Members of the Ethiopian Jewish community in Israel mark the holiday of Sigd in Jerusalem November 20, 2014.
(photo credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN)
In Martin Luther King’s historic 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech he said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Israeli society has been blessed with incredible people who belong to a variety of different communities, and in general the absorption process has been a great success. However, the shameful and inexcusable assault against an Ethiopian Israeli IDF soldier by police officers that was recently made public reveals only the tip of the iceberg of the socialization issues that many members of the Ethiopian Israeli community suffer from.
Statistics clearly show that most Ethiopian Israelis still live in poor conditions in development-town enclaves and distressed areas. Unemployment is extremely high and many families find it hard to aid their children academically and socially or support them financially. And all of this is on top of the fact that all the members of this community have darker skin than most other Israelis, which has led to an entire world of harsh stereotypes.
Many young Ethiopian Israelis feel like they don’t have the same right to live in this country as lighter-skinned Israelis do. Moreover, it seems to them like other Israelis feel like they’re being generous by letting Ethiopian Israelis live here. Thirty percent of those in juvenile detention are of Ethiopian descent, which is much higher than their representation among the general population. Many Ethiopian Israelis believe that we are being judged by the color of our skin and not by our personalities.
These figures reveal that we are not just dealing with an outburst of emotions and subjective feelings.
The public is aware of this patronizing and discriminatory attitude toward the Ethiopian community in Israel.
The Hassidic rabbi Zusha of Anipoli used to tell a story he learned from a drunkard: “I arrived at a tavern where farmers were sitting around drinking.
One man turned to his friend and asked him in a drunken slur, ‘Tell me – do you love me? “‘I love you dearly,’ the other drunk replied.
“And then the first farmer burst into tears, saying, ‘How can you tell me you love me when you don’t even know what’s hurting me?’” There is tremendous pain among the Ethiopian Israeli community, but we must be careful not to address the problem too simplistically. I admit it was shocking to see police and brutally assaulting an Ethiopian Israeli soldier, but we must be careful not to interpret this on a superficial level, for the result of such an action could lead to an even harsher reality.
Let’s imagine for a moment what would have happened if the soldier had been of Ashkenazi descent. The police might have been accused of violence, but the Ashkenazi Israeli community would not have felt like the entire community had been attacked.
Since the soldier was of Ethiopian descent, though, the entire Ethiopian community felt like it was being victimized – not because the policeman was violent, but because the soldier was black. This interpretation reveals a conception in Israel that black people are lower down on the social ladder.
This misreading of reality continues to be burned into our social consciousness.
Therefore, it is incumbent upon our leaders to feel personally responsible and to show great courage in their efforts destroy these misconceptions once and for all.
Just like there is a dichotomy between the Sephardi and the Ashkenazi communities, so is there also between the black and white communities.
But we cannot ignore the facts that the Israel Police is violent and that Israeli society is racist. We must work hard to rid these institutions of these plagues.
So why is this so hard to implement? In many cases, the very people who complain publicly about inequality are the ones responsible for maintaining the status quo. Every community talks about universal values; the Sephardim, Ethiopians, Arabs, the religious and settler communities, but in reality it is always more complex than it seems on the surface.
On the other hand, people who speak about universal moral principles usually end up preaching separation and not equality. They encourage us to judge people by the color of their skin, their gender and their ancestry.
These “enlightened people” who wax eloquent about fundamental human values and freedom usually end up suggesting that we should be happy living in a society where minorities and the weaker segments accept their lower standing in society and do not have equal rights. In this way, they are perpetuating the hierarchical model.
Sometimes it’s hard to tell which people are genuinely interested in helping bridge the gap and which people prefer instead to perpetuate the status quo. This is a very important distinction. We must be very sensitive, as many people express support for “separate but equal” masquerading as support for universal moral principles. Sometimes, on the other hand, people go to such an effort to erase our differences that we get lost completely.
It is difficult today to speak about the “Ethiopian community,” since we are not a homogeneous group. We must distinguish between the collective thinking of the inspiring protest organizers who took control of the situation two weeks ago and the individual thinking of people who want to achieve success through hard work.
This is a challenge for all parties involved. Recent events require some complex, brave and true thinking. We all need to understand that no one individual has a monopoly on what is true, correct and fair. The immigration of Jews from Ethiopia to Israel has added new social, religious and cultural dimensions to the mosaic that is modern Israel. The Ethiopian community became an integral part of the fabric of Israel society many years ago.
All of us – including members of the Ethiopian community – need to learn how to live, work, contribute and be creative together in this great Israeli society we all live in together.
Translated by Hannah Hochner.
The author is the rabbi of Kedoshei Yisrael Community in Kiryat Gat, a member of Tzohar and has a PhD From Bar-Ilan University.