I’ll Be the First to Be Arrested Because I’m Black

Israelis should ask themselves how is it that what was always justified as a fear of losing the Jewish majority has now taken the form of xenophobia.

Carolina Landsmann
Carolina Landsmann
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Protesters and police clash at Tel Aviv demonstration of Ethiopian Israelis, May 3, 2015.
Protesters and police clash at Tel Aviv demonstration of Ethiopian Israelis, May 3, 2015.Credit: AFP
Carolina Landsmann
Carolina Landsmann

There is no reason not to believe the shock expressed by Benjamin Netanyahu following the beating of Demas Fekadeh, an IDF soldier of Ethiopian origin, by policemen. “We must stand shoulder to shoulder against racism,” declared Netanyahu to representatives of the Ethiopian community, adding a promise “to eradicate police violence against those of Ethiopian origin.”

But let’s say you’re a policeman, and you’re approached by a dark-skinned man, and you have been eradicated of any violence directed against Ethiopians – how will you know that he is an Ethiopian and not, say, an Eritrean asylum seeker?

It’s not easy to be an Israeli policeman. Double moral standards for Jews and non-Jews have brought about all state agencies into operating on parallel paths. In the case of the police, the body empowered by the state to use legitimate force, the standards regarding Jews and non-Jews have been translated into different criteria for employing force against Jews and non-Jews. For this reason, in order to avoid regrettable mistakes of using force in the absence of any legal pretext, it is crucial to be able to distinguish between Jews and non-Jews.

Uniforms and skullcaps serve as identifying markers for Jews, making the distinction easier. That is also the case with Star of David or “Chai” pendants. It is not by chance that these adorn the necks of many Jews who hail from Arab countries, effectively serving as a kind of self-imposed yellow star, an identifier meant to protect them against mistaken identification and cataloguing as non-Jewish, that is, Arabs. The standard – the profile that guarantees privileges without the need to prove one’s identity – remains, of course, that of the Ashkenazi Jew.

Fekadeh’s case evoked public interest and emotions not only because the victim was an Ethiopian Jew, but because he was attacked without reason or provocation while bearing clear markers of his identity, which should have vouched for his Jewishness: He was in an IDF uniform, wearing a skullcap.

Zion Shenkor, the first Ethiopian Lieutenant Colonel and battalion commander in the IDF, related to the Ethiopians’ protest in the daily Israel Hayom: “If I walk around Tel Aviv without my uniform and there is a violent incident, I’ll be the first to be arrested since I’m black,” he wrote.

One shouldn’t even try to imagine the chaos that will erupt here when the Eritreans realize that it pays to wear a uniform and a skullcap in order to slip under police radar. Don’t even try to imagine the mess here when foreigners try to infiltrate Israel using the conversion channel. Don’t think Israel didn’t think of it first, and determined that it can reject out of hand requests to convert made by an illegal migrant or infiltrator, or by temporary residents. The thing is, Israelis should ask themselves how is it that what was always justified as a fear of losing the Jewish majority in this country has now taken the classical form of pure xenophobia.

The founders of Zionism understood that Judaism is a belonging call that extends over and above being religious, and that such glue makes them a nation, and as such they need their own territory – and if territory is essential, why not the historical one, the Land of Israel?

Then along came Hitler and said: not a religion or a nation, but a race. However, the State of Israel was established as the homeland of the Jewish nation, not race, with a hope that in this state the Jew will be reborn as an Israeli.

It seems that right now Jews in Israel are regressing, afflicted by their trauma, into conceiving of themselves as a race. And racism is never color-blind, and black people – as always – pay the price.

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