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Israel is not Baltimore

When I was a young girl in Israel, Operation Moses came to Israel. I can still remember the electric atmosphere that took hold of our country and community. “Kibbutz galuyot,” people kept saying, an ingathering of the exiles.

The social pressure of my circle was who could knit the most kippas for the new Ethiopian immigrants. It was exciting. You felt like you were living Jewish history — with a new “tribe,” so to speak, discovered and redeemed back to Israel.

Their harrowing superhuman stories of walking through the blistering Sudan for thousands of kilometers touched us all to the core. Here among us were living, breathing people who sacrificed so much, often heartwrenching separations from family left behind, just to come to the land. To say we were inspired would be an understatement.

Years later I moved to Israel as an adult. I became friendly with the especially warm and kind guards at the Western Wall that I frequented often, bringing them my home-baked challah if I visited on a Sabbath or holiday eve. I became familiar with Idan Raichel, an iconic Israeli singer who developed a particular affection for the Ethiopian Jews, his music a fusion of Hebrew and Amharic. I lived near the Ben Yehuda open market, “The Souk,” where an Ethiopian restaurant was open late, way past the time the souk’s doors were shuttered.

I knew there were some bumps along the road. There was the halachic debate about the Ethiopians’ Jewish status. But with time, it was all smoothed over. Or so I thought.

Naively, and maybe because I too felt an affection for this community of the very gentle people I met, I thought the Ethiopians had been integrated into Israeli society successfully.

Then last week happened. To my great sadness, the anger of marginalization, which apparently has been there all along, exploded.

I keep hearing people expressing sentiments to the effect of: “Look at that, when it comes to racism, Israel and America — no different.” “Israel’s Ethiopians are America’s Baltimore.”

While I will not sugarcoat the very real, painful problems within the Israeli Ethiopian community that reached a fever pitch this week, I will say, there are many basic features that make for very different scenarios and contexts.

I am not exonerating anyone. If an Ethiopian was beaten just because he was Ethiopian, I am sure Israel will investigate this cop’s behavior. If so, it is indeed wrong and morally repugnant, but the police didn’t kill someone.

Until right before the end of the protest last Sunday, for hours since three o’clock that afternoon, the Ethiopian protesters were peaceful. After seven hours, yes, the behavior did turn ugly, but even then there was no looting or actual dangerous behavior.

Much of this is due to the fact that the Ethiopian story in Israel is very different to that of the African-American story in the US — the enduring American conflict.

• While African-Americans set foot on American soil for the first time because they were brought here as slaves, Ethiopians reached Israel fulfilling a lifelong dream to come to the land of their mythic Jerusalem. Israel airlifted Ethiopians to Israel as a redemptive, not enslaving, destiny.

• Israel never had institutional discrimination in place against Ethiopians, akin to the Jim Crow laws of America.

• Ethiopians became full Israeli citizens.

All of this does not negate the fact that Israel may have made many mistakes in integrating Ethiopians into Israeli society. This will not be the first time in Israel’s history when it did less than a stellar job in integrating non-Ashkenazi Jews.

I grew up in proximity to Sephardic Moroccan Jews. Their bitterness was palpable. They felt like second-class citizens. Not to mention the wounds in the Yemenite community, whose religious and cultural heritage was dishonored as it was stripped from Yemenite Jews.

Of course, this was all long ago. Since then Israel has changed, raising at least two new generations of Sephardim (Mizrahim) who are for the most part integrated into Israeli society, not carrying around the bitterness of their grandparents.

Apparently, this is not the case with the Ethiopians.

Granted, many in the Ethiopian community have come far. Just days before the protests began, I read that one of the Israeli citizens honored with lighting the Israel independence torch was Dr. Avi Yitzchak, a prominent Ethiopian citizen. Days later I read of him again, this time as the head of the IDF medical team in Nepal. He was the head of IDF mission to Haiti in 2010, as well.

I’m sure there are many more such successful Ethiopian Israelis across the swath of Israeli society.

Yet the sense that there is discrimination socially, economically and culturally, is real as well. Eating injera and humming an Idan Raichel song — it’s not enough.

The socialization process in the IDF is strong, and this is experienced by many Ethiopians. But it seems the sense of alienation and exclusion is too.

In many ways Israel has done a lot right in its integration of Ethiopians to Israel. But clearly a lot more must be done so the Ethiopians experience a stronger sense of inclusion, and a genuine reality of inclusion.

To be sure, integrating an outside group into a new people and a new culture and empowering the outsiders takes time.

It’s been 20 to 30 years. On the one hand, that is two generations; on the other, it is a blink of an eye  given the monumental changes in the Ethiopian community.

Israel has done much good, but has also made her share of mistakes, and clearly has a way to go on this issue. Real change must follow.

I am immensely proud of Israel for the Operation Moses and Operation Solomon airlifts — miracles of our time. I am proud of the Israeli Ethiopians and their contributions to society, and for just being there.

Like most blessings in life, I suppose “kibbutz galuyot” has its challenges too.

Copyright © 2015 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Tehilla R. Goldberg

IJN columnist | View from Central Park

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