Black Ethiopian Jews Ask: Do their Lives Matter?
By Kai EL’ Zabar
When I mentioned to my publisher that I had been invited to Israel as a journalist, she was none too happy. She said, “Kai they are attacking people who look like you over there.” Her concerns were legitimate. It was as recent as April that footage emerged showing an Ethiopian Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) conscript brutally beaten by policemen directing traffic away from a suspected bomb package.
The Ethiopian community had no other recourse but to take to the streets just as Black Americans have in protest, questioning whether or not Black lives matter. What emerged were the visuals of Ferguson, Baltimore and New York that filled American and international airwaves just weeks before, however, in the center of Jerusalem, the protesters weren’t African-Americans but Ethiopian Israelis. Some raised their hands high, indicating they were unarmed to the heavily armed police. Yet, still they were bloodied.
The protesters – some of which have clashed with police – say Black lives don’t matter in Israel, and are seeking equal treatment under the law.
So what’s life like for Ethiopian Jews living in Israel?
The instigation for the protests was police brutality, but the long term inequality and racism experienced by the Black Jews has been going on forever. So the footage of the beating was merely the straw that broke the camel’s back. The Ethiopians known as the Black Jews, share birthright and are accepted as legitimate citizens. They practice the religion, speak fluent Hebrew and serve in the Israeli Defense Forces as required by the government. And yet, the disparities are all so familiar to those of Blacks in America.
There are 135,000 Ethiopian Jews in Israel making up 2% of the overall population and of all Israeli Jewish citizens, Israeli Ethiopians suffer the worst mistreatment by police. Ethiopian Israelis comprise over 30 percent of the population in Israeli jails, 65% live under the poverty level, only 5% receive college degrees compare to 28% of the other populations. The good news is that deaths in custody are relatively rare yet the people are tired of incidents like one that sparked the protest, which occur more commonly than not.
Just like American Black males most Ethiopian men have suffered abuse by the hand of the police. Few have not been manhandled by police. In a revealing reference to Israel’s complex hierarchy of social privilege, some Ethiopians to whom we spoke, shared that they were often mistaken by police as the underclass asylum seekers from Eritrea and South Sudan. This discrimination regardless the explanation is unacceptable.
“But friction with police is only one manifestation of a broader phenomenon,” says Efrat Yerday who lives in Beer Sheba, and is a MA student at the department of Politics & Governance at Ben Gurion University of the Negev. She is currently researching development programs of the foreign ministry of Israel in Ethiopia and is a columnist at the magazine, “The Hottest Place in Hell”-ha-makom.co.il. She writes about everyday racism.
“My concern is the systematic racism that marks us for failure, forced to exist in poverty and reduces our opportunities to advance from the state of poverty imposed upon us by the discrimination we experience everyday,” she expressed passionately. She continued, “It’s the everyday discrimination which is accepted that must be addressed. This is the institutionalized racism that maintains our station here in Israel.”
Efrat is actively pursuing what she advocates as an activist and the former spokeswoman for the Israeli Association for Ethiopian Jews, an advocacy organization that addresses the racism she describes head on.
She says, “Racism is not, including our experience, in the history of the Jews; it’s not telling our story. Are we not Jews? If we are required to serve equally as is the next Jew then we must share equally in the benefits.”
She pointed out that racism is why less than half of Ethiopian students successfully graduate from high school, and less than a quarter of Ethiopian students have good enough grades to attempt a university degree.
Efrat explained that despite few exceptions, Ethiopian culture and the Ethiopian strands of Judaism in Israel are largely ignored or willfully eroded by the Israeli mainstream. Israeli rabbinical institutions have fought viciously against recognizing Ethiopian kahens, or spiritual leaders of the community, as fellow rabbis. Now, the first generation of the kahens is dying out, and most of the new Ethiopian rabbis and religious scholars are products of a standardized state religious education system, which allows for less cultural autonomy.
The Ethiopian community has also suffered a number of abuses unique to them. No other Israeli minority experienced their women being prescribed Depo Provera, without telling them it was a contraceptive drug. In 2013, state clinics did exactly that resulting in a decrease in the birthrate in the Ethiopian community by half in just a decade.
Fifteen years earlier, newspapers revealed that blood donations from Ethiopians to the Israeli blood bank were unceremoniously flushed away immediately on reception, on the untested assumption they were likely to carry HIV. This provoked the largest protests in the community’s history, and the recent protest resonated their cry, “Is our blood good only for your wars?”
The response of the Israeli authorities to mounting discontent, at least regarding police brutality, has been addressed. The officer captured in the video was suspended that same day, and much of the leadership of the Ethiopian community is engaged in a long-term consultation process between the top brass of the police and a wide range of community leaders. The political leaders have voiced their condemnation along with Prime Minister Netanyahu, who met with the beaten soldier, apologized saying, ”We cannot accept racism,” and established a Ministry to eradicate racism. Is that enough?
The Israeli Ministry of Education immediately put forward age-appropriate lesson plans on racism and violence. Further the Israeli newspaper Haaretz published documents quoting Israeli officials referring to data that indicates “over-enforcement” in the Ethiopian community and admitting most Ethiopian youths see police as the enemy.
And the question is, what’s the surprise? The report almost mirrors the America Black experience except the Black Jews did not arrive as slaves. After years of not being accepted, once they were, they arrived as citizens.
So what’s next?
Suddenly money will be found for cultural awareness programs, for recruitment of Ethiopian officers and for research, which will be call for more programs, more recruitment and more research. The beating of the soldier will be remembered in association with the Prime Minister’s apology
Meanwhile, the Ethiopians will remain between a rock and a hard place in the Promised Land and continuing to wander in the desert.