Israel is frequently accused of racism, particularly by those who continue to undermine her right to exist. Despite being forced to fight a war of survival against the Arab nations since independence in 1948, Israel continues to come under a microscope for the way in which she behaves towards Arabs who are Israeli citizens, and those who are not. It is a complex analysis, and not simply an issue of racism. Arab citizens have a completely different status in Israel. Their allegiance to the Jewish state in which they live and which feeds their every need, continues to be under suspicion. They have frequently been found to assist those who wish to destroy Israel. They are not obliged to serve in the nation’s army in the same way as others citizens are required to do. The relationship between Jew and Arab in Israel is not simply about race, but more about Jewish survival in the Jewish homeland. There is, however, another sort of racism that has reared its ugly head in Israel in recent times, and which needs to be stamped out before it is becomes unmanageable.
It seems that the practice of attempting to elevate the status of one population group at the expense of others is almost part of human instinct. Historically, Jews have been victims of those who have tried to increase their own social standing by putting down other weaker groups. The African nation has also suffered from this problem almost wherever their people have found themselves, both within Africa and elsewhere. In modern America, the Mexicans play the role of the fall guys, in India the caste system defines those who are at the bottom of the ladder, Gypsies in Europe are frequently discriminated against and Philippino workers in the countries of the Gulf of Arabia take their place at the bottom of society. This instinct has unfortunately not by-passed Israel.
In the early years of the State of Israel, the country was populated by two distinct groups of Jews. The first group escaped many years of persecution in Europe, and arrived in Israel out of the ruins of the Holocaust that ravaged their population and people. The second group had made their homes in Arab countries of the Middle East and North Africa, and had been forced to endure discrimination for many years, especially during the period when the Holocaust was ravaging Europe. This discrimination became even more acute after the birth of the State of Israel, and many were expelled from their homes. Those in the European group were generally better educated and were well versed in European culture, while those in the Middle Eastern group were less exposed to western values, education and culture. Many clashes took place between these groups, and the human instinct came out in their attempts to elevate themselves to make themselves better than the others. The horrific discrimination that each group had been forced to endure in the years prior to their arrival in Israel had a significant influence on their attempts to better themselves, even at the expense of others. After having been treated as the dregs of society for so long, each group was eager to elevate themselves to the top of society. To be at the top, you need to have somebody who is below you. Hence was born racism and discrimination in Israel, which manifested itself largely in the form of European Jews discriminating against Middle Eastern Jews. The fact that the Middle Eastern Jews were also generally darker skinned than their European counterparts also somehow fitted the standard expectations of discrimination, even though the darker skin was not the source of the discrimination. Despite the fact that these discriminatory views have presented their problems over the years, it is pleasing to note that the problem has been substantially diluted by inter-marriage and the blurring of edges between the two groups. It is also notable that representatives from both groups have reached the upper echelons of business, politics and academia. Nobody will ever forget where they and their families have come from, but the future in Israel looks less defined by these two groups than was previously the case.
Recently, however, racism has again become evident, this time against another weaker population group in Israel. In operations starting in 1984, Jews from Ethiopia were airlifted to Israel in large numbers. Operation Moses saw some 8,000 people brought to Israel and this was followed up with further operations which brought a total of about 80,000 people to Israel. Today, the Ethiopian community in Israel numbers over 120,000. The Ethiopians have become easy targets for discrimination for a number of reasons, and many have taken advantage of this situation
Upon their arrival in Israel, the Ethiopian community was forced to take on an entirely new environment. Many of them had never seen a flush toilet in operation or slept in a bed that was not on the ground. This learning process put them in a very weak position, and made it easy for others to take advantage of them. The Ethiopians show a gentle and mild temperament, and are not outspoken or loud in their actions. In the Israeli aggressive and rough-and-tumble environment, their gentleness is interpreted as weakness. In the Israeli context of whoever screams loudest and shows most aggression will get what they want, the Ethiopian community has lost out significantly. Even though the Ethiopian community has been forced to take on many of the ways of the modern Israeli environment, they have still done their best to maintain some of their traditions and practices from their days in the deserts of Africa. Many of these practices are very different from those in use by other Israelis, and cause some level of friction in residential neighbourhoods. This friction crossed the line last week when it was revealed that residents of some apartment buildings in Kiryat Malachi, had banded together in a pact not to sell apartments in their block to Ethiopian families.
What these people had not realised, is that there is a new type of person that has arisen within the Ethiopian community over the past ten years or so. This is a group of teenagers and young adults who were born in Israel, and have grown up with Israeli style of doing business. While these people are strongly influenced from the home by the traditional Ethiopian style of living, they also know the kind of action that is needed in Israel to be heard and to get what they want. These young adults led other members of the Ethiopian community out onto the streets in protest against the racist practices that are making things difficult for their community. This protest captured the attention of the media and of the nation. It reached the highest levels of the political establishment, and President Shimon Peres responded by visiting a school in Jerusalem that caters to a large number of Ethiopian students. He shared with them his experiences of coming to Israel from Poland at the age of 11, and the taunts that he was forced to endure as a result of his lack of Hebrew and different style of dress. He reassured the children by saying that he found his way of fitting into Israeli society, and he is proof that they can achieve whatever they want – even becoming president of the state.
The Ethiopian community includes some of the most genuine people to be found in Israel today. They gave up everything they knew and their style of living in Africa to come to the Jewish homeland. Despite the fact that their lives and communities have literally been turned upside down by moving to Israel, they are delighted to be in Israel to be allowed to practice their Jewish faith and peace and without the fear of anti-Semitism. They have suffered every sort of discrimination known to any group of people in Israel. Even the Israeli government stands accused of discriminating against the Ethiopians in terms of the help and assistance provided to them. Many were forced to convert as the Jewishness was not recognised at the same time as blood relatives had been accepted as Jewish. The amount of money allocated to the process of acclimatising the Ethiopian community has been a fraction of that required. And yet, they are simply delighted to be in the Land of Israel. While it is understood that not everybody can feel comfortable with the style of living and practices of the Ethiopians, this cannot be the cause of racism.
No matter what the cause of racism, it needs to be stamped out. This is particularly true in a country like Israel where racism has no place at all. The weaker members of our society, usually those who are the victims of discrimination, require greater help and support rather than actions to increase their hardship. This is particularly true of groups like the Ethiopians who have been forced to undergo dramatic changes to their way of life and to the environment in which they live.
It is only by banding together and strengthening the weaker parts of our society, that we will also have the strength to fight the war of survival. The Ethiopians have more than demonstrated their allegiance to this cause, and their willingness to participate in the defence of the State of Israel. The other citizens of Israel need to do all that they can to support and respect this.
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