While shopping yesterday at that bastion of American consumerism, Macy’s, I was assisted by a middle-aged gentleman with an unusual last name on his nametag who noticed my “Israeli wallet”– officially known as my “Teudot Zehut” and commented how much he loved Tel Aviv where he had married his wife. When I told him I had lived there for 12 years, his expression changed to one of open admiration and he started calling me “sister.” He went on to say he was planning a trip back to Israel shortly for several weeks. I expressed jealousy for his ability to visit my beloved adopted city.
While we were exchanging our views regarding our shared history and unbeknownst to either of us, Tel Aviv was the scene of rioting ala Baltimore, Maryland, which is a short hour away from where we were shopping. For those who would try to understand rioting with racial undertones without ever having witnessed it firsthand, it is a frightening thing to behold. For those who would try to compare the two public episodes in order to understand the reasons behind it, the similarities stop at the economic disaffection shared by those on the lower rungs of society. What remains a mystery to me is why there should be such a demarcation in Israeli society in the first place? America has episodically seen racial tensions flare up since Jim Crow days, but Israel? The unemployment rate for Baltimore’s blacks hovers at 35% according to social services estimates. I do not know what the percentage of unemployment of Israel’s Ethiopian community is, but clearly, it is not the same as the rest of Israel’s population. The older immigrants suffer from chronic unemployment primarily due to a lack of language skills that the younger generation of Ethiopians born in Israel do not experience.
Ethiopian Jews were brought to Israel by the thousands in various waves since before the state was founded. They have formed a loyal and solid block of support for the State and her institutions, while at the same time, being denied a “place at the table.” Indeed, it is only recently that Ethiopian Israelis have been elected to the Knesset and this is a scandal in and of itself. They are seriously under-represented in Israeli government circles while at the same time, they serve their constituents well in all government entities from the Israeli Defense Forces to the Police and Border Guards.
What will heal the wounds of Ethiopian Israelis which apparently have been festering for decades will require a revolution—not a revolution borne in violence; but rather, a revolution of thought and practice for putting to work the vast numbers of Israeli citizens who are lacking a proper education and have been marginalized by a predominantly white Israeli society. As scandalous as it is to hear a Sephardic Jew insult an Ashkenazi Jew based on the color hue of their skin and vice versa, it is much worse to have any Israeli citizens being denied their rightful place in society due to their skin color. This behavior must stop or it will prove the unraveling of the State of Israel. Seething racial tensions do more damage than rockets. If you don’t believe me, then ask anyone who lived in the 14th Street, N.W. corridor in Washington, D.C. following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Many of those once-Jewish-owned businesses were destroyed in the riots and those businesses never recovered.
As someone who grew up in the South and knows full well that racism has not been eradicated in the U.S. no matter how many black American Presidents are elected, Israel is able to rapidly adopt changes and address the discrimination her citizens feel they are experiencing. If she can cause a worldwide revolution with her high tech industry, she can assimilate her own citizens better so that riots will not happen ever again. You would help your brother or sister fellow Jew, wouldn’t you? My black brother at Macy’s would appreciate a prompt reply.