from Russia, Ethiopia, Tunisia and elsewhere. We can’t live amid one another, only alongside one another.

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