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Autumn 2019

Yerus, This is the Land of Israel: To a Disaffected Ethiopian-Israeli

If a school refuses to admit Ethiopian-Israeli students, it is not only our problem. We have to empower the Ethiopian-Israeli youth by telling them that they—the victims of racism—are normal, and that racism is abnormal.

On June 30, a police officer fatally shot Salamon Teka in a suburb of Haifa. Teka’s death sparked nationwide protests. Tens of thousands of Ethiopian-Israelis  took to the streets against police violence and discrimination in Israel society. The protests, which took place across Israel lasted for several days and civil disobedience is ongoing.

The July 2019 protests came on the heels of similar protests in 2018 and 2015 also after the fatal shooting of two young men.  Police violence is but one of the concerns of the Ethiopian-Israelis. Others include discrimination in the workplace and in schools.  Having arrived with high ideals and aspirations, many Ethiopians-Israelis feel marginalized and excluded because of racism.

In the wake of these protests we approached Rabbi Dr. Sharon Shalom, a leader in both the Beta Israel community and the religious Zionist community more broadly as well as a member of our editorial board, to comment on the situation. 

Shalom’s own story is emblematic of the ambivalence of the current situation of the Ethiopian-Israelis.   Having walked from Ethiopia to Israel at the age of 8 in 1982, he is now a captain in the IDF reserves, a congregational rabbi in Kiryat Gat, a senior lecturer of Jewish thought, and since 2019 the head of The International Center for the Study of Ethiopian Jewry at Ono Academic College. His life demonstrates the success of Ethiopian-Israelis, yet he has also experienced the frustrations of the protesters.  

In response to our request for comment he sent us the following text. It is a letter  he received from a young Ethiopian-Israeli, Yerus, shortly after Teka’s shooting along with his response. 

Dear Rabbi Sharon,

I don’t know whether this email will reach you, or if you’ll find the time to answer me. I felt compelled to write it to you, to share some of my pain and in the hope that you will have the right words to comfort me. My name is Yerus. I’ve only recently become aware of your life story and your book Conversations about Love and Fear. I felt it beautifully and accurately put in words what I’ve been feeling but unable to express. It felt sometimes like you were reading my mind.

I would now like to turn to an issue that has been troubling me greatly. Last night, I received a message from a friend, telling me that a policeman shot and killed a young Ethiopian Israeli man. Having read your book, I feel that I have great responsibility for myself and my life. My parents and I made aliya in 2006. I have since been striving to integrate into Israeli society without feeling sorry for myself—not because I have anything to prove to anyone, but because it’s my way of getting what I need. However, when I heard about this incident, I felt so helpless and disempowered in the face of the system. I want to live a quiet and peaceful life without feeling inferior or threatened. But I suspect that eventually, no matter what I do, I will not be able to achieve this; that it’s not up to me. I want to be strong, but thinking about my brother, my father and all the young men in my community living here in the country we love leaves me angry and in despair – and my peers disgruntled and disempowered. I often listen to the speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, in search of inspiration and comfort. But theirs is not my story. I wasn’t brought here forcibly, against my will; it is a country I love and that I choose to live in, but with dignity. That’s why, when a crisis such as this unfolds, I want community leaders like you to speak up and help us love our country and our heritage; to help us find hope. 

Sincerely,

Yerus

 

Dear Yerus, 

It’s been a month since Salamon Taka’s gruesome killing by a police officer, and a month since our protests, brimming with pain and anger.

Nobody can deny that all of us—you, me, our parents—have had to endure displays of racism since our arrival in Israel. It comes from people, and it comes from the state as well. 

There are two traumatic episodes that stand out in our memory, that we’ve been unable to wipe from our consciousness. The first is with regard to the doubts that were cast on our Jewishness upon our arrival in Israel, the demand that we undergo conversion, and under the strictest terms. The second was the blood transfusion scandal of the 1990s, where blood banks were instructed to quietly dispose of donations from Ethiopian Israelis. No apology could fully assuage this pain, especially a belated one that would surely be politicized (assuming it to be genuine in the first place). 

Many fellow Israelis felt ill at ease vis-à-vis the power of our protest. They were pained to see their brethren experiencing such unbridled alienation! It’s true that many of us have been asking ourselves where we went wrong, and how the protest deteriorated into violence. How do we proceed from here, dear Yerus? How can we best invest our resources?

On the one hand, the Israeli elite claim to have supported and welcomed us, and to have provided for us. Conversely, many of us thought that the same elite screwed us over. This sociological bind has led all sides to dichotomous thinking; in other words, a binary distinction between good and bad, oppressor and oppressed, Ashkenazi and Mizrahi, Jews and Arabs, natives and immigrants, blacks and whites. There is no middle ground.  

This view seeks to drive a wedge between the “hegemony” and the “others.” But in the long run, everybody loses. In the words of the social commentator Gadi Taub, “in reality, not everything belonging to the powerful side is necessarily deplorable, and not everything belonging to the oppressed side is necessarily just. The fact that the West colonized parts of the world does not mean that all things Western are necessarily bad, or oppressive; similarly, Zionism realized itself by, among other things, expelling Arabs—does that make Zionism intrinsically deplorable?” 

I therefore believe that the social divisions in Israel are predominantly economic—often overlapping, but not congruent, with a certain community or ethnicity. The elite is not willfully geared towards hurting anyone, Ethiopian or other. Those who occupy positions of power may use their powers arbitrarily, leading to patronizing attitudes. 

Dear Yerus, I think Israelis are so busy making history that they fail to learn from it. The first murder in history, the biblical story of Cain and Abel, is a perfect reminder that brothers are not immune to inflicting tragedy on each other. The same goes for Jacob’s struggle with the angel: most conflicts start over “minor issues.” Their struggle was verbal, not physical; it was an ideological conflict that lasted all night. The conflict relies on dialogue, and both act in the name of God. Once the angel gets physical and hits Jacob’s thigh, he fails. Once dialogue is banished for the sake of violence, failure begins. Everybody suffers. This is why Jacob has the upper hand – the verbal upper hand, rather than the physical, is the decisive one. 

To the best of my knowledge, there were no black and white people during the Second Temple era. Yet the destruction took place, at a time when society was homogenous and faithful. Yet divisions were sown, and bigotry reigned. It’s the same bigotry we see today, directed at people merely by virtue of their origin, language, culture, views, faith and lifestyle. On the eve of the destruction of the Temple, there were no seculars, olim, haredim, chassidim, Reform, Conservatives, Religious Zionists and Chabadniks. There were no oppressors and no oppressed. Either way, every wave of immigrants has been mistreated by the elite; they had to pay a price, sometimes unbearable, for belonging. 

Dear Yerus, our long exile in Ethiopia and the painstaking voyage to Jerusalem have taught us that the best antidote to despair is hope. Our ancestors’ 2500-year-old dream has come true. Right now, we are here, in the Land of Israel. It is nothing short of a miracle. 

Some time ago I watched the documentary series Saleh, This Is the Land of Israel, which recounts the establishment’s treatment of Mizrahi immigrants in the 1950s. I learned how they were prevented from settling down in central Israel and sent to remote “development towns.” It reminded me of the old parable about the two men who peek through a keyhole, one seeing mud and the other the blue sky. How? It’s a matter of choice. When watching the series, I chose to see the blue sky. I chose to see how, despite the terrible discrimination that they had to endure, the Moroccan immigrants turned these uninhabitable shacks into oases, into corners of paradise. They are heroes. They deserve our respect and admiration, not our pity. 

Transcending the dichotomous perspective does not mean defeat. It would be, in fact, our contribution to the greater good. For example, if a school refuses to admit Ethiopian-Israeli students, it is not only our problem. Indeed, we emerge from this broken, tired and in despair—but you must bear in mind that we are the ones who meet the norm, not the school. We have to empower the Ethiopian-Israeli youth by telling them that they—the victims of racism—are normal, and that racism is abnormal. 

The nineteenth-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote that an intimate relationship with a black woman is unnatural and therefore immoral: “…a moral corruption similar to the physiological corruption of the Jewish tribe when a black person is born into it… it is unnatural and wholly condemnable.” Even a century later, upon the establishment of the State of Israel, the founding fathers were unable to fathom that black Jews exist. Zionist leaders objected to Ethiopian aliya because they were, as a Jewish Agency official wrote in the 1950s, “wilder than the Moroccans and backward by centuries; there is a heightened risk of genetic diseases; and their connection to Judaism is dubious,” even though “there is some merit in drawing them close to Judaism.” But today, a mere few decades later, the Ethiopian community is part and parcel of Israeli society. As of 2017, 16 percent of Ethiopian Israelis married outside the community—twice as many as among African Americans, for example. 

We must carry on the tradition of our ancestors in Ethiopia. They cherished a positive outlook on life. Ethiopian culture has imbued us with the sense that reality, in and of itself, is good. But it does not result from naivety, weakness or helplessness—it is our prerogative, exercising our agency as empowered players. They knew that reality was challenging, that it was not black and white as it were.  

Dear Yerus, our heritage can help heal the rifts in Israel. The discourse has been getting increasingly polarized and aggressive, always with a greater focus on performance than on fact. We must not allow this culture to win us over; that would be an ultimate expression of weakness. If we adopt this sense of victimhood we will pass it on to our children. You must remain strong, remain convinced that it is the system that is the problem, not you. Do not let racists dictate your status as silent and powerless. The wound caused by racism is an opening for hope and resolve, not just pain and fear. Seize it.

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