Being Black in Israel

What kind of Israel am I waking up to this morning? As my head nestled into my pillow, the Israel I bid good-night to yesterday was horrid — chairs, bottles, and rocks thrown at police officers, police on horses reportedly stomping some demonstrators underfoot, and then water cannons, stun grenades and tear gas dispersing the crowd. The only political leader I saw on television who came out to meet the demonstrators (maybe there were others I did not see) was Bennett.

This morning, like every other morning, I sit quietly in bed reading Facebook on my cell phone before getting up to start my day. Certainly not a medium meriting any authority as a source of information, it is but a place to take the local temperature and measure the vitals of the world around me. I read first-hand reports and talk-backs claiming that the left planted in the crowd those who began the violence, others claiming that the police did so in order to legitimize their violent response and others saying that it is the racist right that is responsible.

I know that racism has characterized many institutional attitudes toward the Ethiopian-Israeli community. And what are institutional attitudes but those of the people running and working in the institutions? It seems that once we got over marveling at how wonderful we are for having airlifted our black brothers and sisters home from Africa, the natural human tendency to reject what is unfamiliar took hold. The color of their skin and their quiet ways, the white dresses of their women and the white shawls that held their babies on their backs were exotic and a source of curiousity; however, the strong smells of strange foods wafting from their apartments became a source of contention in some apartment blocks and unfamiliarity with their customs became a source of derision and sometimes far worse than that – blatant discrimination.

I cannot speak in generalities and perhaps my particular experience is not indicative of the situation overall (however I suspect it is). I was involved professionally in a case of suspected sexual abuse of a young boy: within hours of a first-time suspicion having reached the ears of the child protection worker, a social worker was sent to snatch the boy off the street on his way home, his mother informed only after he had been placed in a shelter in another town. No translator was provided either for the boy upon his arrival and the duration of his stay, nor for the mother. Had she not still resided in an immigration center, able to bring the center’s own social worker with her to meetings, it is possible no translator would ever have been provided.

Suddenly, a young boy in second grade finds himself alone in a strange place where nobody knows his language or has any understanding of his culture. They are judgmental toward him, seeing his behaviors as indications of pathology or as abuse symptoms without asking themselves if he was not in a state of trauma over the uncalled for separation from his family, his ambush and abduction. Even if he was being abused at home, and it turned out later that there was inappropriate behaviour on the part of a family member who did not live with them, this is not how professionals act when the alleged victim is not a member of the Ethiopian immigrant community – at least, it is not how I teach professionals to conduct themselves.

Just yesterday, after refusing my granddaughter something she wanted, she erupted in loud sobs of indignation. I waited for her to calm down, knowing that this can take a few moments, unwilling to give in to her every whim as that is just not good for her. Someone close by came over and in an unpleasant patronizing manner, a suspicious look in her eyes, asked if everything is okay. When I said it was, she asked for the child’s name as if she thought she could – and should – try to stop her crying. When I refused, she told me she and the whole group she was with are police officers.

In shock, I could only say there was no reason for concern and that if I were beating the child I would give her to them myself. I still shake inside as I write this, embarrassed that such a thing could happen to me and wondering if I will feel from now on that “Big Brother” is watching me and judging my interactions with my granddaughter. While it is important that police (and the general public) are alert when a child may be in danger, this was clearly a case of overkill. Moreover, I cannot help but think that had I had black skin, she would have demanded to see my identity card and that today a child protection worker would knock on my door, or my daughter’s, to make sure the child is not being abused or neglected. I wonder, then: Is this how it feels to be black in Israel?

Might be. It is about time, then, that the Ethiopian Jews who joined us in our homeland are raising their voices and demanding corrective action to the discrimination practiced against them. Perhaps Josh Billings (1818-1885) said it best when he wrote:

I hate to be a kicker,
I always long for peace,
But the wheel that does the squeaking,
Is the one that gets the grease.

I hope that this does not turn into a political free-for-all, with politicians turning a serious social problem into the opportunity to appear more just and caring than they really are, as politicians are wont to do, without doing anything, in fact, to change the situation. I hope we can take this crisis and turn it into the opportunity it has opened up to us and develop truly inclusive and egalitarian communities and institutions at all levels.

I don’t want being black in Israel to feel as bad as it apparently does.

About the Author
Sheri Oz, owner of, is a retired family therapist exploring mutual interactions between politics and Israeli society.