Israel is not a racist nation

Last week, another report was released that an Ethiopian male had murdered his wife before subsequently committing suicide. Sadly, this tragic phenomenon is happening over and over again in the Ethiopian community. Social workers claim that it is the result of the frustration experienced by Ethiopian men in Israel. Many are either unemployed or have been forced to take inferior jobs while their wives are gradually becoming more emancipated and entering the job market. This means that the men are no longer the sole “masters” in their homes.

At the same time, hundreds of Ethiopians took to the streets in stormy protests, accusing “white” Israelis of racism against their community. As a result, Israelis have been asking themselves the following pertinent questions: “Where did we go wrong with the Ethiopian Jews? Have we failed them and become a racist nation that discriminates people because of the color of their skin?”

There are indeed many cases where people, neighborhoods, and even schools have badly mistreated members of the Ethiopian community. Many of these racist incidents have received angry criticism at the hands of the media, the nation’s leaders and the great majority of Israelis.

So where did we, as a society, go wrong?

Actually, I strongly believe that we haven’t gone wrong. With immigrants hailing from 109 countries and expected to amalgamate seamlessly into society in such a short period of time, Israel is very much a unique case among the nations. Throughout Israel’s history, people of different ethnic origins have at one time or other complained of discrimination.

Does anyone remember the “Lul” comedy sketches on aliya produced by Uri Zohar et al circa 1970? Anyone with modern, “politically-correct” sensibilities might just cringe at their overt mocking of all immigrant groups. The films depict how each immigrant group criticized and discriminated the arrivals of each subsequent immigrant groups, and pokes fun indiscriminately at all ethnicities.

Does anybody remember the discrimination of the Yemenites? Or the Moroccans, the “Mizrahis”, and the Sephardic Jews coming from the Balkans? Does anybody remember the attitude of the Ashkenazi Establishment towards the olim from North Africa and the resulting formation of the “Black Panthers?” Or the animosity of Soviet Jews toward Polish immigrants, or the hostility of the Moroccans toward the Russians, or any other number of racial feuds between different immigrant groups?

Each wave of immigrants was insulted by something different. The Moroccans claim they were humiliated because upon their arrival they were sprayed with the insecticide DDT. But so were the Poles and the Romanians and the Iraqis. Other immigrant groups claim that they were lodged in inadequate trailers. But many of us, from North Africa and even from Europe, spent years in tents or huts, and yet no one took to the streets in protest.

The Israel Association of Ethiopian Jews claimed that the institutionalized segregation of Ethiopian students in the education system is discriminatory. Well, back when I was in school in a poor immigrant neighborhood in Jaffa, we had a class for Israeli-born kids and a separate class for new immigrants, who were taught basics that the “Sabras” had learned long before. This wasn’t viewed as a bad thing, since the new immigrants were able to advance in their studies at their own pace.

As a Sephardi from Bulgaria, when I started working at “Davar” newspaper (a publication of the Histadrut), many Bulgarian Jews asked my father how I ever managed to secure a job in such an Ashkenazi stronghold. When a close friend of mine proposed to his girlfriend, a Sabra girl from Polish origin, her father apparently told her “You’re better off bringing home a “Yaponchik” (Japanese) than a “Frenk” (Sephardi).

Yet over time, we gradually found our places in society. Today, no Bulgarian Jew would ever claim that he is discriminated against because of his origin, and this is also true of many other groups, like the Iraqis, who integrated smoothly into the fabric of Israeli society.

The newcomers, especially the younger generation, were and are judged by merits and not by their names. These days, self-appointed knights of equality like Shlomo Ma’oz— the analyst who was fired from the “Excellence” firm—“exposes” that there are more Ashkenazis than “Mizrahis” occupying high positions in the business world. In fact, this is also true as far as the universities are concerned, and in many branches of government.

But can discrimination really be the reason for this being the case? Nonsense!

The truth is, quite simply, that European and American immigrants arrived in Israel armed with a more superior education. Many of the Jews from Morocco and Yemen and Ethiopia didn’t even study in high schools let alone universities, resulting in their being bypassed in the job market. That was the case for the “desert generation.”

However, their sons and daughters are–in most cases–getting an education equal to that of their Ashkenazi brothers and sisters; and the results are impressive. Already the hi-tech whiz kids hall of fame is studded with Mizrahi last names – and rightly so. Someday soon, Ethiopian last names may join their ranks.

Yet, let’s not get carried away. Pockets of discrimination still exist and feelings of being discriminated against still stoke fires within the Sephardic and Mizrahi communities. But with the growing numbers of inter-community marriages, in 50 years Israelis will be unable to tell you to which ethnic group they belong.

The real problem is that upon arrival in Israel, the social structure of many communities is shattered. That is to say, the social order, mores, and people in authority were dwarfed by the laws and mores of a modern, democratic and utterly egalitarian society. The resulting crisis affected various communities but those who suffered the most were the Ethiopians. The transition from a rural African society with a hierarchical, tribal system, into a sophisticated, hi-tech-driven industrial society—in which each man is for himself—can be an utterly painful experience.

Ignoring the color factor would also be unwise. Discriminating against people based on their skin color is sadly a phenomenon which exists and therefore Israel needs to invest in its educational resources to combat that. But these things take time and we shouldn’t expect miracles to happen overnight. Feelings of discrimination and intolerance may haunt Ethiopians for years to come, but eventually, just as has happened with other immigrant groups in the past, future generations will be fully integrated into Israeli society.

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