Israeli issues, with a taste of America

 The police chief got himself into trouble with a comment about police officers being more likely to stop Ethiopians than other Israelis. He said it was natural, given the suspicions of the police on the street, and the well known information that recent immigrants, the world over, are more likely than others to be law breakers.

The brouhaha that resulted may have something to do with recent events in the United States, where the police have been charged with being too quick on the trigger when dealing with African Americans. 

The chief was quick to disavow racism, and to say that he meant that his subordinates should be trained better in order to avoid racism in what they do.

A few days later he made a more explicit apology to the Ethiopians.

There is at least a bit of irony in the chief being caught up in this. His own background is Yemenite, which means that he comes from a community closely related to the Ethiopians. Their origins in northeast Africa and the Arabian Peninsula are separated by a narrow strait, and the populations resemble one another. The Ethiopians are more clearly African with kinky hair, but their skin colors, body sizes, and faces are similar. Both populations have men and women who score above average on the traits of being handsome or beautiful. Both also came from origins below the European norms with respect to  economic and human development. Israel's police chief has reached about as far as any Yemenite. He's not alone at that level, but the first generations of Yemenites resembled the first generations of Ethiopians in being at the bottom in terms of education and occupational achievement.

Recently the news has featured one of its periodic interests in the fate of Yemenite babies born to new immigrants in the 1940s and 1950s, given by hospital personnel to better-off Israelis or overseas Jews for adoption, with their parents told that the babies had died.

It appears that the police chief is correct is noting that recent immigrants experience a disproportionate number of law breakers and encounters with the police. It's not only the Ethiopians but also the Russians (more correctly Russian-speakers, many of who are from Ukraine or Central Asia) who appear disproportionately in daily reports about family or neighborhood violence.

While both  Russian-speakers and Ethiopians have been troublesome, both communities have made their contributions to Israel. Russian speakers--either immigrants who came from the late 1980s onward or their children--are among the country's leading personalities in just about every professional field, and Ethiopians (whose families are likely to be more recent arrivals from African villages rather than European or Asian cities) are going beyond their parents into universities, colleges, the officer corps of the army and police, and other professions.

Israelis suspicious of the American Jews cite the Ethiopians as an expression of American Jewish paternalism.

It has been partly the generosity and good intentions of American Jewish activists responsible for the movement of Ethiopians to Israel but not to America. A prominent Israeli rabbi without much of a secular education was inspired to proclaim that they were Jews, but some historians are doubtful. Other rabbis, also inclined to grand ideas, have declared tribes from deep in South America, Africa, and South Asia to have Jewish roots, and aroused activists to bring them to Israel.

Two sizable waves of Ethiopians thrilled Israelis, but the problems were not far behind. The introduction of 100,000 Blacks into a White society brought both racism and charges of racism. There have been politicized quarrels over whether Ethiopians should be allowed to donate blood. The population has a high rate of HIV, and health professionals divide on the issue of blood donations, while Ethiopian and other activists are quick to charge racism. Likewise in association with a disproportionate incidence of Ethiopians in Israeli prisons.

Israel's Rabbinate has had its issues with the Ethiopians. Along with prominent rabbis who have pressed the government successfully to recognize the Ethiopian Jews as Jews, and thus allow their immigration to Israel, are some equally distinguished rabbis who have expressed their doubts. The Official Rabbinate has had reservations about the rabbinical status of the Ethiopians' religious leaders, and has made occasional demands that Ethiopians engage in a form of conversion to assure their Judaic status.

Also problematic are Ethiopians who claim family connections with those in Israel, but whose Judaism is more remote. Some have Coptic crosses tattooed on their foreheads. Israeli and American activists continue to pressure the government to allow their immigration. The government has given in for the sake of several groups, even after declaring that there did not remain any additional Ethiopians who could be accepted under existing rules of immigration.

Different from Ethiopian Jews, but also presenting identity issues in a Jewish State are the so-called Black Hebrews. This is a community of African Americans who entered Israel individually as tourists, claim to be Jews, and insisted on staying. This community of a few thousand live mostly in the southern town of Dimona, support themselves partly by musical performances, and manifest a peculiar combination of polygamy, authoritarian leadership, and occasional assertions that they are the true Jews, while Israeli Whites are impostors. They have not achieved the Ethiopians' official recognition of being Jews or having the right of Israeli citizenship. At least partly due to pressure from African American political activists, they have won the right to stay in Israel as non-citizens, with limited social benefits.

Lower in the prominence of Americans' contributions to Israel that raise questions are two large monuments dealing with issues that have little or nothing to do with Israel, but represent Americans' efforts to express their own feelings about what should be in the Jewish state. One is the monument to John F. Kennedy, and the other to 9-11.

The Kennedy Memorial used to be on the tour routes for visiting Americans. Then for years its main hall was locked and unkempt, while the basement served as offices for an international Jewish organization.. The 9-11 Memorial may be on the routes of some American tourists, but has not made much of impression on Israelis. It seems likely to compete with other sites in this over-monumented country,  which provoke charges by the people touched directly by the tragedy being memorialized that authorities have not protected them from deterioration and vandalism.

Israeli officials can be counted on to express gratitude for the support of the US Government and American Jews, or at least those Jews who haven't signed on to BDS.

Israeli officials also say several times each day that America is Israel's strongest ally and primary defender.

Realities are that Israelis are their own primary defenders, with the US providing some of the equipment, but not always when needed, and occasionally opposing Israeli actions. Even before the US began its withdrawal from international trouble spots under Barack Obama, it seemed unlikely that promises of defense where much more than words. 

Israelis expect their government to act in their best interests, even if that means occasional friction with the American government and our overseas cousins.

Israel's fuzzy cooperation with the Russians in Syria may raise some eyebrows in the State Department, while the State Department's routine nastiness about every approval of new building in East Jerusalem or the West Bank brings forth ridicule from Israeli media. 

We are, after all, different countries and populations, each with our own interests. It's best for all of us to recognize that, even if we're reluctant to say it.

Comments welcome, friendly and otherwise, from American cousins and others..


Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem