Upon her arrival in Israel a month ago, Meron Estefanos had some choice words of criticism about the treatment meted out to African refugees in the country.
Estefanos hosts an underground radio program in which she interviews via phone men, women, and children from her native Eritrea who are being held for ransom in the torture camps of Bedouin gangs in the Egyptian Sinai.
Often times, Estefanos also visits Israel to meet with these individuals, who are released at the Israeli border once their ransoms have been paid.
Estefanos has documented the frightening future facing Eritreans once they enter Israel. She has recounted the sad stories heard from these refugees, who are often abandoned on city streets or left to languish in desert jails.
Sadly, the fate of these Eritreans is shared by many African refugees in Israel who have been treated as criminals by the Israeli government, which is intent on forcing them out of the country.
Estefanos has expressed her disappointment with American Jews who raise their voices to demand justice for African refugees in every country except for Israel. But, she has been the most concerned by the response these refugees have received from Jewish Israelis who are themselves black Africans, namely, the country’s Ethiopian population.
Migration to Israel: The Case of Jewish Ethiopians
Disappointing is too soft a word to describe the reception non-Jewish people from Africa have received from average Israelis in recent years.
They have had their shop windows shattered, have been assaulted in the streets, have been firebombed, and have been run roughshod out of many towns in Israel.
Because at least one-third of the country’s Jewish population supports their actions, Israelis who commit these violent crimes only receive a slap on the wrist.
As Estefanos points out, Ethiopian-Israelis seem to be just as unsympathetic to the fate of African refugees, as their “white” Israeli counterparts.
Estefanos has recounted stories of Ethiopian-Israelis who work for the Israeli government as translators, using their Tigrigna-language skills to trick Eritrean refugees into making statements that will ensure they are incarcerated. She has also spoken of Ethiopian-Israelis who take advantage of the precarious legal state of many Eritreans, using dubious practices to extort them out of huge sums of money they cannot possibly afford to pay.
Given their broadly common backgrounds, relatively similar physical appearances, and comparable experiences with institutional discrimination and grass-roots racism, Estefanos rightly expects Ethiopian Jews to stand in solidarity with their black brothers and sisters, and insist they be treated fairly, without regard to their race or religion.
Throughout Israel’s history, Jewish immigrants have been greeted by veteran Israelis with open arms as well as nativism, classism, and racism.
It is almost a national tradition for Jews, many of whom can only claim to have been in Israel for a relatively little while, to heap scorn upon the newest arrivals, especially those who are poorer and darker-skinned than themselves.
On Israel’s socio-economic scale, Ethiopians certainly occupy the lowest rung.
They immigrated to the country most recently – the last large wave came in 1991 with the most recent stragglers arriving only a few months ago – and they are surely the darkest-skinned.
As in most other countries around the globe, white supremacy is the order of the day in Israel.
On the racist color spectrum, people have privilege in inverse relationship to the pigment of their skin, and in this, Israel is a classic pigmentocracy.
Of all the Jewish ethnic groups in Israel, Ethiopians are without question discriminated against the most. Just a few statistics will suffice to hammer home this point.
Only a fifth of Ethiopian-Israelis matriculate with diplomas that allow them to apply to university. Though Ethiopians make up 1.5% of Israeli society, they account for only 0.7% of Bachelor degrees and only 0.3% of Masters degrees.
Ethiopians make up only 0.2% of Israeli lawyers, 0.17% of Israeli engineers, and 0.02% of Israeli doctors. If 8% of Israelis are employed as managers, less than half a percent of Ethiopian-Israelis work in this capacity.
Only about 25% of Israelis would permit their children to marry Ethiopian-Israel partners, and fewer Israelis than that would be willing to live in a primarily Ethiopian neighborhood.
Discrimination against African Refugees in Israel
But as bad as Ethiopians have it in Israel, Africans refugees have it much worse.
These migrant groups arrived even more recently, only in the last few years. Many fled dictatorial regimes or wars of ethnic cleansing, usually arriving with nothing but the shirts on their backs, both literally and figuratively.
African refugees are as dark as their Ethiopian counterparts, and in the case of refugees from Sudan, often considerably darker.
But what marks these individuals for the worst possible treatment is the fact that they neither practice the Jewish religion, nor are descended from Jews.
While discrimination on the basis of race or religion cannot ever be justified, we can look to their own history of oppression to try to understand and rationalize Ethiopian-Israeli insensitivity to the plight of African refugees.
When one group struggles to make ends meet, the arrival of another group with its own set of needs can be viewed as threatening the distribution of scarce resources.
When one group has been the victim of racist abuse, some of its members may find refuge in the limited set of privileges to which they have access. They may even guard the system of oppression with great vigilance for fear of losing what little security they have accrued.
While this may explain the behavior of Ethiopian-Israelis, it is still disappointing when some members of this group join in the chorus of Jewish voices demanding all African refugees be expelled from Israel simply because they are not Jews.
It is doubly disappointing when Ethiopian-Israeli elites – those members of the community who have beaten the odds and achieved success in academic and professional realms – abandon non-Jewish refugees to their frightening fate and refuse to speak out on their behalf.
Social Justice Activism in the Ethiopian-Israeli Community
In January 2012, the Ethiopian-Israeli community experienced a mini-renaissance of political activity.
According to a report on Israeli television, an entire neighborhood in the town of Kiryat Malachi had secretly conspired not to sell or rent apartments to Israelis of Ethiopian decent.
News of the scandal mobilized the younger generation of Israeli-born ethnic Ethiopians to demand an end to race-based discrimination rife within Israeli society.
News of the Kiryat Malachi conspiracy came exactly a year after another infamous incident in which hundreds of Israelis collectively decided to prevent non-Jewish people, including Africans, from renting apartments in Israel.
In this case, the racist conspirators were not only average Israelis but also the chief rabbis of hundreds of cities and towns across the country, all of whom were on the public payroll.
The target of their boycott was not Ethiopian-Israelis but rather African refugees and all other non-Jews residing in the country.
In this case, there was no need to keep the conspiracy secret – in fact, the prohibition against renting to Africans was publicly proclaimed.
In Israeli society, race-based discrimination is at least officially frowned upon, and those that trade in this dirty currency ply their trade behind closed doors.
But religiously based discrimination need not be covered up. In fact, it is a source of pride for a great many Israelis.
The rabbis who orchestrated the apartment boycott were never fired from their cushy state-financed jobs, but rather had their budgets increased.
When these racist rabbis issued their anti-African edict, the Ethiopian community should have raised their voices in protest, on point of principle – but they did not.
When the Kiryat Malachi incident occurred, Ethiopian-Israelis had the opportunity to right this wrong and demand an end to discrimination on any basis, whether racial, religious, or otherwise.
Sadly, they failed to do so.
Days after the first news report about Kiryat Malachi, a group of young Ethiopian-Israeli activists gathered at Beit Ha’am, a new hub for progressive activity in central Tel Aviv, to plan a big anti-racist rally.
Earlier in the day, 4,000 Israelis had demonstrated in downtown Kiryat Malachi, but almost all participants were of Ethiopian origin.
Organizers wondered how they could rally larger numbers in Tel Aviv and attract Israelis of other ethnicities to demand racial justice.
Despite an impassioned appeal urging them to speak out against racism toward African refugees and other non-Jews, the Ethiopian organizers unanimously ruled out the possibility of doing so.
While the apartments of African refugees were torched across the country, these “anti-racism” activists refused to publicly condemn the crescendo of hate. The only dissenting voice among these organizers was a black Palestinian-Israeli, the only person attending the meeting who was not Jewish.
The subsequent anti-racist rallies organized by this group were rife with irony. Many Ethiopian-Israeli protestors carried signs that referenced the words and appropriated the iconography of the great African-American revolutionary, Malcolm X.
Yet, if the man himself, a pious Muslim, was to have stepped foot in the country, many of those same Ethiopian-Israelis would have likely bitterly opposed his presence on religious grounds.
In the aftermath of the Kiryat Malachi controversy, another Ethiopian-Israeli initiative also emerged called Ethiopians United.
Operating primarily on Facebook, the group touted itself as an answer to the community’s problems, especially on the issue of anti-Ethiopian racism.
And yet, a quick perusal of the group’s Facebook feed on any given day revealed various threads discussing inter-community issues peppered with an unceasing stream of racist accusations and Jewish supremacist jokes.
But what may be one of the most revolting examples of anti-refugee racism among Ethiopian-Israelis was perpetuated by Beta Yisrael, a website claiming to be the community’s premier online news source.
Founded by the prominent Ethiopian-Israeli journalist, Yedioth Ahronot’s Danny Adino Abebe, Beta Yisrael sunk to the same level as Israel’s most notorious racists, and greatest historical enemies, when it published a screed this summer accusing African refugees of kidnapping and holding 1,000 Ethiopian-Israeli women against their will.
In other eras, fabricated claims of mass rape and miscegenation were used to incite hatred against Jews.
Today, in Israel, publications like Beta Yisrael use similar allegations to incite hatred against non-Jews.
Last year, another Israeli power broker, now-Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon, made the same accusation against Palestinian citizens of Israel at a Knesset committee meeting, even using the same figure of 1,000 kidnapped Israeli women.
At the same meeting, high-ranking police officials said they lacked evidence to show that even a single incident of alleged kidnapping had taken place.
In the Beta Yisrael article, there was also no support for the claim made against the Eritrean refugees – not one corroborating article was cited, nor did the piece present the name of a single person willing to back up the allegations.
Repeated polite requests over weeks and months to both Beta Yisrael and Danny Adino Abebe via website, Facebook, and e-mail, to ascertain any source at all that could verify even a fraction of these sweeping claims have all been completely ignored.
In the absence of any corroboration for these outlandish claims, and in light of the refusal of Beta Yisrael and Adino Abebe to respond to these queries, one can only conclude that the accusations are a baseless lies against the non-Jewish African community in Israel.
In response to a recent television series that explored Israeli racism toward the Mizrahim, Jews who immigrated to Israel from the Middle East and North Africa, Adino Abebe criticized the series producer for failing to note that Mizrahi-Israelis have often been racist toward Ethiopian-Israelis.
Coming from a person whose own megaphone shamelessly incites racism against non-Jewish African refugees, this hypocrisy dripping from the digital pixels was almost unbelievable.
To be sure, individual Ethiopian-Israelis have come to the aid of non-Jewish African refugees in the country.
During the summer of 2011, a group of Ethiopian-Israelis were active at the J14 social justice tent camp in south Tel Aviv’s Levinsky Park, providing much-needed basic services to African refugees.
During the summer of 2012, when anti-African street demonstrations were a constant feature in south Tel Aviv, several Ethiopian-Israelis attempted to intervene and convince their compatriots to redirect their rage against the government, which had pitted the country’s weakest populations against one another.
Sadly, these noble souls have been few and far between.
The racist pigmentocracy in Israel must be battled with every ounce of energy. While Jewish supremacy is simultaneously trumpeted as a patriotic value, the battle against color-based racism will never, however, be successful.
As long as those who have been forced to the bottom of the social totem pole console themselves by trouncing anyone in the country who is not Jewish, Israeli bigotry will only increase.
*David Sheen is an independent journalist and filmmaker living in Dimona, Israel. Born in Toronto, Canada, Sheen has directed the films The Red Pill and First Earth: Uncompromising Ecological Architecture and was a featured speaker at TEDxJohannesburg 2010. His website is www.davidsheen.com and he tweets from @davidsheen.
** With thanks to Noam Rotem for research.
***Updated on September 26, 2013, to correct the spelling of Danny Adino Abebe’s name.