The protests last week in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, sparked by the beating of Ethiopian-Israeli IDF soldier Damas Fekade at the hands of two police officers, are causing pangs of guilt and remorse across the country. And rightly so – but largely for the wrong reasons.
Immigrants from and to all countries suffer in one way or another.
Jews from the Diaspora who “make aliya” are no exception. Regardless of the ostensible homogeneity attributed to a state whose establishment was based on a shared religion and nationhood – unlike, say, the United States or Australia – Israel has all the characteristics of and problems inherent in a “melting pot” society. This is what makes it so rich in fabric and so poor in compassion.
Ironically, the lack of empathy toward each subsequent wave of immigrants is highest among other, more veteran ones. Like college freshmen hazed by senior classmen, they catch a case of amnesia when it’s their turn to commit the unpleasant initiation rituals on frightened newcomers to campus.
So taken for granted is this phenomenon that sob stories and comedy routines about it are rampant.
Indeed, there is no immigrant to Israel who does not have a mixture of sad and hilarious anecdotes to impart about his absorption process.
Nor is any group immune to stereotyping.
One joke Uruguayan Israelis tell is about a survey conducted among immigrants: when asked how he is faring, the Russian says, “Not so great. In the Soviet Union, I was a ‘dirty Jew.’ In Israel, I’m viewed as a Russian mobster.”
The Ethiopian answers similarly: “It’s not going that well. In Addis Ababa, I was a ‘dirty Jew.’ In Israel, I’m seen as black.”
Then the Uruguayan speaks: “It’s been just dreadful here,” he says. “In Uruguay, I was a ‘dirty Jew.’ In Israel, everyone calls me Argentinean.”
The superstar singer Rita, who came to Israel from Iran when she was a young girl, recounts being taunted by her peers with chants of “Persian, Persian,” causing her to run home weeping.
She is among many Sephardi Jews who were treated like second-class citizens by their Ashkenazi (Eastern European) counterparts. To this day, in spite of enormous strides and intermarriage, claims of discrimination in academia and the workforce against Israelis of North African origins can be heard in cafes and Knesset committees alike.
What is swept under the rug, however, is the huge amount of ethnic tension between those communities.
Friends of mine whose parents hail from Morocco, for example, have told me their mother and father would never allow them to date someone with a Yemenite background.
Ditto for Iraqis, Tunisians, Kurds and so forth.
This brings us to the police brutality that spurred the current demonstrations.
The Israel Police in general has a deservedly bad reputation. Rife with sex and corruption scandals, it has been under public scrutiny and the object of widespread scorn for a very long time. It is also known to be under-budgeted, over-burdened and full of disgruntled employees earning low wages. It therefore has a hard time attracting a certain caliber of people to its ranks. Many of the young men and women in blue, then, are either joining for lack of another profession or drawn to the power the uniform offers them.
It is a recipe for disaster – the very kind that has been striking the Ethiopian community disproportionately, though not exclusively, for years.
That members of this community attribute it to the color of their skin is both understandable and justified.
But it is not exactly race-based.
It is more like an extreme form of abuse, committed by one underclass against another.
The point is that each Israeli, the minority whose families have been here for generations and the majority, born elsewhere or the children of immigrants, needs to take responsibility for their own role in this hypocritical hierarchy. And anyone who crosses the line into genuine discrimination and violence must be penalized for it.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised last Monday to formulate and implement a plan to change the way the Ethiopian-Jewish community is treated. He also met with, apologized to and praised Fekade for being a “model soldier” and upstanding citizen.
It is great that the issue is in the spotlight right now. Perhaps it will even have an institutional effect. But no governmental body can cause individuals to teach their children to accept other ethnicities as “brothers,” even when all are Jews.
Fekade’s beating aroused national shock and sympathy. But the incident will have been for nothing if we don’t take it as an opportunity to remember our own immigrant roots, and act accordingly.
The writer is the web editor of Voice of Israel talk radio (voiceofisrael.com), and a columnist at Israel Hayom.