The future today

A top player on and off the soccer field, Imaye Taga demonstrates by example that virtue and courage are color-blind

Imaye Taga (photo credit: DANNY MAARON)
Imaye Taga
(photo credit: DANNY MAARON)
‘People do not understand what it means to arrive in Israel, the Promised Land, the Jewish State, and to have your Jewishness continuously contested. No one owes me a favor; nobody gives me anything for free. I’m here because I have a right to be here, it is my place. My country. I’m as Jewish as you are, if not more than you. Feeling uncomfortable with what I’m saying? This is your problem.”
The quote above belongs to Imaye Taga, 32, an Israeli footballer of Ethiopian descent who plays for Maccabi Netanya in the Israeli Premier League. He was a permanent member of Israel’s national youth teams while growing up; he played for Hapoel Ashkelon and Hapoel Acre, and made 10 appearances in Israel’s under-21 national team. He is also one of the leading figures of the Israeli-Ethiopian community’s struggle against racism and demand for equality.
Taga became the face of the efforts for the release of Avera Mengistu, an Israeli citizen with mental issues who has been held as a prisoner by Hamas in Gaza for more than a thousand days since he crossed the border by himself. In addition, Taga is dedicated to the pursuit of justice in the case of Yosef Salamse, who was harassed and tasered by policemen and found dead a few months later, allegedly from suicide. Those two cases were the core of the protests in 2015, when Ethiopian-Israelis manifested their objection to systematic racism and discrimination, and Mengistu and Salamse remain hot issues in the growing tension between the Israeli-Ethiopian community and the establishment.
Taga leverages his influence and prominence as a soccer star to raise awareness of these issues in what is regarded as a rare phenomenon in Israeli sports – a footballer who is also a social activist. “I am aware of what is happening around me. I could easily focus on taking care of only myself and my family, but when I looked in the mirror, what would I feel? That’s how my parents raised me and this is how I educate my kids,” he told The Jerusalem Post.
Born in 1985 and raised in a small village near Gondar in northern Ethiopia, Taga made aliya with his family when he was about five years old.
“Before we made aliya, we were living in Addis Ababa. Jews there, as everywhere else in the world, weren’t very popular. We got into a ‘waiting camp’ called Ambessa. There, you wait for your name to be called, in order to immigrate to Israel. It can take a day, a month, or three. Before our names were called, my father went to get our bags and all our belongings in order to bring them to the camp and later, to Israel. Just when he left, they called our names. When he finally arrived, we weren’t allowed to take our suitcases with us. We landed in Israel completely empty-handed. I have no pictures, no memories – neither me nor the family.”
In Israel, Taga grew up first in Shavei Zion, a moshav north of Acre, then moved to a nearby caravan site close to Kibbutz Lohamei Hagetaot. It was there that he started playing football unofficially. When he was 13, his family moved to Kiryat Ekron and he enrolled in a boarding school in Netanya, where he joined Maccabi Netanya’s youth department. From a young age he was marked as one of the top talents in Israeli football. Back then he was known as Amir Taga, carrying a Hebrew name that one of his teachers in school gave him, instead of his original Ethiopian name – Imaye.
In 2006 a family tragedy rocked his world. His younger brother Avi, 16, was found dead; allegedly he committed suicide. Taga was devastated. At 21, a notable member of Israel’s young national team, football suddenly became secondary for Imaye.
Two months later, he returned to the national team for a decisive match in the European Championship qualifications against France, which then had world-class prospects such as Karim Benzema, Samir Nasri and Blaise Matuidi. Israel needed a victory in order to qualify for the final tournament, and Taga, who came in only as a substitution in the 88th minute, scored the winning goal on his second touch on the ball, just a few seconds before the final whistle. Israel won 1-0 and Taga became the hero of the hour. Yet, instead of celebrating with his friends he went to be united with his family.
“I was very absorbed in the family mourning. Of course, after the goal, it was a crazy burst of emotions, but once the game was over, I showered, got into the car with my wife and brothers, and we went to my parents.”
Not so long after his brother’s death and the historic goal against France, Taga decided to change his name back from Amir to Imaye. “It was some kind of enlightenment,” he said. “After my brother’s death, I looked at my parents and thought what a horrible thing it is for a parent to have a child change the name they gave him – only to become a part of a certain group or society. It’s completely twisted.”
This act caused ambivalent reactions in Israeli media, but Taga doesn’t second-guess his decision. “Today I talk in schools in front of kids. Russians, Ethiopians, Arabs – people of all colors and descents. My message for them is ‘never change your identity and neglect your roots.’ Don’t change yourself for anyone. If someone wants you, he will accept you as you are. And if not? Wave goodbye to him.”
Taga’s uncompromising stand on social matters is inspired by a horrific injury he suffered during his career. During a standard practice in 2010 he got tackled and tore a cruciate ligament. The doctors told him he should be thankful just to be able to walk without a limp for the rest of his life. Soccer, again, came in second. Taga was out for almost a year, but he didn’t give up.
“This injury changed my career,” he related. “I had many dreams in football and they all became irrelevant. But I’ve received something invaluable from this experience. The long recovery process (almost a year) taught me that a human being can achieve everything wants to.”
TWO YEARS ago, Ethiopian protests flared across Israel. At the time, Taga tried to raise public awareness of the stories of Avera Mengistu and Yosef Salamse.
Taga believed that in the same way that the whole country stood behind Schalit family when their son Gilad was a hostage in Gaza (from 2006 to 2011), the Israeli public would rally in support of Mengistu family and would encourage the government to do everything it takes to bring him home. He sent letters to the Premier League management, the soccer association and the Sport Ministry. He never received an answer. Therefore, during a warm-up for a league match in 2015 he wore a T-shirt calling for justice in the Salamse and Mengistu cases, an act picked up by the media. The football association fined him NIS 750 for making a political statement. In a pointed response, he paid the fine with 7,500 10-agorot coins.
These actions moved the protest forward in the mainstream media outlets, promoting equality and anti-racism within Israeli football. Most importantly, the actions ignited a public discussion of the matters, something that was barely spoken of before.
“If Avera Mengistu weren’t black, things would be different,” Taga said. “There is hidden-but-discernible racism in our society. It’s not that I am looking for ‘where blacks are being discriminated against’ so I can spot it. It’s around me all the time. It doesn’t matter if I suffer from it directly or not, the thing is that some people get screwed for their skin color. This is what people need to understand, and currently they don’t.”
Taga believes that the shift will start with education, but also in changing perspectives in society.
“People see a successful person who apparently is also of Ethiopian origin and say: “He is the first.” The first pilot, the first lecturer, the first doctor or the first soccer player. This statement distances, marks and undermines an entire population and causes a sense of non-belonging to a lot of people in the Ethiopian community.”
TAGA KNOWS that no matter how effective his quiet protest is, the change must come from inside of the Israeli establishment. “This is my problem with the establishment. I keep Shabbat and kashrut and everything, but I have a problem with the rabbinical institution, which will forever regard me suspiciously because of my color.”
When he looks toward the future, Taga is optimistic, despite the obstacles. “I believe that it is possible to win the fight against racism in Israeli society and in general. If not to win, then to fight hard and promote a change. You must understand, I will not wait 200 years for everyone to change and educate. I know it will take time, but I – and many more – are not merely waiting for this day to come. We are working to bring it now.”