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Monday, 4 May 2015

Jews Imprisoned by the Colour of Their Skin

“Are ye not as the children of the Ethiopians unto Me, O children of Israel?”

(Amos 9:7)

Israel is the land of the paradox.

Israel.Rose.Garden.Poster“We don’t promise you a rose garden” trilled the famous 1970s Jewish Agency immigrant  recruiting poster.

But Karmiel’s Galilee Park, created from a quarry, includes a rose garden pretty enough to melt the stoniest heart.

While some IDF soldiers have been videoed saving a puppy after terrorists threw it into a barb-wire fence, others have been accused of having lost their ‘sense of morality' during last year’s Operation Protective Edge; of committing ‘war crimes’.

Back in Karmiel, the city police can be laughably silly. They allow drivers to speed round corners without making signals; to flout the strict anti phone-driving laws with impunity.

But soon after we settled here, my husband was cautioned and threatened with a fine by a woman officer  for ignoring a pedestrian crossing when he was on foot. This happened soon  after the egregiously wicked case of the Jewish American boy who was beaten and gang raped in a local police station after being arrested for urinating in a neighbour’s garden. It seems that a simple warning against antisocial behaviour did not suffice!

So I sniffed on learning about the spate of brutal racist attacks by police on young Ethiopian Jews in major cities like Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. It felt like just more of the same.

The police  suspected of beating two immigrants most likely did say “we don’t like blacks”; they probably did retort “because” when their victims asked them why they were being hit. This is ‘because’ there are too many people in Israel, in all walks of life, who are quite unconscionably officious. Give some folk a uniform, add a baton and they become instant ogres.

Many readers will recall the arrest and detention of Anat Hoffman, Executive Director of the progressive Israel Religious Action Centre, for daring to lead women’s prays at the Western Wall. Anat.Hoffman

The incident happened in October 2012 while she was conducting a service to celebrate the centenary of the Hadassah women’s charity organisation.

“I was approached by a police officer, ordered to leave the wall plaza and taken  to  the  nearby  police  station.  A  night  of  humiliation  and  pain  followed”, Hoffman recalled.  She was then handcuffed, strip searched, laid on the bare floor, not allowed to call her lawyer, then dragged on the floor with her hands cuffed before being locked in a cell with a young Russian woman accused of prostitution. “I thought it was a cruel and unusual punishment, but as I found out it was cruel but not unusual. This is how arrests are done in my town, in Jerusalem”.

Many people accuse recently re-elected Israeli Premier Benjamin  Netanyahu of being racist. I don’t believe he is. Instead, I suggest he most  artfully manipulated the racism inherent in some sections of the Israeli electorate to gain an eleventh-hour victory in the election. Then, with quite remarkable audacity, he used almost half of his first speech to the new Knesset on Herzl Day to address  the problems facing the country’s beleaguered Ethiopian community. This is what he said:


“I met earlier with representatives of the Ethiopian community, against the backdrop of the protests in recent days. It was a discussion that went on for three hours, and it was unusually affecting. A mother of five told me how her small children feel trapped, “imprisoned in their lives because of the colour of their skin.” Young people who served in the IDF, in battle, said to me: “We are fighting for the country, we shed our blood, only to encounter shocking racism.” This must not happen in Israel. It is our duty to fight racism and discrimination in every way, from every platform.

“Many have told me, boys and grown men, that they are afraid to go outside for fear of the police. With this too, we must deal: the Israeli police are determined to change this situation from end to end and directives have been handed down. I have no doubt we will be successful in this, because we all understand the need for it and the morality of it.

“I promised the Ethiopian representatives we would deal with the problems that have been weighing on them with immediacy and absolute seriousness: we will uproot from within ourselves arbitrary police violence against members of their community; we will implement plans to close the social gaps–already in the coming budget there is a plan… We will fight with all our strength, and in this I am sure I reflect all members of this parliament — we will fight with all our might any manifestations of racism and discrimination.

“…Sometimes there are moments of crisis–it has happened in the economy, it has happened in other areas like security–where we get a clear warning sign, a blaring siren, and we see the problem. Everyone understands that there is a very big problem, and if we thought that we were dealing with this problem satisfactorily, I think that the events of recent days show us that this problem is much more painful, much deeper, and much more serious. It requires more resources, more attention. It also requires the mobilisation of all public leaders to make clear that Israelis of Ethiopian origin are Israelis in every respect. Their contribution to Israeli society is expansive. Their contribution to Israel’s security is substantial–and this is no surprise.

“In 1862, two decades before Herzl began his Zionist activism, thousands of Ethiopian Jews set out on foot in the direction of Israel. They were overtaken by the ancient dream of the return to Zion. They were ahead of the Zionist movement by many years, and their return demonstrates and reminds us what the purpose of Zionism is. Thus, in the light of Herzl’s vision, we have returned to our ancient birthplace and established in it a modern state. We have established a Jewish and democratic state with an iron principle: equal rights for all citizens regardless of religion, race or sex.

“This principle should always be our guiding principle, and the compass for our actions”.

But it need not be that way. Certainly not for Karmiel’s 1800-strong Ethiopian community, whose members I often see in local shops or enjoying similar cultural and educational facilities to other citizens. Moreover, I’ve heard some younger members speak English as well as Hebrew when serving patients in the health clinic I use. This surely means their education is at least adequate.

Rabbi.Ephraim.Rabbi.MijaelExtra proof of their continuing integration  – should further be needed – is the growing strength of its congregation. My picture (left) shows spiritual leader, ‘Qes’ (Rabbi) Ephraim with Rabbi Mijael Even-David, the immediate past incumbent of Karmiel’s Conservative synagogue. The pair were pictured together during last year’s Yom Ha’atzamut (Independence Day) celebrations. 

In 2001 the community reached an important milestone when it   received  a Torah scroll from residents of the Jewish Association on Ageing in Pittsburgh, USA. This is because Pittsburgh and Karmiel are ‘twinned’ cities. 

But 2014 was personally important for Qes Ephraim. Karmeli-born, he became the first native Israeli qes to visit the Jewish community of Rhode Island, USA. Indeed, it is considered unusual for any qes to travel abroad. There are very few people who have the title and all of them now live in Israel.

I can’t think of a better symbol of the Ethiopian Beta Israel – House of Israel – having come to live back home.


© Natalie Wood (11 May 2015)

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