Israel: promised land for Jews … as long as they’re not black?
Abstract: While the subjugation and abuse of Palestinians living within Israel and in the Occupied Palestinian Territories are well documented, what is less well known is how ingrained racism is in Israel, in that it not only extends to Palestinian Christians and Muslims, but also to Jews who come from ethnic minority backgrounds. This article documents how the Falasha, Ethiopian Jews who have been brought into Israel in several mass transfer operations, have found themselves relegated to an underclass. They are not only racially discriminated against in housing, employment, education, the army and even in the practice of their religion, but have also been unwittingly used to bolster illegal settlements.
Keywords: Beta Israel, Ethiopian Jews, Falasha, IDF, Israeli racism, Operation Joshua, Operation Moses, Operation Solomon, Petah Tikva
Last year, 2011, marked the twentieth anniversary of the largest mass transfer of Ethiopian Jews from Africa to Israel. In a series of covert operations in the late 1980s and early 1990s, thousands of Ethiopian Jews – also known as Beta Israel (House of Israel) or Falasha (literally ‘immigrant’ in Hebrew) – were airlifted secretly out of famine-stricken and war-torn Ethiopia and neighbouring Sudan and taken to the Holy Land. At the time, these ‘rescue’ missions were mired in controversy. Hailed by some Zionists as the inevitable homecoming of African Jews to the ‘birthplace’ of Judaism, to others it was a cynical ploy by the Israeli government to alter the demographics of Palestine. The airlifts were, literally, a means of importing Jews to the contested land en masse, no matter where they were from, in an effort to ‘improve’ the ratio of immigrant Israelis to native Palestinians. But now, twenty years on, how well have Ethiopian Jews assimilated into Israeli society? Has their communal story been one of success and full integration or have they been used primarily to boost Israel’s policy of colonising more of Palestine; to provide a ready pool of conscripts for the Israel Defence Forces (IDF); to provide a workforce for low-status manual labour; and to be treated like relative outcasts in the principally white Jewish community of Israel? The latter seems to have been the predominant outcome, with the promises of brotherhood and unity failing to materialise.
Although there are undoubtedly some individual success stories, the picture is pretty grim for many, if not most, Falasha in Israel. According to a report in Newsweek:
Poverty is three times higher among Ethiopians than among other Jewish Israelis, and unemployment is twice as high. Ethiopian youngsters are much more likely to drop out of school and are vastly under-represented at the country’s universities. One place they are over-represented is in jail: juvenile delinquency runs four times higher in the community than among Israelis overall.
In addition, of the more than 120,000 Ethiopian Jews living in Israel today (half of whom were born in Africa and all of whom account for less than 2 per cent of its 7.7 million population), many are consigned to live either in ghettos or illegal settlements. Hundreds of complaints of racism are made by the Ethiopian community to charities and organisations like Tebeka every year and there is clearly a huge imbalance in the treatment of black Jews and non-black Jews. Despite hundreds of millions of dollars being spent by American and Israeli donors specifically to help the Falasha to ‘integrate’ into Israeli society, a black underclass has essentially been created in Israel, in which 65 per cent of Ethiopian children in Israel live below the poverty line.
Given that the largest Ethiopian diaspora community in the world is to be found in Israel, its treatment should be a matter of great concern to all Ethiopians. It should also be a matter of concern and interest to anyone trying to understand the true nature of Israeli culture and society. There is irrefutable evidence of endemic racism within Israeli society. If Israeli Jews discriminate so badly against other Jews simply because they are black, it should be no surprise that their treatment of Palestinians – whether Christian or Muslim – is many times worse.
Arrival of Ethiopian Jews in Israel
Many Ethiopian Jews consider themselves to be direct descendants of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba and, as such, believe that they practise the purest form of Judaism. Ethiopian Jews have lived in Africa for millennia and have practised Judaism in their own language and according to their own customs for generations. However, when Israel was founded in 1948, they were prohibited from going to live there because they were not recognised as ‘true’ Jews by Israel’s rabbinical authorities. That changed in 1975, when the Israeli government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin gave official recognition to the Falasha as Jews. This was crucial for the community, as it finally gave its members the ‘right’ to make Aliyah (immigration) to the Holy Land with their families under the Israeli Law of Return.
This controversial rabbinical recognition led to a mass exodus of Jews from Ethiopia to Israel in the 1980s and 1990s, and their numbers have gone from just 100 Ethiopian Jews in Israel in 1977 to over 120,000 today. While some people will say that the Ethiopian impetus for this transfer was purely a religious desire to return to the ‘homeland’, in reality there are many other practical, non-religious reasons that can explain why Ethiopian Jews were so desperate to flee to Israel, such as the extreme droughts and famines that plagued Ethiopia, leading to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.
Another reason to leave was the huge political turmoil in Ethiopia during this period. Emperor Haile Selassie was toppled in 1974 and Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam took his place. Backed by Cuba and the Soviet Union, communism took hold with accompanying anti-religious sentiment and anti-Semitic tendencies. Mengistu agreed to the transfer of a small number of Jews to Israel as part of an arms deal under which Israel would supply him with weapons, but, for the most part, Jews were prohibited from going to Israel. It is no wonder, therefore, that the sudden recognition of Falasha as ‘real’ Jews was seen as a golden ticket by many Ethiopians and that they put their lives on the line to get their families to Israel. A move from war-torn, famine-ravaged Ethiopia, with the promise of a warm welcome in the land of milk and honey, must have been hugely tempting.
Operations Moses (1984), Joshua (1985) and Solomon (1991)
In order to escape the political turmoil in Ethiopia in the early 1980s, thousands of people fled on foot to the relative safety of refugee camps in Sudan. The journey was perilous and approximately 4,000 people died en route. It was from here that Operation Moses really began. Over a six-week period, as part of a covert operation co-ordinated by the Israeli Army and the CIA, 8,000 Ethiopian Jews were transported from Sudan to Israel. The airlift came to a sudden halt, however, when news of the mission was made public. Many families were subsequently divided, with some family members newly arrived in Israel, some stranded in Sudan and others left behind in Ethiopia.
In a follow-up operation in 1985, around 800 Jews were flown from Sudan to Israel as part of a CIA mission (Operation Joshua, arranged by the then vice-president George Bush). The last and largest of the mass transfer missions was Operation Solomon. A series of non-stop flights took place over a thirty-six-hour period, involving thirty-four El-Al jumbo jets, with an estimated 14,324 Ethiopian Jews being transferred to Israel.
An uneasy ‘homecoming’
The whole spate of ‘rescues’ was very controversial. Questions were asked about Israel’s motives. Was this ‘rescue’ mission really inspired by a religious desire to bring Judaism’s followers to the ‘promised land’ or was it a more nefarious scheme to import Jews in order to shift the demographics of Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories in favour of Jewish settlers over Palestinians? Whatever the primary motive – religious, pragmatic or political – once the Ethiopians were there, after an epic struggle to get to Israel, it was clear that there would be major difficulties in integrating into Israeli society.
As soon as they arrived, all Ethiopians were sent to ‘absorption centres’. These housing/training/educational facilities were, and still are, said to be a necessary stepping stone into Israeli society. It is here that immigrants are taught Hebrew and the Israeli ‘way of life’. As many of the Ethiopians came from drought-ravaged villages, where they had no running water or electricity, it was felt, by some, that this was necessary to introduce them gradually to life in Israel. However, there have been concerns about the living conditions in the centres and some people have observed that they look more like prisons than ‘welcome’ centres. Many protests have been staged by Ethiopian residents over the years, complaining about the ‘economic distress and harsh living conditions’ within these facilities.
Furthermore, instead of these being the temporary halfway house that many envisaged, many people have spent years living there in poor conditions. It is common to hear statements such as:
When I was in Ethiopia, I thought I would be happy in Israel … but I’ve suffered in an absorption centre for six years. I asked for a house in Tel Aviv, but there is nothing to be done. I’m not happy in Israel. I think in Ethiopia I could find good work and in the future I think I will go to Canada or Ethiopia.
It is not uncommon to read reports in the press with headlines such as, ‘Ethiopian Jews fail to integrate into Israeli life’. Sadly, over the years, the situation has become so dire for some that it has led to depression and suicide.
So what is life like for Falasha in Israel? To start with, the standard of living among the Falasha community is one of the lowest in the country, apart from that of Arabs. For example, according to the most up-to-date information from the Ministry of Welfare and Social Services, ‘two-thirds of all Ethiopian immigrants are in need of assistance and in some towns, close to 90 per cent require such care. Research has also shown that close to 75 per cent of Ethiopian families live below the poverty line.’ Unemployment is around 70 per cent.
According to statistics by the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews: ‘65% of Ethiopian Israeli children live in poverty and a third are at risk; only 21% of Ethiopian Israelis receive high school matriculations at a university entry level; and unemployment among Ethiopian Israelis is double the rate of the general Jewish population.’ In one Al-Jazeera report, a Falasha man described the Ethiopian-only neighbourhoods in Israel as ‘ghettos’.
Racism in Israel towards non-white Jews is not subtle. There is abundant evidence of blatant institutionalised racism in schools, hospitals, housing associations and within the workforce. This racism and open discrimination also pervade Israeli society at a grassroots level. From a bus driver in 2009 refusing to let a black woman on the bus, saying: ‘I don’t allow Kushim [derogatory term for black people] on board. Were there buses in Ethiopia? In Ethiopia you didn’t even have shoes and here you do, so why don’t you walk?’;7 to reports of settlers becoming hostile if arrested by a black IDF soldier; Israeli children throwing stones at Ethiopian soldiers; and ethnic slurs being directed at Ethiopians, including frequent reports of jeers such as, ‘You are just niggers’.
A spokesperson for the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews (IAEJ), Avi Maspin, said that:
racism is a word that I have feared using until now, because I did not believe that it could exist in Israel in 2007, but the time has come to call a spade a spade. Israeli society is profoundly infected by racism and unfortunately there is no suitable punishment for racism in Israel.
According to a report in Ynet News, ‘The facts seem to show that these attitudes are not confined to specific areas of the country but rather represent a collective phenomenon within Israeli society.’ The racism that has infected many in Israel can be seen in YouTube videos such as ‘South Tel Aviv Is on Fire’.
Instead of embracing the ethnic diversity of Jews in Israel and allowing the Falasha to stay true to their African heritage, it seems that many are being forced to leave behind any traces of their Ethiopian legacy. According to one young woman, Yuvi Tashome, who came to Israel during Operation Moses in 1984:
As an Ethiopian immigrant in Israel, you have to erase everything Ethiopian in order to be Israeli. For example, when you first get here they erase your name and give you a new one. When we arrived they asked me my name and I replied ‘Yuvnot’. The girl didn’t understand what I said, so she said ‘Okay, from now on you’re going to be Rahel’. So I was Rahel until after my army service.
But even this is not enough; try as they might to become fully-fledged Israeli citizens, the mere colour of their skin is enough to ensure that Ethiopians are always seen as outsiders and inferior to non-black Jews. According to one report, this discrimination even carries on after death; some ‘graves in a Jewish cemetery are separated according to the colour of the corpses; a fence has been built between the graves of Ethiopian Jews and the others in the graveyard’.
The racism extends to such basic issues as where the Falasha can and cannot live. Some areas have a ‘policy’ of not selling apartments to non-white Jews. In 2009, one estate agent looking for accommodation for his newly arrived clients was shocked to be told by the owner of a building in Ashkelon:
There are no Ethiopians in this area at all, and there won’t be any. This is our policy. I have no problem with them living somewhere else … Anyone can come, but not Ethiopians. This is how it is in the entire building; at least I hope it is, in order to preserve the apartment’s value and the building’s value … We’ve kept this rule of not selling to Ethiopians for 16 years. I can’t speak for the entire house, but this is how I feel … It immediately drops the apartment’s value … their apartments drop 30% in value … I’m no expert in the details, but the price goes down if Ethiopians come. I don’t care who lives here, I’m not racist. But when I leave the building where I have lived for the past 16 years, the rest of the tenants will look at me as a traitor because I sold to Ethiopians. I don’t want to ruin my relations with my friends.’
Health: the blood scandal and birth control
One of the most shocking scandals illustrating the treatment of Ethiopian Jews in Israel was the discovery, in 1996, that blood donated by them was being thrown out by the hospitals. When it was revealed that this had been going on secretly for years, apparently due to irrational fears that their blood would be contaminated with HIV, thousands of Ethiopian Jews demonstrated and clashed with police outside Prime Minister Shimon Peres’s office. This act of deception and racial profiling marked a new low point in the relationship between Ethiopian Jews and Israelis. As one protester said:
We fight and die in the army, go on to study, but that is not enough. It’s inconceivable that a person comes to donate blood and is tricked into thinking that he is saving another life … He sits, a needle enters his body, a considerable amount of blood is drawn from him, and yet the minute he turns his head they toss his blood in the garbage.
What is even more surprising, however, is that, despite the outcry in the 1990s, this insult was repeated again ten years later. In November 2006, over 200 people took part in a protest outside government offices in Israel to protest against the ‘decision by the Health Ministry to discard donated Ethiopian blood. “We won’t allow our blood to be spilled like this. The Torah says that blood is the soul. How can this country treat us, fellow Jews, this way?” asked Gadi Yabarken, one of the protest’s organizers.’
In another health-related controversy, it was reported by Jonathan Cook in 2010 that: ‘Health officials in Israel are subjecting many female Ethiopian immigrants to a controversial long-term birth control drug in what Israeli women’s groups allege is a racist policy to reduce the number of black babies.’ Figures showed that 57 per cent of those prescribed Depo Provera in Israel were Ethiopian women, despite the fact that Falasha represent only around 2 per cent of the entire Israeli population.
‘This is about reducing the number of births in a community that is black and mostly poor,’ said Hedva Eyal, the author of the report by Woman to Woman, a feminist organization based in Haifa, in northern Israel. ‘The unspoken policy is that only children who are white and Ashkenazi are wanted in Israel,’ she said … The contraceptive’s reputation has also been tarnished by its association with South Africa, where the apartheid government had used it, often coercively, to limit the fertility of black women … ‘The answers we received from officials demonstrated overt racism’, Ms Eyal added. ‘They suggested that Ethiopian women should be treated not as individuals, but as a collective group whose reproduction needs controlling.’
Segregation in education
Ethiopians suffer from discrimination at every stage of the education system. From nursery onwards, they are frequently faced with the blatant racism of teachers and Israeli educational institutions as a whole. Very few Ethiopian high school students go on to get places at university. For example, the parents of one supposedly disruptive student were told by his teacher that the appropriate punishment was his removal from the class, claiming that, ‘this Ethiopian boy is a nuisance not only to other Ethiopians but to the Israelis in the class as well’. In another case, ‘in a kindergarten in southern Israel Ethiopian children were removed from the school after other children’s parents protested that there were too many of them.’
In an elementary school in Petah Tikva in 2007, four Ethiopian students were put in a separate classroom and kept segregated from the other students. The father of one student said, ‘We are being discriminated against for being black and powerless.’ Ynet News reported that:
Ethiopian immigrants were consequently placed in a separate classroom at the very end of the school corridor. One teacher alone was allotted for teaching them all of the various academic subjects. Moreover, the girls were assigned different recess hours to their peers, and given cab fare home so that they would not ‘overly socialize’ with the rest of the girls.
Racial slurs are also common within the education system. One student, 18-year-old Asher Balata, was expelled just a few months shy of his high school graduation after hitting his principal ‘because he called me a nigger’.21 While many schools try to justify discrimination against Ethiopian students on the grounds that they are behind educationally, many Falasha parents feel that racism is the true basis for their children’s mistreatment. As one father put it, unsure whether or not his son would be allowed to enrol in school for the new term, if ‘they won’t accept the boy … it’s because he’s black’.
That so many Falasha children live in poverty also has an impact on their education. For instance, most Falasha children do not register for any sort of nursery or pre-school programmes before the age of 4, primarily because their parents cannot afford the places, the fees for which can be as much as $350 per child per month. This inevitably places them at an educational disadvantage compared to their white Israeli peers who can afford to pay. A disproportionately high number of Falasha children drop out of high school before graduation in order to try to enter the workforce as early as possible, in an attempt to subsidise their families’ already paltry incomes.
Discrimination in the workforce and the army
Discrimination against Ethiopian Jews in the workforce is also rampant. According to a report in the Telegraph, a recent study revealed that ’53 percent of employers preferred not to hire Ethiopians, who nevertheless still fared better than Arabs with an 83 percent rejection rate. The study also found that 70 percent of employers tended not to promote Ethiopians.According to another study, out of 4,500 Falasha who graduated with degrees, only 15 per cent managed to find work in their field, with others finding primarily temporary, unrelated work. ‘It boils down to racism’, said Adam Baruch, a Falasha activist. ‘I have applied for jobs and when the employer hears my voice over the phone there is no problem. But when I turn up for the interview with my black skin, suddenly the job is no longer available. There is also said to be an ‘unfair testing system used by the Civil Service, with culturally biased tests automatically disqualifying Ethiopian-born candidates from qualifying for certain government positions.’
While Palestinians are on the receiving end of the bulk of the Israeli Army’s venom and blood lust, within the ranks of the army itself, it is Ethiopian Jews who are being subjected to degrading treatment and humiliation on a regular basis. Over the years, there have been many reports of Ethiopian army personnel who have committed suicide as a direct result of their treatment. Examples of racist treatment include one soldier being ‘thrown out of an army clinic by a major who told subordinates to post a sign saying “No Kushis [blacks] allowed”. “I went to my room and cried for an hour and a half”‘, the humiliated soldier said.
According to Max Blumenthal, ‘by 1997, six years after an airlift brought the second wave of Ethiopian immigrants to Israel, Ethiopian soldiers accounted for 10 percent of army suicides – but comprised only four tenths of a percent of the army. Racism was a key factor in the epidemic.’ One 22-year-old soldier killed himself after telling his niece, ‘Every morning when I get to the base, six soldiers are waiting for me who clap their hands and yell: the Kushi is here!’
Pawns in a political game
As Ethiopian immigration continued into the 1990s, another controversy that has received relatively little attention is the way that many new immigrants have been used to flesh out the number of settlers in the West Bank. Israeli settlements are illegal. The UK’s minister for the Middle East, Alistair Burt, reaffirmed this on 20 May 2011, when he said of settlement activity, ‘it is illegal under international law and should stop’. Thus, the practice of sending new immigrants to live in illegal settlements clearly puts them in an invidious position. Adisu Massala, the first Ethiopian-born Knesset member, said: ‘Netanyahu is exploiting the Ethiopians. He is using them to encourage settlers, to show that he wants settlements more than peace. Many do not know anything about the settlement controversy and are just happy to be in ‘Israel’ and, for others, even if they wanted to object to living in a settlement, as Adisu says, ‘They are afraid to say anything … some are afraid they’ll be sent back’. Dedi Zucker, another legislator, said that he ‘would not object if the Ethiopians chose to live in the settlements of their own accord, but they had no choice in this. They were taken to Ofra, not knowing where they were going … from their first day in Israel, they are settlers. And they don’t even know what that is.
Another major area of sensitivity has been the way the Falasha have been made to feel that they are in some way lesser Jews in relation to their faith and practice. Upon their arrival, Beta Israel have been forced to undergo a renewed ‘conversion’. Among other things, this consisted of symbolic circumcision (now no longer required) and a ritual bath (immersion in a Mikveh) as a symbolic renewal of their Jewish identity. This was understandably taken as a clear insult, given that many Ethiopians consider themselves to be direct descendants of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba and, therefore, of a purer bloodline than many of the European Jews who were calling for their ‘conversion’. However, under the Law of Return, ‘the Ethiopian Jews must undergo a process of conversion to Judaism in order to receive all the financial benefits of new immigrants and, thus, must concede, however degrading the process may be.
Even when the Falasha have fulfilled the initial requirements, they are still not left to practise freely in the way that they would if they were truly free and equal in Israel. In some areas, for example, there are no Ethiopian synagogues at all. In an interview, one Falasha, Kess Hadane, said:
I go to the Israeli synagogue and we pray in Hebrew, not Ge’ez. I was a respected religious leader and in charge of twenty-five synagogues in Ambover. Here I am only allowed to assist a rabbi in one synagogue. There is not even an Ethiopian synagogue in Bet Shemesh, where there are more than a hundred families.
Even beyond that, some of Israel’s stronger orthodox groups, such as Habad, do not ‘recognize Ethiopians as Jews or allow their children into its kindergartens’. The Ashkenazi Jews of European descent regard themselves as being at the top, with Sephardic or Mizrahi and Ethiopian Jews being at the bottom of the scale – if they are considered as being on it at all. There has never been a Mizrahi or Sephardic prime minister, for example, and the vast majority of Knesset members are Ashkenazi.
Increasingly, Israel is being seen as a racist and exclusionist state. Its subjugation and abuse of Palestinians living within Israel (20 per cent of the population), as well as those living under the Israeli military occupation of the Occupied Palestinian Territories, are well documented and have led to it being called an apartheid state. What is less well known, however, is just how ingrained and insidious racism in Israel actually is, in that it not only extends to Palestinian Christians and Muslims, but also to Jews who come from ethnic minority backgrounds. Jews who were once supposedly welcomed into Israel as brothers and sisters in faith now find themselves relegated to the underclass in Israel. While they may be placed far above Palestinians, they are nonetheless far below non-black Jews.
In Ethiopia, it is true that the Falasha had to contend with poverty, famine and drought, but, in Israel, people who once had strong familial and societal ties are finding their community plagued with high levels of unemployment, a shift in social hierarchies, an erosion of their traditions, an increased level of criminalisation of their youth and other social ills. They are finding themselves confined to ghettos, discriminated against in the workplace, insulted by scandals such as the blood donation fiasco and subjected to interracial attacks, which appear increasingly prevalent. It appears that elements of Israeli society are crumbling from within, and endemic and institutionalised racism is certainly a contributing factor.