Jews of action, Jews of silence

There is not a single issue facing the Ethiopian community in Israel that can’t be resolved through enlightened philanthropy and government action.

May 4, 2015 20:52
4 minute read.
Ethiopian - Israeli protest

Ethiopian - Israeli protest against racism, police brutality in Tel Aviv.. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)


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In the days when we used to organize in the villages of Gondar for the aliya of Ethiopian Jews, there was one sure way to identify those who claimed to be Jews: they would proudly pull out a picture of a family member in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

The marches in Jerusalem and in Tel Aviv belonged to the plain-clothed Ethiopian soldiers. Nearly all of them have served, are serving or are about to serve in the IDF. Today’s battle is not against external enemies, but against invisibility and injustice.

The headlines of the violence at the end of each of the demonstrations are not the real story, and shame on the media for giving into the distraction of the dramatization.

The real story are the thousands of Ethiopian youth who sang some of the same songs we used to sing at Soviet Jewry rallies, carrying the Israeli flag and closing down the main highway in Tel Aviv. They were seen and heard and unafraid and proud. The real story is that Israel, to our collective shame, is second only to the United States in the growing gap between rich and poor, between black and white. The real story is not the beating of the Ethiopian IDF soldier caught on film, but the unfilmed racism that keeps many Ethiopians segregated in their own kindergartens, out of the workforce despite college degrees, or insulted or even beaten away from the spotlight.

The lone Ethiopian Knesset member, my friend Avraham Neguse (Likud), says correctly that violence is not the way of the community. But now, neither is silence.

The Jews of silence today on racism in Israel are found not only in the Israeli government and the police force but also among world Jewry. It was a bittersweet moment marching in the crush of the Ethiopian youth past the Jewish Agency building in Tel Aviv, on the way to Rabin Square.

Following Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s ruling in 1973 that Ethiopian Jewry are, in fact, Jews, the organized Jewish community was always slow in embracing their aliya. Activists groups were the first to smuggle Jews to freedom, essentially daring the Mossad and later the Jewish Agency to step forward.

But when the first airlifts touched the tarmac at Ben-Gurion Airport in both Operation Moses and Operation Solomon, the organized Jewish community celebrated and played the historic role to fund the absorption centers and more. Then, when the Israeli government prematurely declared in 1998 that the Ethiopian aliya was over, American Jewry took the lead.

The General Assembly of the Jewish federations, in 1998, was scheduled to be held in Jerusalem and faced the specter of a rally outside, led by then-activist Avraham Neguse, accusing American Jewry of racism and of abandoning the rest of the community. Steve Hoffman, then CEO, along with Myra Kraft from Boston and others, took on the Israeli government to open and complete the aliya, defying and ultimately leading the Israeli government to do the right thing. It was a proud moment for the federation system.

While it is unsexy and heretical to say, the truth is that more Ethiopian Jews came on aliya through the tedious bureaucratic process that the federations ultimately championed – and pushed by Neguse, NACOEJ and others – than through the actual airlifts.

American Jewry is looking at these rallies through the lens of Baltimore, and that is simply wrong. The African-American underclass in the United States is a multi-generational systemic challenge and, truth be told, one many feel is hopeless, or at least incredibly difficult to address – even as the first African American president sits in the White House.

These rallies by the Ethiopian community should be seen through the lens of hope and not despair; through the lens of Zionism and not Ferguson. There are only about 130,000 Ethiopian Israelis, with thousands of college graduates, near universal military service and now a whole generation that is empowered.

There is not a single issue facing the Ethiopian community in Israel that can’t be resolved through enlightened philanthropy and government action.

The tear gas may have burned my eyes in Rabin Square, but the tears were those of joy and hope. For the youth of the community claimed their place in Israeli society. The next time a racist cop – or an unresponsive government – thinks about dissing this community of hope and action, they will think twice. And world Jewry should be backing the activists and telling the prime minister that this is not a law and order against vandalism issue, as portrayed by the police, but a winnable moral issue for the entire Jewish people.

The author ran for Knesset with Avraham Neguse on the first Ethiopian list, Atid Echad, in 2006, and has been active with Ethiopian Jewry for 30 years. He can be followed @KaptainSunshine.

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