Thursday 21 May 2015

Is this Really Racism?

Demonstrations have taken to the streets of Israeli cities in recent weeks.  While demonstrations in Israel are not new, these demonstrations were different and unique.  For the first time since the first Ethiopian Jews were airlifted to Israel in Operation Moses in 1984 and in  Operation Solomon in 1991, Ethiopian Jews have demonstrated against their plight in Israel.  The images of black-skinned Israeli Jews battling against mostly white-skinned Israeli policemen that were displayed across much of the media in Israel and abroad, were perfect to fuel those who accuse Israel of racism and even apartheid.  But nothing could be further from the truth.

While the treatment of the Ethiopians in Israel leaves much to be desired in many instances, the underlying reason for the treatment that they have been forced to endure has nothing to do with racism.  Instead, this a story of a cultural chasm between two groups of Jews that has left one group greatly disadvantaged.  It is a story of natural human behaviour and survival instinct, and it is a story of the integration into society of a minority group to the point that they finally find their voices to stand up for themselves.

The story of the immigration of the Ethiopian Jews to Israel is uplifting and depressing in equal parts.  They were rescued from the African desert out of the jaws of starvation and anti-Semitic genocide.  They had suffered from the severe famine that had affected the African continent for years, and had been subjected to horrendous anti-Semitic discrimination by their fellow country people.  After much deliberation, the Israeli government accepted their claims to be Jewish, and sent planes to airlift them to safety, shelter and nourishment.  The stories of thousands of people crammed onto aeroplanes, many of them seated on the floor, are now part of the legend of tales that are told about this phenomenal rescue mission.  The truth was, however, tough to confront.  Not only had most of these Ethiopians never seen an aeroplane before, they had no idea what a toilet was or how to operate any electrical appliance.  They were literally lifted from one existence to something completely alien to them.  This culture shock upon landing in Israel led to a huge change in their natural, nomadic, male-dominated lifestyle.  In many instances, the patriarchal head of the family was no longer able to fulfil this role and to provide for the family.  The role of the women in the family was elevated as many of them went out to work to earn the basic necessities.  Social breakdown in the society followed quickly, accompanied with domestic violence, substance abuse and petty crime.  Family murders within the Ethiopian community continue to be common due to the upheaval that family life has been forced to endure.  All of this is despite the fact that the community has now been housed within its Israeli culture for more than 20 years.  The process of adjusting to a culture and existence totally alien to theirs has exacted a very high price on the Ethiopian community.

Due to the criminal activities that have become commonplace amongst Ethiopians, they have become well-known to the police authorities.  In turn, the police have placed the most common offenders, and the community as a whole, under close supervision.  The relationship between the Ethiopian community and the police has become strained.  The repetitive nature of the unlawful behaviour on the part of the Ethiopians has frustrated the police.  The police have been charged with unacceptable behaviour towards the Ethiopian community.  Many of these charges are justified.  Even if they are frustrated, there can be no doubt that the police are always expected to adhere to the highest standards.  In this regard, they have failed.

Israel is a country where those who scream loudest get the most.  This unfortunate cultural trait has deep historical roots, and can be traced back to the difficulties that Jews experienced when living as second class citizens during the Holocaust in Europe, or during their persecution in Middle Eastern countries.  All of a sudden, Jews found a voice for themselves after having been denied this right in other countries for so long.  This voice continues to be used extremely loudly, and in competition to many others who are also trying to get their voice heard at the same time.  Visitors and more recent immigrants to Israel find this cultural trait to be rude and intolerable, despite the fact that it is not intended in a rude way at all.  For the Ethiopian community, the loud voice was even more extreme when compared to their upbringing and background.  The Ethiopians have a very gentle and withdrawn nature, that is at complete odds with the aggressive style of the rest of Israeli society.  Any sign of standard Israeli screaming and shouting results in the Ethiopians withdrawing in surprise.  As a result, they are less likely to get what they want and what they need.  Those who are more aggressive and shout louder are given higher priority at their expense.  This situation has led to immense frustration within the Ethiopian community, and an overall feeling of disadvantage on their part.  The fact that their leaders do not shout loudly means that their community gets a lower share of the budget allocations than they deserve to receive, and they get less attention than is deserved.

The change that has happened recently is that the new generation of Ethiopians has finally come of age.  The young adults in the Ethiopian community have either been born in Israel, or have grown up for most of their formative years in Israel.  As such, they are more versed and more comfortable with the Israeli culture than are their parents and grandparents who remain in some type of culture shock.  Despite the fact that the new generation is growing up with the influence of their elders who still carry with them the old timid Ethiopian culture, the new kids have learnt the tricks of surviving in their Israeli reality.  These are the kids who are comfortable with raising their voices to make them heard, and with mounting demonstrations in order to express their disgust and disdain at the bad treatment that their community has received.  We are now seeing the effects of this new generation who look like Ethiopians, but speak good Hebrew and have Israeli culture and chutzpah.  They are finally standing up for what their parents and grandparents have been denied over the years.

While the demonstrations look like a story of racism in their imagery, this is not a story about racism.  Israelis are not inherently racist, but are people who know how to fight for their rights and what is due to them.  For too many years, Jews were denied these as they survived amongst the nations.  Now, they have found the voices and will fight for their rights in the most determined way.  This also means that the quieter and more timid amongst others, whether they are Ethiopians or other cultures, get drowned out.  But our Ethiopian brethren have discovered their role in Israeli society.  We are immensely proud of how a community, which started from such a different and unsophisticated beginning point, is finding its place in our society. I feel immense pride when seeing Ethiopian soldiers in IDF uniforms, Ethiopian students at our universities, and Ethiopians who are members of Knesset, TV presenters, doctors, lawyers and those who fill many other roles in society.   I like the fact that the Ethiopian Jewish festival of Sigd has widespread recognition in Israel along with Pesach and Mimouna.  I am delighted that the Ethiopian community religious leaders, the Kessim, have recognition and respect alongside our Ashkenazi and Sephardi Rabbis and scholars.

If anything, this is a sign that our society ultimately presents equal opportunities for all its members, and I feel sure that the Ethiopians will continue to take their place in society over time.  This includes being on the front lines of demonstrations to secure the rights richly deserved by members of their community who are less comfortable to assert themselves.  This is the reason why I support their demonstration, and I feel extremely comfortable with the fact that they are causing disruption in the streets of Israeli towns and cities.

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