Racism is a collective problem – but there is still room for hope

Reflections on racism and disappointment and the vision of the mother of a dark-skinned boy, together with a belief that the “ideal heavenly Jerusalem” is not beyond reach.

PROTESTERS gather in Tel Aviv against police violence and discrimination following the death of 19-year-old Ethiopian-Israeli Solomon Tekah. (photo credit: GILI YAARI/FLASH90)
PROTESTERS gather in Tel Aviv against police violence and discrimination following the death of 19-year-old Ethiopian-Israeli Solomon Tekah.
(photo credit: GILI YAARI/FLASH90)
My young son, Niv, is a sweet and innocent 10-year-old with dark colored skin.
His parents – my husband and I – were born in Ethiopia. We immigrated to Israel together with the rest of the community, chasing the longtime communal dream to reach Jerusalem.
This “Jerusalem” upon which the community built its life has many faces – some of which belong to the “ideal heavenly Jerusalem,” others to the less-ideal state of “Jerusalem’s reality on earth.” How one sees the reality depends on whether the viewer leans toward the glass half full – or half empty; I’m the half-full type, I admit.
That doesn’t mean that I’m not full of apprehension as my young and sweet son is growing up and becoming a dark-skinned teenager in a society that is suspicious of black, a society whose police officers will tend to view him as an “immediate suspect.” Several years from now, he – just like any other teenager his age – will start going out on his own during the day and at night – walking around the streets of the city, in shopping malls, to and from school. What will happen then?
Horrific scenarios run through my mind that, unfortunately, are not figments of my imagination. These scenarios take place in reality, in the everyday lives of Ethiopian Israeli teenagers and young adults. The “white” street results in degrading situations and profusely racist expressions towards young Ethiopian Israelis. Worst of all: an encounter with police officers on the streets may involve much more than “just” a humiliating incident. It may put a young Ethiopian Israeli in real danger, even life-threatening. Just like what happened to 18-year-old Solomon Tekah one year ago today, when he was shot dead by a police officer.
The small Ethiopian community (consisting of only 1.6% of Israel’s population) suffers from a phenomenon that is well-known in urban America – the “visible minority.” A black person is distinctive and conspicuous and when this conspicuousness is mixed with stigmas about dark-colored skin and various prejudices, it isn’t surprising that we often encounter exclusion, discrimination and suspicion. All of these translate to barriers – in the job market, in employment advancement, in schools and in the streets.
The burst of emotion, the expressions of pain, the anger and the frustration during the period of protests following the death of Solomon Tekah surprised the Israeli public. The fact that the Israeli public was surprised exposed the depth of its lack of understanding of Ethiopian Israelis’ everyday experiences. The majority of the public does not understand whatsoever what it’s like to be a dark-skinned young adult in Israel.
But, in my eyes, the worst of it all is that these protests almost exclusively consisted of Ethiopian Israelis. As if it were our private issue that was not related to the general “white” population. The media spoke of “the Ethiopian protest,” educated spokespeople spoke at length in their own eyes about “their problems” and “their young adults.”
As I look at pictures from the protests throughout the United States after a policeman in Minneapolis strangled African-American George Floyd to death, I am both surprised and jealous. Alongside the many black people, there is a noticeable presence of white protestors. I hope and wait for the Israeli public to learn that racism is not “the Ethiopians’ problem”; that police violence is not solely the problem of a dark-skinned minority.
All of us – blacks and whites, secular and religious, leftists and rightists, Arabs and Jews – must understand that the scourge of racism is not solely the problem of a specific sector in the population. At the end of the day, we are all “sectors.” I encounter racist expressions towards “Ashkenazim,” towards “Moroccans,” towards “Arabs,” towards “ultra-Orthodox Jews,” towards “leftists.” At the end of the day, we are all victims of hostility and prejudices. The more it has to do with an identified and distinct minority – in our case, resulting from the color of our skin – the more intense the racism. The problem is that of society as a whole, while its eradication must be a task for the entire population.
There is also reason for hope, of course. Inspiring developments in recent years that make me cautiously optimistic. True, police actions – which, tragically, still have a long way to go – contributed greatly to a situation in which 40% of incarcerated youth in 2015 were from the Ethiopian community. Today, this figure is moving downward toward 10%. It can continue to decline; not by dreaming, but by hard work.
During the same period, the Israeli government finally rolled up its sleeves and started actively combating racism; until then, it settled mostly for speeches by leaders condemning racism (not a bad thing, but grossly insufficient). One of its most important moves was to establishment an anti-racism unit – headed by an accomplished attorney from our community – which increasing takes the police, the army and various government bodies to task for racism and racism-based discrimination. The country furthermore boasts a warrior for equal opportunity in the workplace, a woman who also fights for Ethiopian Israelis – and is herself an Arab.
As the head of an Israeli NGO working 24/7 for the advancement and empowerment of our community, I can see inspiring expressions of change in my own world as well; here a graduate of one of our programs entering a business management position, there another being accepted to the Israeli foreign service’s prestigious cadets course. For the next generation of Ethiopian Israelis, the sky must be the limit – Israel must become the land of equal, and unlimited, opportunity.
This is the Israel I want my young son to grow into. It is the reason I press on.
Israeli society must eradicate all forms of racism, uproot prejudices, shatter ignorance, uproot hostility and defeat condensation and the sense of superiority. At the same time, we Israelis – no matter color, ethnicity, background – can join together to guarantee equal opportunity for all our children.
I see it happening, in my organization and beyond. The dream can become a reality.
Genet Dasa is the CEO of Olim Beyahad, an NPO involved in promoting the employment integration of young Ethiopian Israeli adults and changing society’s perceptions and opinions of Ethiopian Israelis.