Skip to main content

Being black and Jewish: Ethiopians bear the brunt of Israeli state racism

The state’s refusal to fully acknowledge the Judaism of Ethiopian Israelis even now cannot be detached from the fact of their skin colour

Here in Israel, the Jewish-Palestinian conflict has been a kind of red flag for everyone.

The idea that we have an external enemy has injected fear into the public consciousness that has constrained Jewish citizens from real protest, because everything else - economy, health care or other civic issues that every normal society confronts - shrinks into insignificance in comparison to the supposed security threat.

Despite this, the racism against Mizrahi Jews – or Jews who come from the Middle East and North Africa as opposed to Ashkenazi Jews from Europe – has received more attention in recent years.

Some activists and intellectuals in Israel now prefer to be known as Arab Jews to defy the notion that the Arab is Israel’s number one enemy and to push back against an identity imposed by the national Ashkenazi narrative that the Arab Jew is against himself, his culture and his heritage – even against his own God.

The discrimination faced by the Jews of Ethiopia, the only black group to arrive in Israel by virtue of being Jewish, however, has remained largely unheard.

Somehow the clear reality of daily and institutionalised racism toward Ethiopian Jews is not spoken about enough, although some buds are starting to sprout as a result of last year's demonstrations and other acts of protest that received international media coverage.

Yet our experience should oblige the public and the establishment in Israel to grapple more seriously with the issue of racism in Israeli society in its entirety.

Immigrant society

Jewish Israeli society is a society of immigrants from almost everywhere in the world. The coming together of these groups in Israel has given rise to many conflicts, a large subset of which are driven by discrimination against one group and control by another.

Our experience should oblige the public and the establishment in Israel to grapple more seriously with the issue of racism in Israeli society in its entirety

As in many other places, the Europeans have had the upper hand, and in the second and third generation they still do. Israel was ruled early on by a relatively small group of immigrants from Eastern Europe, who founded the state in accordance with their own worldview (not having read, say, Edward Said) and who came from Europe at a time when racism, anti-Semitism and colonialism were accepted as common sense there.

The new state’s language, culture, and idea of what was considered a “real Israeli” were all shaped in that Eastern European image. Every few months in Israel there is another item in the media about some racist pronouncement made by the state’s founders and leaders.

During the 1950s, there was a massive wave of immigrants to Israel from Arab countries. They arrived in a country in which Eastern European Jews had already taken up positions of power and cultivated their connections, while the last to arrive, those from North Africa, the Middle East and Yemen, were pushed to the margins of society in every way, quickly becoming the hewers of wood and the drawers of water in the young nation.

The regime in power settled immigrants in outlying, peripheral communities, hampering people’s opportunities in terms of employment, housing and education and leading to decades of neglect.

These processes are still evident and continue even now: a 2014 study by the Adva Institute suggests that the pay gap between Ashkenazi and Mizrahi Jews in Israel will require another 100 years to be eliminated.

Legitimacy and recognition

It was only in 1973 – when Sephardi Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef made a ruling that recognised Ethiopian Jews as Jewish, making the community eligible to immigrate to Israel – that the Jewish people paid attention to our group. Prior to this ruling, Ethiopian Jews were threatened with deportation on arrival in Israel.

History provides clear evidence for how Judaism cannot be racist, but how the state of Israel, as a Jewish state, has been racist by definition

But relations between Ethiopian Jews and European Jews had in fact been established long before. In 1882, Rabbi Azriel Hildshimer, head of the Orthodox community in Germany, made a call to save the Ethiopian Jews from misery and persecution. In 1912, Rabbi Kook, the head rabbi of Jaffa in Ottoman Palestine, corresponded with other rabbis to promote the cause of Ethiopian Jews. But none of this helped the state of Israel to accept Ethiopian Jews into Jewish society.

It took 36 years after the establishment of the state and 11 years after Rabbi Yosef’s ruling to airlift an estimated 8,000 Ethiopian Jews who were in Sudan during a major famine in 1984 – but not before the death of thousands in refugees camps. Due to the emergency, some decided to act and to make Aliyah ("go up" to Israel) without waiting for the state of Israel to help them.

This history provides clear evidence for how Judaism cannot be racist, but how the state of Israel, as a Jewish state, has been racist by definition.

Since our arrival, Israeli racism has expressed itself not only through racial profiling by the police and by putting Ethiopian Jews into government-designated ghettoes, but also in the way the state has related to the Judaism of Ethiopian immigrants.  

'Not Jewish enough'

In the 1980s, the first wave of children of Ethiopian Jews were enrolled for reeducation in the institutions of Israeli Orthodox Judaism as Ethiopian clergy were not recognised by rabbinic authorities who claimed they were not “Jewish enough”.

The racism did not end there. Many of these children were sent to Orthodox boarding schools, cut off from their parents, revealing two key assumptions: one, that the parents were too primitive to know what an “Israeli” education ought to comprise and, two, at their boarding schools, the children came under the educational control of the Orthodox establishment.

Most of the Israeli Jewish public is not Orthodox and many define themselves as “traditional” rather than “religious,” but the Orthodox establishment, in the absence of any legal separation between religion and state, has tremendous power.

The religious authorities' decision to send Ethiopian Jewish children to these schools meant that families could not choose between secular or religious education and were denied their particular practice of Judaism. These kinds of policies broke the structure of the Ethiopian community and its spiritual leadership.

The state’s refusal to acknowledge the Judaism of Ethiopian Israelis as fully legitimate even now cannot be detached from the fact of their skin colour. The religious Jewish establishment in Israel has been unable to digest the idea of black Jews and this may be the real heart of the crisis between Ethiopian Jewish Israelis and the state of Israel.

Racist actions toward Ethiopian Jews makes the state’s denial of its racism impossible: if until now Israel could say - or at least behave - as if the Arab is the enemy and attitudes toward Arab Jews aren’t really racist and African asylum seekers are rejected only because they are infiltrators, what can be said about Jews who happen to also be black-skinned? That they aren’t exactly Jews, that it’s not exactly racism, that we are all brothers and it’s only about cultural gaps? In other words, a lot of unpersuasive explanations.

Let us be clear-eyed and understand how the establishment diverts the attention of Israelis from issues of real consequence to the day-to-day lives of the populace.

Taking the approach that the Palestinians are the only real enemy allows the Israeli government to keep its citizens in a perpetual state of gnawing, existential anxiety that prevents them from dreaming of the better life they could be living - in peace with all of Israel’s Jews and between Jews and their neighbours, within and without.

- Efrat Yerday is a columnist and a lecturer at Ben Gurion University. Her writing confronts issues of historiography, racism and the lack of opportunities for POC in the Jewish society in Israel.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Ethiopian Jewish women pray during the Sigd holiday marking the desire for 'return to Jerusalem', as they celebrate from a hilltop in Jerusalem in November 2007 (AFP)

Stay informed with MEE's newsletters

Sign up to get the latest alerts, insights and analysis, starting with Turkey Unpacked

Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.