How do we change a mind-set?

Avi asks whether there is an understanding of the sacrifices his community has made.

ETHIOPIAN PROTESTERS hold a placard reading ‘I’m not just a color,’ during a demonstration against police brutality in which they blocked Tel Aviv’s Ayalon Highway, on January 30. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
ETHIOPIAN PROTESTERS hold a placard reading ‘I’m not just a color,’ during a demonstration against police brutality in which they blocked Tel Aviv’s Ayalon Highway, on January 30.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The recent protests by Israel’s Ethiopian community beg the question of how Israeli society addresses the strong sense of inequality felt by Israelis of Ethiopian descent.
On the positive side, there are non-governmental organizations (NGOs) endeavoring to bridge the gap between this community and others. ESRA is one such organization whose raison d’être is to help newcomers integrate into Israeli society, a prime activity being its involvement with Israelis of Ethiopian origin.
ESRA’s flagship “Students Build a Community” project enables carefully chosen students to live rent-free in areas of deprivation in exchange for mentoring the kids on the block. One of these areas is composed of virtually 100% residents from an Ethiopian background. Over the 14 years ESRA has operated in this area, we have come to recognize that bringing together students and the children they mentor of differing backgrounds has resulted in a success story for all.
Some 10 years ago, the Education Ministry’s Dr. Vuvit Mangisto, together with Avi Talala, both of Ethiopian ancestry, initiated the “Journey to Identity” project. It enabled teenagers to visit Ethiopia to see where their parents and grandparents had lived and to understand the sacrifices they made in order to come home to Israel. Readers of my column will know the impact this experience had on the participants’ self-image, through the discovery of their roots, coupled with the intensive Zionist education program they received prior to embarking on their journey. As with “Students Build a Community,” ESRA has also discovered the positivity of opening this “journey” experience to Israelis who are not from an Ethiopian background.
The shooting to death of 19-year-old Solomon Teka by an off-duty policeman was the catalyst for the latest demonstrations by Israeli Ethiopians. There have been previous demonstrations, many connected with the government’s broken promises to bring some 8,000 souls (many of whom have family here) to Israel who have been languishing in Ethiopia in the most appalling conditions while awaiting their aliyah. These protests were different, as they graphically exposed the pain of being an Israeli who is not white.
The Magazine wanted to find out more about the feelings behind the protests. ESRA project chair Nina Zuck suggested meeting with Avi, with whom she has been working these past 14 years and who, in addition to co-founding “Journey to Identity,” is the manager of a matnas (community center) that is primarily geared to the Ethiopian community.
Avi arrived in Israel at the age of four, together with his father and two younger brothers, via Operation Moses in 1984. His mother died on the treacherous trek from Ethiopia to Sudan, a journey that has claimed some 4,000 lives. Avi served in a combat unit in the IDF. His first degree is in education, sociology and anthropology. He is now studying for an additional degree in management and leadership in education. Avi is married with three children: two boys ages six and four, and a baby girl of six months.
We talked with Nina and Avi. Avi is very modest, so it was left to Nina to volunteer the information about his successes in the field of education. She also revealed that Avi has been the main support for his father and brothers. A number of students with Ethiopian backgrounds support their parents and siblings, placing additional pressures on their young heads.
THE NIGHT of the first protest, which stopped traffic at many major junctions, found Avi at one of his regular meetings with the Israel Police, activists and professionals. He came away sad and confused. He wanted the meeting to address what was actually happening as they were talking. However, his request was rejected.
Avi continued, “I started my journey to my parents-in-laws’ home, which took considerably longer than usual because of the traffic jams. I arrived at 10:30 p.m. I waited for my younger son to wake up and then we all began walking toward our home. On the way, we met members of the community who were out on the streets to express their feelings. My six-year-old son – who while in his grandparents’ home had heard the adults conversing about the protests – asked why he saw only brown people like us outside. ‘Why were there no feranjim [white people] on the street?’ I answered him by saying that people are outside because they want to live in a fair society in which everyone takes care of each other.
“My son is a clever child who answered both himself and me by saying, ‘I know you are not telling me the whole truth because there are only brown colored people here and I know why.’
“‘What do you know?’ I asked him.
“He responded, ‘Is it true that a policeman killed an Ethiopian child? I thought that policemen are good like the police officers at your work and like Yaakov [the community policeman] who catches thieves.’
“My son continued, ‘I saw on TV people who burned things. What could cause people to burn things not belonging to them?’
“I replied, ‘They are angry because they have no hope. Without hope, people do bad things in an attempt to finally be heard so that their lives will change for the better.’
“I reminded him of how, when he was four, I had promised to buy him a bike if he was a good boy and helped at home. ‘You were a good boy but I was unable to buy you the bike at the time. You became very angry, turning the house upside down. This is what happened to those burning others’ possessions. You behaved as you did not because you hate me but because it was your way of telling me how hurt you were. So it is with these people who want to be accepted and feel safe rather than humiliated.’
“My son continued: ‘When Eliya [his younger brother] and I are big children, will white people hurt us? Are Israelis just white people? Is the Land of Israel only for white people? Am I an Ethiopian? How do we become white? Why were you born in Ethiopia and not Israel?’
“I don’t know how to answer these questions. I have taught my children that people come in different colors yet we are brothers. In Israel we are one nation that has ingathered Jews from all over the world.”
Avi wonders if his white Israeli friends have ever had such a conversation with their children. He worries about his children’s future. Will they be judged simply on the color of their skin? He wants to protect his children against the threat of insecurity.
Avi asks whether there is an understanding of the sacrifices his community has made: their initial supreme physical and painful effort to come home to Israel; their endeavor to suppress their feelings of hurt when required to send their children to boarding schools as they were considered inadequate parents and educators; and the feeling of humiliation on being told that their spiritual leaders, who had guided and guarded them, were unworthy and had no authority in Israel. They accepted all of these hurts in the hope that their children would become proud Israelis.
AT THIS point, Nina shared the experience of one volunteer who on asking the head of a nursery school how many children she cared for said, “24, but only six are Israelis.”
We asked Avi how he anticipated this situation might be resolved.
He responded, “Racism has today received official approval through building a consciousness that turns ‘us’ into ‘them.’ We have come into the schools and kindergartens as parents to expose our heritage and culture to your children who have humiliated our children just because of the color of their skin, instead of accepting our values from home, instead of the education system doing so.”
Real change requires in-depth and courageous soul-searching in which, as individuals, we ask ourselves how we have acted. Do I see black people as human beings equal to me? If I do, I will not let my child humiliate a differently colored child in kindergarten or school because otherwise, today’s child who humiliates the one who is different will be tomorrow’s adult racist.
What is needed urgently is deep and meaningful basic education in Israeli society.
Today there is no king in Israel – no one to see who is doing the right thing. In the absence of leadership, civil strife and arguments emerge that endanger our existence as a people and a state.
To effect change, leadership is required whose main emphasis is on social cohesion and a moral compass. Leadership in which “Love your neighbor as yourself” guides a society in which we are one nation with 12 tribes. Devoid of such leadership, we will become a morally and ethically rotten society as a nation and a people. No nation can survive in a tribal state. It will be the beginning of the end.
Before meeting with Avi, I had anticipated being told that the answer to the challenges facing Israeli Ethiopians could be found, perhaps, in yet another new government committee. How wrong I was. Hearing Avi’s articulate painfully moving assessment poses the question: How do we begin to change a way of thinking? His answer is through education, both within the family and within the entire education system from day care centers through to high schools.
With a new government expected in the autumn, we can but hope that a leadership will emerge that considers ways in which those who teach our children will be guided as to how they should behave toward their pupils of every color and background. Perhaps the concept of bringing Israeli Ethiopian parents together with other parents might contribute toward more sensitivity and understanding.
The ultimate challenge is how to change a mindset. Some suggest that we introduce laws against racial discrimination, but you cannot legislate against that which belongs internally to each one of us. This is a frame of mind.
Until now, the major support for Israel’s Ethiopian community has come from the NGOs. ESRA is ready to do its part by intensifying its current activities and looking at new ways to address the unacceptable situation that was articulated so movingly by Avi.
The writer is public relations chairwoman of ESRA, which promotes integration into Israeli society.