How a Jew becomes Black in the Promised Land
It’s sad to hear the harsh reality faced by Ethiopian Jews in Israel. The Israeli government has yet to protect the rights and dignity of this neglected community. Racism exists in Israel! And the Black Jews of Ethiopia are one of its victims. Little do we know that they are the true original Jews from Biblical times! Shame on Israel.
Being a Black Jew in Israel: Identity Politics in the Post-hegemonic Era
Uri Ben-Eliezer – University of Haifa (2007)
The Ethiopian immigrants arrived in Israel at a time of great transformation in the country. For decades, Israel followed an ideology consisting of practices and a structure of domination known as mamlakhtiyut (statism). It was based on the nation-state model, in which everything is managed, concentrated, and supervised from above. The attitude toward the many immigrants who arrived in the fledgling state was that they had to adapt themselves to the integrating society. If not, the state mechanisms would do it for them.
Almost inevitably, attempts to assimilate generate dependence. The anthropologist Esther Herzog described how the absorption centers to which the Ethiopian immigrants were sent created and then heightened their dependence on the existing population. An absorption center creates a bifurcated world, in which the officials who mediate between the world inside and the world outside possess great power.
It did not take long before the new immigrants’ problems with the Chief Rabbinate began. The religious establishment questioned the Jewishness of the Ethiopians. The Rabbinate demanded ritual immersion and totally rejected the authority of the kes, the respected religious leaders of the Ethiopian community. The insistence on immersion generated fears among the Ethiopians that the establishment wanted to turn them into second-class citizens by forcing them, and them alone, to undergo a humiliating ceremony.
True, in 1980s Israel the melting pot discourse had been supplanted by a new discourse espousing cultural pluralism, the mixing and fusion of cultures; in practice, however, the newcomers were pressured to adapt to the dominant culture. In the service of this noble ideal, the youngsters were separated from their parents. The authorities effectively cast aside the so-called “generation of the desert” and sought to instill in the children the values of the integrating society, cutting them off from their past and their community’s traditions. No fewer than 90 percent of the Ethiopian children and adolescents were raised in closed boarding schools, most of them in religious institutions. In Ethiopia the family, both nuclear and extended, was at the center of life. In Israel the state exposed the children m to the disciplinary aspects of the educational system. In some institutions, 70 percent of the students were of Ethiopian origin. Warnings about ethnic segregation, however, went unheeded.
Although the absorption agents insisted that they would “not repeat the mistakes of the past” – referring mainly to the failures with the Mizrahim (Jews who immigrated to Israeli from North Africa and the Middle East in the 1950s) – they did just that. As in the past, the officials declared that the young people should be helped to adapt to a modern way of life and become Israelis in every respect. The binary approach made it possible to constitute the attitude toward the Ethiopians in terms simultaneously inclusionary and exclusionary. On the one hand, they were to be transformed into Western-style Jews and then into Israelis fitting into the hegemonic structure, while on the other hand, that very effort of transmutation relegated them to a status of inferiority, as it is incompatible with their culture and outlook.
The immigrants were also frustrated and embittered because of the day-to-day discrimination they endured. Veteran Israelis did not want to sit next to them on the bus and they did not receive an equal opportunity in the job market. Classrooms and schools emptied out when young Ethiopians entered them, and private kindergartens refused to accept Ethiopian toddlers because they were “different.” Indeed, everyday life, exposed the color barrier and brought to the surface racist tendencies in Israel between Jew and Jew. There was no residential integration, no intermarriage, and no integration in education.
All that missing was a cause, which appeared on January 24, 1996, when a newspaper report stated that for the past 12 years the Blood Bank had not been using the blood of Ethiopian Israelis for medical purposes because of its possible contamination by the HIV virus. The report generated protests of a sort rarely seen in the country. Some 10,000 Ethiopian immigrants from all over Israel, held a protest demonstration outside the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem. It was a moment of truth with a significant Durkheimean element, of conferring name and meaning on the feelings of frustration and discrimination. The violent clash went on for hours, and dozens of policemen and demonstrators were injured. The crowd carried placards reading “We are black but our blood is red,” and “We are Jews like you: stop the racist apartheid.” A 17-year-old girl who came to Jerusalem for the demonstration from the Haifa area, where she attended a boarding school, said, “I came to protest against what is being done to the blacks because of the color of their skin. I am ashamed of my nation, of the white Jewish nation.” The Chief of the Jerusalem District Police, Aryeh Amit, labeled the demonstrators “young savages.” Indeed, to everyone’s surprise, the “boy savage” turned out not to be harmless, pleasant, and passive. “They think they know better than we do what’s good for us,” one of the participants summed up.
The huge demonstration, however, did not help much. The Ministry of Health announced that it would continue with its policy of not making use of blood taken from Ethiopians, as they constituted a “risk group.” By invoking this term, the state officials intended to shift the discourse in a direction that would serve their ends. Their bureaucratic medical discourse is based on a division of reality into generalized categories and endeavors, and to justify discriminatory policy by evoking fears, in this case fears of AIDS, following the line that was presented by Ulrich Beck in his “risk society. Thus the Health Ministry frightened the public by revealing that an Ethiopian blood donor was 34 times more likely to be a carrier than anyone else.
More than once, racism appears through the definition of an immigrant group by certain disease and the fear of contamination. As though to illustrate the point, Dr. Ram Yishai, the chairman of the Society of Medical Ethics, explained that the Ethiopians constituted a risk group because single Ethiopian women did not abstain from random sexual contact. Elaborating, the learned physician stated that the Ethiopian women were not afraid of AIDS and that, if infected, they displayed no anger at the man responsible. Again the litany of familiar terms was invoked: ignorance, a different conception of sex and death, sexual permissiveness that differs from the Israeli norm, the good of the public, and so forth. Probably, too, the Ethiopians were angry at not having been given the information or being allowed to share in deciding policy. The integrating society perceived the stranger, the other, the black as a child or a native who lacks sufficient maturity to be told the truth or cope with it.
The Blood Affair became something of a moment of truth for the Ethiopian Jews. The affront sustained by them showed that they could not, and perhaps did not want to discard entirely their traditions and their past. “Blood is the soul,” I was told by interviewees who explained the cause of the violent outburst in the Blood Affair. In Ethiopia, blood served as a symbolic means to distinguish Jews from Christians in three areas: ritual slaughter of animals, the dietary laws, and the categorization of women in their menstrual period as unclean. To the Ethiopians in Israel, discarding blood taken from them was an act of exclusion.
Rumors about suicides of Ethiopians in the army were already circulating by the time of the Blood Affair. The chairman of the committee of Ethiopian immigrants claimed that twenty Ethiopians had committed suicide in the past few years. The army claimed that the figure was far lower. The main point, however, is that the rumors showed a change in the immigrants’ attitude toward the army. At first, the young people wanted nothing more than to excel in the IDF, to do combat duty, preferably in one of the elite units. Excellence in the army was perceived as a rite of passage leading to acceptance in the Israeli society. Gradually, however, they realized that army service, far from resolving their problems, might aggravate them instead. In the second half of the 1990s we find, along with the suicide phenomenon, a decline in the Ethiopian Jews’ motivation to serve and excel in the army. In part, the disappointment was due to the fact that the combat soldiers discovered that they could not translate their service into social mobility. Many of them found it difficult to earn a living.
This behavior in part was a clear manifestation of what James C. Scott calls “everyday forms of resistance,” a desire to overcome a discriminatory, alienating reality, in our case, at the price of escaping military service or even by means of suicide. Similarly, the rising crime rate among young Ethiopians in the late 1990s should be seen as a form of subversion and of criticism of the society. The social welfare agencies, appalled by this trend, viewed it as proof that an identity crisis existed and that the young Ethiopians were drifting toward the margins of the society. In fact, it is the other way around, those involved are looking for meaning and a sense of community. In their way, they are also protesting actively against a reality that had made them and the rest of the community passive and dependent. At the same time, there was an element of the new in this development, a show of differentiation and distinctiveness that shattered the stereotypical view of the community as modest and quiet. As though to prove that the youngsters were rebelling against the image that was foisted on them, 16-18 year-olds, asked how they react to being called kushi, a term that connotes a slave in their culture, replied unequivocally that whereas in the past they had been offended and backed off, now they would lash out at anyone who used the term and “let him have it,” in the word of one of them.
The Ethiopian immigrants displayed further manifestations of subversion in relation to marriage. Not all of them were willing to undergo the Rabbinate’s humiliating rituals and tests – which were earmarked for Ethiopians alone – in order to take out a marriage license. The interviews showed that members of the community had found various ways to solve the problem. Some couples live together without marrying; others are married in the traditional Ethiopian ceremony by a kes, even though this is not recognized by the Rabbinate or the state.
However, this was not enough for the young Ethiopians. Their subversive practices were accompanied by an attempt to construct a new identity by challenging the hegemonic structure while exploiting its widening cracks. The identity politics they practiced involved deconstructing the “one” Israeli identity, exposing its problematic nature, and reconstructing it in terms of their conceptual approach. In Gilroy’s terms, this is a process of deconstruction and contextualization. Identity is reconstructed such that it is context dependent. Fundamentally, since the Blood Affair, Israeliness for young Ethiopians has gradually become an identity one element of which is blackness. The passage of time will make no difference,” I was told by one interviewee, who had a clear grasp of the reality in which she lives. “In Ethiopia we were Jews, here we are blacks,” another said.
Africa, observes Stuart Hall, is often depicted as being a mother for all Africans. The effect is to bestow an imagined cohesiveness and shared identity on Africans’ experience of dispersion and fragmentation, a feeling that there exists a permanent “essence” of the African, of the quintessential black experience. However, as Hall, too, points out, identity development is a far more active process, in which those involved attempt to locate themselves in the space of the presence and adapt to changing reality. Indeed, blackness is not the only distinguishing characteristic of this group. In discotheques, for example, these youngsters do not mix with foreign workers from Africa, who are not Jewish. In fact, quarrels and fights between the two groups have been known to erupt. The process of constructing a new identity intertwines similarity and differentiation. The young Ethiopians differ from other Israelis and resemble blacks in other countries; yet, as Israelis and Jews the resemblance is not complete. As young student told me: I am first of all a Jew, then an Ethiopian, and finally an Israeli… In fact, I am also an Israeli but different from these franjim.
Thus the Israeli experience – “white,” discriminatory, exclusionary – is sending the young generation back to their roots in Africa. Many have begun to study spoken and written Amharic, a language that they have almost forgotten. The members of the young generation are also taking African names. As one student explained, “A few of us friends got together and decided to go back to our original names. Why weren’t the Russians made to change their names when they came to Israel?” They want to visit Ethiopia and they like Amharic music, both traditional and modern, with its romantic themes. The Africa they envisage is of course not the Africa they knew as children; it is an imagined Africa. It is an Africa of rhythm, of special foods and customs, of suffering and hope. An Africa that is both present and vanished, in any event an Africa of blacks only.
By the end of the 1990s, black Jewish Israel defined itself as part of the African diaspora. That is a definition with a cultural and a political meaning that cannot simply be ignored. The cultural practices of the Ethiopian Israelis draw their inspiration largely from the politics and culture of black America, Jamaica, and black Britain. Technological advances in communications bridge geographic distance: consider MTV and the Internet. Cultural commodities, such as CDs, books, and magazines facilitate identification. The young people invent a history of their own. People who in Ethiopia lived on a motif of exile and longing for Zion, meaning Jerusalem, now live in Israel with a sense of exile and a longing for Zion, which is of course Ethiopia, as in the song by Bob Marley. True, they came to Israel of their own volition, and for religious reasons, and from this point of view their history is different from that of the descendants of the slaves who were exiled forcibly from Africa and transported to America. Nevertheless, the youngsters identify with the history of their “brothers”: their suffering, their severance from their past, the discrimination and the poverty they endure, and their yearning for the Black Continent. Africa becomes the lost paradise. The longing to return to lost origins, to beginnings, is of course impractical, though the symbolic, too, is fraught with meaning. This is their narrative and with it they constitute their contemporary identity.
The anthropologist Malka Shabtai has analyzed the content of the music that the young Ethiopians are fond of: above all, black music of political protest with social messages of equality, brotherhood, and peace. Usually, they dance to reggae or rap. The fact that Rastafarianism originated in Jamaica in 1930, after the coronation of Haile Selassie as Emperor of Ethiopia, with the belief in him as the “Lion of Judah,” helps explain why young Ethiopian Israelis are attracted also to this music. Shabtai interviewed an Israeli reggae singer named Emanuel, the soloist of the “Roots of Africa” group. “The story of the Jews of Ethiopia is in some ways similar to the story of the blacks in Africa,” he said. “There are a lot of things that are, you know, parallel.”
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