Opinion

Israel Has Fallen Into the Condescension Trap With the Ethiopian Community

Ethiopian Israelis protesting the police shooting of Solomon Teka in Tel Aviv, July 3, 2019.
Tomer Appelbaum

How wretched are Israelis of Ethiopian descent, that they must feel grateful to Israel for bringing them out of darkness into the light. Many Israelis are astonished at their magnificent entrance into the modern world since they’ve settled in their new country. There’s hardly a documentary film about them that doesn’t mention that until not long ago, they lived like the subjects of famous anthropologists’ studies. There’s hardly a discussion on TV in which they’re not required to thank Israel for turning them into human beings. After all, who were they before coming to Israel? Africans who lived in the dark Middle Ages, suffering from hunger and diseases, barely understanding what was happening around them and having no horizons save the hopeless horizon of the desert.

We repeatedly hear complaints about their ingratitude. Instead of thanking the state for redeeming them from their primitive lives, they dare to demonstrate, run wild, smash, destroy, threaten and even set police cars on fire. And worst of all, they permit themselves to block roads and disrupt the routine of thousands of Israelis. For this sin they will not be forgiven. Not for the wild rioting, but for their lack of recognition of the salvation the state has granted them.

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Israel is again falling into the trap it stepped into with previous waves of immigrants, most of them from Arab states. While the immigrants attempted to preserve a human image, Israel measured their absorption by one criterion: to what extent they succeed in integrating into society. To what extent they mastered the local language, learned to use modern toilets and not to throw garbage out of the fourth floor window. While they were subjected to one of the worst absorption processes Israel has known, the state was measuring them by the speed they integrated into the modern world around them.

But integration progressed slowly. The old-time residents found it hard to accept the new arrivals, who looked like they had been plucked out of a biblical landscape. Especially the women, who covered themselves with white sheets, into which they stuck a baby or two, sometimes even three. Wherever the immigrants were sent, the older residents demanded to keep them away so as not to scare their sweet children. While the new immigrants didn’t know what tomorrow held in store for them, the older ones treated them like the plague.

The security apparatus involved in their immigration wouldn’t stop boasting about the great achievement of bringing them to Israel, as though it were a new edition of the Entebbe rescue mission. All the while the new immigrants felt that the Israeli reality was far from the stories of heroism. Instead they felt rejected, like outsiders in their new land.

Israel, which had experienced the pain of immigrants from so many countries in the past, believed the heroic tales overshadowed the pain of absorption. But experts in the field warned it that migration is like birth and death together, that being uprooted leaves deep scars on the immigrant’s soul, which take a full generation or two to heal.

France has been undergoing a migration crisis in recent years that is threatening its stability. After opening its gates to millions of immigrants from North Africa, allowing them to reunite with their families, housing them in ugly projects on the outskirts of large cities, introducing them to the French way of life and granting them citizenship, France discovered that they were not satisfied.

As if this weren’t enough, they’re even angry and demonstrate and set cars on fire. “Wicked ingratitude,” then-Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy called it at the time after a visit to the ghettoes built for them around Paris. The immigrants lived a few minutes’ drive from the City of Light, but they didn’t feel part of it and its light didn’t shine on them. Every time they crossed the imaginary border, a uniformed or plainclothes policeman appeared and asked: Where are you going? What are you doing? ID, please.

In November 2005 Muslim demonstrators set fires in the street, burned cars and threatened to turn their suburbs into ruins. A few days later President Jacques Chirac invited a group of protesters to an intimate meeting at the Elysee Palace. He was surprised to discover that the protests were led by the second- and third-generation immigrants. He found out that while the first generation is indebted to the state despite the hardships they endured, their children think otherwise.

Like in Israel, the young people protesting were ostensibly the ones to whom the state had given the key to a good life.

Chirac asked the demonstrators: “What’s bothering you? We gave you everything.” One replied with a question: “Mr. President, do you watch television? Have you seen a news anchor who looks like us?”

Another one asked: “Mr. President, how many French people of immigrant origin do you know in the National Assembly?” One of the participants told the president that there isn’t even one. “Really?” Chirac feigned surprise. “I find that hard to believe.”

About a decade and a half has passed and the media has been forced to open their gates to Muslim immigrants. Today there are hardly any news outlets that don’t have Muslim anchors and journalists. During his term, President Francois Hollande appointed three female cabinet members “of immigrant origin”: two Muslims and a Jew who served as France’s culture minister.

France learned the hard way that the only way to grant the immigrants and their descendants a feeling of home was to integrate them in all walks of life. In Israel the integration is proceeding sluggishly. Apart from the army and in politics, the immigrants’ children’s representation in the upper strata of society is almost zero.

As for the Ethiopian community in Israel, the situation is much worse. The unbearable ease with which racist remarks are directed at them is reminiscent of the expressions used about the immigrants from Morocco in the 1950s. Some say the immigrants from Morocco and their descendants are still avenging the harm they suffered in those years, that they’re drawn to right-wing politics not because of their hearts’ inclination but due to the traumatic memories from the time they felt unwanted in their new country, from the very first day.

The Israelis of Ethiopian descent also feel unwanted. They think that they were forced on Israel due to pressure from American Jews, that the color of their skin is alien to the Israeli experience and that most Israelis would prefer to see immigrants from other countries here. These feelings caused them to fly off the handle now, like in previous demonstrations in Tel Aviv. So does the ease with which police officers see them as a target, not to mention the almost immediate release of the policeman who shot Solomon Teka – and the added insult in that both the media and the public saw the release as self-evident.

One activist in the Ethiopian community told me this week that he was especially angry at the Israelis who instead of trying to understand their pain asked if they think they would have been better off in Ethiopia. And if so, then let them go back to Africa. They should be thankful they live in normal apartments and not in tents.

“Israelis think everything begins and ends with money, a car and an apartment,” an activist complained this week. “What kills us is the condescension and arrogance toward us. They’re convinced we must get up each morning and thank the state.”

Daniel Ben Simon is an author, journalist and former Knesset member.