Rivlin, dignitaries sign anti-racism pact

Police frequently apprehend Ethiopian youth for no plausible reason, and trigger-happy officers have been known to shoot and even kill Ethiopian young people.

President Reuven Rivlin surrounded by the signatories who convened at the President's Residence on Sunday, to sign an anti-racism pact initiated by Israelis Against Racism, February 2, 2020 (photo credit: MARK NEYMAN/GPO)
President Reuven Rivlin surrounded by the signatories who convened at the President's Residence on Sunday, to sign an anti-racism pact initiated by Israelis Against Racism, February 2, 2020
(photo credit: MARK NEYMAN/GPO)
Notwithstanding Israel’s anti-racist policies, racism is alive and well in Israel. On the sports field, it is directed against Arab and other Muslim players.
In other circles, it is directed against people of color, primarily members of the Ethiopian-Jewish community, but also migrant workers and refugees.
In a survey commissioned by Israelis Against Racism, the shocking extent of color prejudice among Israelis over the age of 18 came to the surface. Of 811 respondents, one in three would not marry an Ethiopian Jew and would not want any family member to do so; 16% of respondents did not want to live in the same building or even the same neighborhood as Ethiopian Jews; 15% think it was a mistake to bring Ethiopian Jews to Israel; 13% were not prepared to allow their children to bring Ethiopian friends into their home; 9% were unwilling to have their children study in the same class as Ethiopian students; 10% did not want to work under an Ethiopian boss; 7% did not want to work in the company of Ethiopians in their place of employment; and 22% believe the Jewish religious identity of Ethiopians is questionable.
All this, even though Ethiopian Jews have distinguished themselves in the army, in academia, in medicine, law, politics, entertainment and other areas of endeavor.
Police frequently apprehend Ethiopian youth for no plausible reason, and trigger-happy officers have been known to shoot and even kill Ethiopian young people, especially if they were seen outside their own neighborhoods.
Israeli Arabs also have distinguished themselves in many fields, but they are often regarded with suspicion and enmity. The worst and most highly publicized racists among sports fans are those who favor Beitar Jerusalem. The team has gone through several owners and managers and is currently owned by Moshe Hogeg, who is determined to put an end to racism.
Hogeg was among the many signatories who convened at the President’s Residence on Sunday to sign an anti-racism pact initiated by Israelis Against Racism, which is chaired by Maj.-Gen. (res.) Eliezer Shkedi, a former commander of the IAF and later a former CEO of El Al.
Among those present at the signing ceremony was a broad cross section of Israel’s demographic mosaic – a large Druze delegation, senior citizens, members of youth organizations, university students, educators, religious, secular, business executives, trade-union officials, police, judiciary and more.
The key signatory to the pact was President Reuven Rivlin, who is a keen Beitar Jerusalem fan, as well as a former legal adviser, team manager and chairman of Beitar Jerusalem. Rivlin has long despaired of those fans dubbed as La Familia, who are aggressively anti-Arab and whose abusive language and physical violence has resulted in some soccer games being played without spectators.
Among the other signatories to the pact were President’s Residence director-general Harel Toubi, Deputy Police Commissioner Alon Asur, Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion, Rishon Lezion Mayor Raz Kinstlich, Hadera Mayor Zvika Gendelman and Herzliya Mayor Moshe Fadlon, who each pledged zero tolerance for racism in their cities. Tel Aviv Deputy Mayor Tzippi Brand and Netanya Deputy Mayor Shiri Hagoel Sidon said campaigns against racism and discrimination were already under way in their cities.
Actress and social activist Gal Gabai, who moderated the event, suggested that everyone look at their true selves, because even though so many people believe they are democratic and devoid of racist inclinations, “there’s a little bit of racism in all of us.”
She cited the ongoing complaint by Ethiopian youth that police are always stopping them on the street, demanding to see their ID cards and asking what they are doing there, as if they don’t have the same freedom of movement as non-Ethiopian Israelis.
Remarking on the geographic, professional, ethnic and religious diversity of his audience Rivlin said: “We are here at the initiative of people of different backgrounds. What we all have in common is that we care.”
Racism and discrimination are not problems of Ethiopian Jews and other minorities in Israel but of society as a whole – not left, not right, not coalition or opposition, he said, adding: “We are all together in a coalition against racism and discrimination.”
Although Ethiopians and Arabs are today the prime targets of racist nationalists, Rivlin could remember a time not so long ago when victims of racism and discrimination were people of North African background.
Such discrimination was even practiced by the state, he said, “but it wasn’t the state alone.”
Now the situation is such, that it is time for Israelis to join together in combating daily incidents of racism in preschools, the workplace, on the bus and street, Rivlin said.
People should not have prejudicial notions about the other, he said, adding: “We all have a responsibility for an introspective examination in which we acknowledge our prejudices and get rid of them. This must be our personal commitment against this evil disease.”
Implying that words can kill, Rivlin cautioned that everyone must be careful with their speech.
Harking back to the period when North African Jews were considered personae non gratae, he said the attitude toward immigrants from North Africa was tantamount to the planting of the seeds of the racism that exists today.
Regarding the charge made by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas that Russian and Ethiopian immigrants are not really Jewish, Rivlin said nothing Abbas says can change the character of the state from being Jewish and democratic.
When he was born 80 years ago, he said, there were some 200,000 Jews in the country. Today, the total population is about nine million people, of whom seven million identify as Jews.
Lion, whose problems in the country’s most complex city include the racist outbursts by Beitar Jerusalem fans, drew a comparison to what happened two weeks earlier when leaders of the world came to Jerusalem to say “No” to antisemitism.
“Today, we say enough to racism and discrimination,” he said.
Lion said both events were vital to national resilience.
“I refuse to accept any form of racism in this city,” he said. “Jews suffered from racism for centuries. It is incumbent on us to fight the racism in our midst.”
Shkedi quoted the biblical commandment to love one’s neighbor as oneself and the sages who said do to your neighbor what you would want your neighbor to do to you.
He said his father’s whole family and most of his mother’s family were murdered in the Holocaust.
“The Jewish people suffered the greatest catastrophe in history because of racism,” he said.
Living in a free democratic country, “we also have the responsibility to free ourselves of racism,” Shkedi said.
Both Shkedi and Hogeg said it was not enough to make declarations. What will count in bringing about change is deeds.
The speech that earned the loudest and longest applause, not to mention spontaneous cheers, was that of 15-year-old Liel Balta from Ashdod. A gifted student with a talent for music, she was born in Israel to parents who immigrated from Ethiopia.
For much of her childhood, she said, others in her class or in the groups she joined treated her as if she were inferior and tried to give her the feeling she did not belong in Israel.
At one point, she was prepared to throw in the towel, but her mother would not let her, Balta said, adding: “And I publicly thank her for that.”
Balta is a proud Israeli – very bright, very charismatic and, dare one say, very pretty, who will never again allow anyone to tell her she is stupid or she does not belong.