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Photo by: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post
Media double standard harms Ethiopian cause
By ELAD UZAN
24/01/2012
Media were quick to adopt the social justice protest issue. So why has the press ignored Ethiopian protests?
 
Why is it that the Israeli media, which hastened to defend the dignity of a Nigerian cleaning woman and described in great detail an Eritrean mother’s longing for her child, refrains from publishing passionate and moving editorials on the plight of the Ethiopian Israeli community? Why is it that when it comes to displaying similar solidarity with tens of thousands of loyal Israeli citizens, their voices suddenly turn silent?

Perhaps the answer to this question lies in the slogan chanted by the crowd at last week’s demonstration: “I stand here to remind those who have forgotten: Ashkenazi Jew, Sephardic Jew, Ethiopian Jew – we are all brothers!” Could it be that the central message of the Ethiopian community – national pride and strong Jewish values – have caused the media to avoid the issue?

To explain this phenomenon one must put it in historical context: Ethiopian Jewish immigration was driven primarily by passionate Zionism. There is concrete evidence of Ethiopian Jewish attempts to make aliya (on foot) to Jerusalem in 1860, well before Herzl’s political Zionism and decades before the First Zionist Congress. Call it “black Zionism.”

Much time has passed since the days of these pioneers: Ethiopian Jews who immigrated to Israel in recent decades have been victims of many instances of discrimination and racism, mostly from institutions, as reflected in the data analysis published by the Immigrant Absorption Ministry. Other instances of racism, the ones that have reached the mainstream media, have been mainly from neighbors and in work relationships.

ETHIOPIAN ISRAELIS demand justice. They demand equality. They demand that the color of their skin be not an impediment in the workplace or academia. They demand to be judged by their actions and achievements. They do not want housing prices to drop when they move into a neighborhood.

The Ethiopian Israeli community protests out of a genuine demand for Jewish solidarity, as sons and daughters of the Jewish nation, in the nation-state of the Jewish people. Their demands are motivated not only by the international and universal values that are the focus of the Israeli media, but also by national, Jewish values, which the Israeli media often snubs.

Echoes of this worldview could be sensed in newspaper articles critical of Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar’s initiative to encourage Israeli children to learn about Zionism’s struggles for political independence via stories about Israel’s fallen soldiers, and opposition to his initiative to sponsor school field trips to Hebron’s Cave of the Patriarchs and the Old City of Jerusalem.

Ethiopian Israelis want integration based on shared values: Judaism, military service and higher education, through which they can express their individual contributions to the Jewish state. This fealty to Jewish values has led them to be perceived as the “enemy” by those who claim to be proponents of the universalist view, which is particularly wary of national values and which has a strong hold on the media.

This doesn’t mean that the Israeli media sees the Ethiopian community as a literal “enemy,” but given the fact that the base demand for equality is rooted in national-Jewish values, the Israeli media simply does not see the Ethiopian community as an ally in promoting the universal perspective.

ANOTHER FACTOR which prevents the media from embracing the Ethiopian- Israeli cause is the fact that it has been, at least ostensibly – apolitical. The press (in general) has ceased to see itself as only the “watchdog of democracy,” and considers itself a political actor for all intents and purposes. The key role that the media plays in a democracy, namely bringing the events of the day into the watchful eye of the public, exposing government corruption and irregularities and able interpretation of all these are no longer at the center of the media’s agenda.

Media nowadays is interested in shaping the public agenda, not reporting on it. This can be seen from recent editorials published in major newspapers.

The Ethiopian-Israeli community’s struggle for essential civil equality does not seek to eliminate or replace the current coalition government, nor is it tied to any one political view. Therefore, unlike last summer’s social protest during which the current government was denounced, the media simply sees no reason to give a stage to the Ethiopian-Israeli struggle.

Erasmus of Rotterdam, besides being an early proponent of humanistic education, was the one who claimed that human beings become humane through a process of humanization that includes education and socialization. Recent history teaches us that education may also lead to dehumanization of man; education for the ennoblement of a certain race over another also strips people of their humanity.

But feelings of national pride are appropriate, as long as they do not reject the legitimacy of other ethnic groups and their legitimate ethnic pride and aspirations.

Those of us who believe in both Judaism’s universalist ethic as well as the moral humanism and the values of Zionism (i.e., Jewish National Movement) believe that the contradiction between these streams can and must be resolved. The existence of a healthy, moral Israeli society requires us to implement the ethical, universal teachings of both the Talmudic scholar Hillel the Elder and German philosopher Immanuel Kant: That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah. Human beings are sacred in their own right; they must never be used as mere means to an end.

That is a message that the Israeli media would do well to consider.

The writer has a law degree and is research student at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya (IDC). Moreover, he leads Youth for Justice group at Tebeka- Advocacy for Equality and Justice for Ethiopian Israelis.
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