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#BlackLivesMatter in Israel too

Does the Law of Return, that basic tenet of Zionism, not apply to all Jews, regardless of the color of their skin?
Simegnew Yosef Naga, 34, holds up a photo of his grandmother, who lives in Ramle, in his home in Gondar on April 15, 2016. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)
Simegnew Yosef Naga, 34, holds up a photo of his grandmother, who lives in Ramle, in his home in Gondar on April 15, 2016. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)

Whether Jewish or not, black lives matter in Israel too.

As we here in Israel face the proposed deportation of African refugees and foreign workers and we too debate the wisdom of merit-based immigration vs. the provision of sanctuary to refugees of war-torn and famine-stricken nations, we cannot and must not ignore the inherent hypocrisy in our government’s failure to implement its own decisions regarding the aliyah of thousands of Ethiopian Jews left behind in transit camps in Addis Ababa and Gondar. Some of them have been there for 20 years.

In a televised meeting of the Knesset State Regulatory Committee chaired by MK Shelli Yachimovich to discuss their fate, Yachimovich noted: “In a highly exceptional manner which departs from the absorption of any other wave of immigration in the history of Israel, it turns out that in relation to this aliyah, there is a financial limitation. And that the olim will be brought to Israel in accordance with financial needs and budget allocations.

This extremely grave matter defies the ethos of aliyah and absorption upon which the State of Israel was founded, a seminal foundation underlying the State of Israel’s very existence.”

Expressing her personal objection to the discriminatory plan to bring these Ethiopians to Israel in conjunction with the Law of Entry applying to non-Jews — rather than the Law of Return applying to Jews — Yahimovich said, “Were they not dark-skinned, were they 5,000 – 8,000 blonde Jews — I assume that the problem would have been solved…We cannot ignore the fact that a new ethos was found on behalf of this population.”

Praising pressure applied by MKs David Amsalem (Likud), Avraham Negosa (Likud), Eli Alalouf (Kulanu), and Revital Swid (Zionist Union) to foster a unanimous cabinet decision in November, 2015 to bring these Jews to Israel, Yahimovich slammed yet another bureaucratic rationale for delaying its implementation that was this time based on fiscal constraints.

Liora Shimoni, director of the State Comptroller’s social welfare division, explained that this discrepancy is based on a 2008 position paper drafted by the State Comptroller’s Office defining these remaining members of the community as “Falashmura,” Ethiopian Jews who assimilated or converted to Christianity and were therefore not entitled to come to Israel in conjunction with the Law of Return. She agreed with MK Yachimovich that Israel’s subsequent demand that Ethiopian Jews prove their mothers’ Judaism to qualify for the Law of Return did not apply to any other group of immigrants.

Yahimovich noted that her refugee parents (like my own) would not have come to Israel from Europe after surviving the Holocaust — nor would a million immigrants from the former Soviet Union and hundreds of thousands from Morocco — had financial cost to the state and strict proof of Judaism presented similar obstacles.

Were assimilation a disqualifying factor, many members of Israel’s largely secular founding generation and their offspring would have also failed to make the cut. Many of us are far less religiously observant than the “Falashmura” Jews remaining in Ethiopian transit camps who adopted Christianity in name only to avoid the retribution of their Christian neighbors — like the celebrated Anussim of the Spanish Inquisition who are the ancestors of many unquestionably Jewish Israelis.

Moreover, Ethiopians are the only Jews for whom the principle of family unification does not represent an incentive to bring them swiftly and safely to Israel. That this is about race was made all too apparent by the heart-wrenching stories told in the Knesset committee by Israelis who have been separated from their loved ones for year:

Fate Fantawe, a 23-year old biotech student at Bar Ilan University, arrived here with her aunt when she was 9. Her mother was already dead. Her grandmother joined them in 2008. Yet, her father has been waiting for 10 years in Gondar to come to Israel.

During her first visit to Ethiopia since she arrived, she realized that she has been yearning for 17 years for her long-forgotten father’s embrace and a clear image of his face. No reason has been given by the Jewish Agency for the denial of his repeated requests to come to Israel, the most recent filed by her grandmother in 2014. Her aging grandmother’s flagging health was recently compounded by the loss of her youngest daughter and caretaker. Fantawe hopes that her grandmother will live to see her only remaining son, Fantawe’s father. People have suggested that her father come as a tourist for a month and work out his status from here.

“But no,” says Fantawe. “My father is a Jew. He deserves to live here.”

First Sergeant Ejetta Shiloh arrived at the Knesset in uniform. She serves in an IDF Search and Rescue combat unit. The 21-year old hasn’t seen her father in 12 years. She arrived here with her mother. Her parents divorced when she was one. Her father, a Jew, remarried a Christian woman with whom he has three daughters. The family is so poor that Shiloh must send part of her meager IDF salary to them. She only asks that her father join her in Israel.

Surafel Alemo, a 22-year old from Haifa, came to Israel in 2006. He too served in the IDF. His father died 11 months ago. He has a sister living in Israel and three remaining siblings “left behind” in Ethiopia. Alemo says that when he and his sister left Ethiopia, they were told, “They [your remaining family] will arrive in a month or two. Since then I have been waiting 11 years. I call [immigration authorities] every day to ask what is happening – where does it stand? My father didn’t have the privilege of reuniting with his family. Because of you. I served in the army. I fought in Operation Protective Edge. What more do you want? All we are asking is that you bring our families.”

Let’s leave aside for the sake of argument the validity of the Law of Return granting automatic citizenship based on religion. Let’s leave aside the pending deportation of refugees and foreign workers to African nations in which they are not welcome and their lives may be threatened. And even worse, let’s leave aside the deportation of our own “dreamers,” their Israeli-born children who speak Hebrew as well as my own and are culturally sabras.

Let’s even leave aside the Torah’s injunction to “show your love for the alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt (Deuteronomy 10:19).”

Let’s say that our first obligation is to our own and that, as history taught us after the Holocaust, if we fail to take care of our own, no one else will. Let’s go so far as to call the Law of Return a Jewish form of affirmative action.

Does that basic tenet of Zionism not apply to all Jews, regardless of the color of their skin? Can we permit racism to call into question our right to exist as a homeland for the Jewish people?

As the US observes Martin Luther King Day, I am reminded of my favorite MLK quote: “Everybody can be great. Because anybody can serve.” I hope that by writing this blog post, I have in my small way fulfilled Coretta King’s wish that we commemorate her late husband Dr. Martin Luther King’s day by being of service.

Let us all be of service on his day and every day, doing everything in our power to bring the Jews of color who want to come here to Israel and by caring for the strangers of color in our midst. Let us all be great.

About the Author
Varda Spiegel was Nurse-Director of the Bedouin Mobile Unit of the Negev, later serving as Maternal-Child Health Director for the Ministry of Health Jerusalem District. I am the author of Hershele and the Chicken Skates, was the English Web Content Manager for the Israel Museum and have translated from Hebrew to English for Haaretz and the ANU Museum of the Jewish People. I'm a grandmother, mother, and beachbum.
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