Thursday,20 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1245, (7 - 13 May 2015)
Thursday,20 September, 2018
Issue 1245, (7 - 13 May 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Race versus religion in Israel

Race riots in Tel Aviv and other Israeli cities have drawn attention to the plight of Ethiopian Israelis in a state that is supposed to be for all Jews, writes Gamal Nkrumah

Al-Ahram Weekly

The Israelis have created another variant of Judaism. It is hard to explain why Ethiopian Jews, the Beta Israel Jews better known as the Falasha, left their homeland for Israel. The motive can hardly have been religious freedom.

Political and social developments in contemporary Israel require a new definition of Judaism, since Israel has shown itself to be incapable of organising an egalitarian society on a rational and non-racist basis.

Nationwide protests by Israeli Jews of Ethiopian descent spun out of control on Sunday and Monday, when more than 2000 Ethiopian Israelis gathered in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv after an Israeli soldier of Ethiopian descent was beaten by Israeli police.

Race riots spread across Israel motivated by social and economic factors. On Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with Damas Pakedeh, the Israeli soldier of Ethiopian descent assaulted by Israeli police.

The protesters were complaining about the racism they face in Israel and rabbis who have tried to force their version of the Jewish faith on Ethiopian Jews whom they consider to be heretics.

Israeli police showered the protesters with tear gas when images of two Israeli police officers were shown assaulting an Ethiopian Israeli Defence Force (IDF) soldier in an apparently unprovoked attack. All hell then broke loose.

Ethiopians occupy the lowest ranks in the IDF. Most of the 125,500 Ethiopian Israelis were born in Israel and do not know their original motherland. Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat arrived at the protest to try to defuse the tensions, but the beatings of Ethiopians have become a familiar scene in Israel.

Rejecting the authoritarianism, lack of democracy and sometimes abject poverty they faced in their homeland, the Ethiopian Jews may have been drawn to Israel by dreams of wealth only to be befuddled by the rampant racism in the country.

They were lured by the prospect of a just and glorious civilisation, one that could revive the splendours of their ancient historical past. But as it is, protesters marched through central Tel Aviv at the weekend, bringing traffic to a standstill and blocking both sides of the Ayalon Freeway for over two hours.

Marriages between Ethiopians and non-Ethiopians in Israel are rare. Ethiopian Jews have never quite integrated into Israeli society, and they have always been discriminated against because of their race and colour. Studies show that most Israelis consider a daughter marrying an Ethiopian to be unacceptable.

Ethiopian, Moroccan and Yemeni Jews are all discriminated against in Israel because of their colour. Israel, a European colonial-settler state, has always privileged Jews of European descent over those from other parts of the world.

In Ethiopia the numerous texts testifying to the settlement of Jews in the Abyssinian highlands include the Nagara Muse (The Conversation of Moses), Mota Aaron (Death of Aaron), Mota Muse (Death of Moses), Teezaza Sanbat (Precepts of Sabbath), Ardeet (Students), Mashafa Saatat (Book of Hours), Abba Elias (Father Elijah), Mashafa Malaekt (Book of Angels), Mashafa Kahan (Book of Priests), Darsana Abraham wa Sara Bagabs (Homily on Abraham and Sarah in Egypt), Gadla Sosna (The Acts of Susanna) and Baqadami Gabra Egziabher (In the Beginning God Created).

Zena Ayhud, or “The Story of the Jews,” is particularly revealing, as is Falsafa (Philosophy). These two books are not considered particularly sacred, but they do account for the ancient tradition of Judaism in Ethiopia.

Almost alone among the world’s Christian Churches, the Ethiopian Orthodox Tawahedo Church, like the Jews and Muslims, forbids the consumption of pork. The liturgical language of Ethiopian Jews, like their Christian compatriots, is Geez, a Semitic language closely related to ancient Southern Arabian Arabic.

The Qemant community in Ethiopia who practise an ancient form of Judaism have overwhelmingly converted to Christianity and have eschewed their ancient Agaw language and now consider themselves to be either ethnic Amhara or Tigrinya. The Israeli religious authorities do not consider the Qemant to be Jews since they practise so-called “Hebraic paganism.”

Mount Herzl in Jerusalem has become a memorial to Ethiopian Jews who died on their way to Israel. Uprooted Ethiopian Jews in Israel, especially those of the second and third generation, are mostly secular. Ethiopian Jews who converted to Christianity, the Falash Mura, are not accepted as Jews by Talmudic rabbis in Israel.

“Those Jews who come from the Land of Kush are without doubt from the tribe of Dan,” note the ancient texts. Aliyah activists in Israel attempted to attract Jews from Ethiopia and assist them in resettling in Israel in the late 1970s, helping them to make their way through Sudan.

This clandestine “Operation Solomon” was hastened towards the middle of the 1980s when Ethiopia underwent several crippling famines, and the exodus was facilitated by Israel’s “Law of Return.”

Isolated from the rest of Israeli society, the Ethiopian Israelis bonded tightly together once they were in Israel. Ironically, many now dream of a better life in their original homeland, feeling increasingly dispirited in Israel.

This week’s race riots in Israel demonstrate the contempt of Ethiopian Israelis for the racist European colonial-settler state in which they live. In their protests they desired to reject the Manichean Zionist worldview espoused by the powers that be in Israel.

The semi-mystical belief that nothing must impede Zionism’s historical mission was shattered over the past few days. Israel has shown that in the Zionist view not all Jews are equal. Zionism permeates all facets of life in Israel, including politics, making it a state created and maintained by brute force.

One of the most ubiquitous social practices in Israel has been the cult of community represented by the kibbutzim. Yet, as this week’s events show once again it is racism, not community, that is at the heart of Israeli culture.

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