Debunking Myths: A Black Jew’s outlook on Israel

“How can a black person support Israel and not Palestine?”, I was asked by a police officer last February next to the Israeli embassy in Washington D.C. It was a bitterly cold day, yet the chill of his words cut deeper than the biting wind. All the while, I found myself among a small group of protesters, chanting words filled with venomous hatred against us as they waved Palestinian flags and wore kaffiyehs. Shocked by my very first encounter with antisemitism, I dared to answer his question and said that I’m a black Jew from Israel. His response was like a slap in the face, “Oh, so you’re a black Jew? You probably converted or were adopted by a Jewish family. There’s no such thing as a black Jew.”

Lately, people around the world are increasingly adopting views that paint Israel as a monolithic, all-white society filled by Zionist colonizers. It is, however, far from the reality. In fact, Israel has a remarkably diverse society. It is a melting pot where many different peoples have come together to form a culturally rich country. As a black person who grew up in Israel, I’m a living testament to this diversity and its challenges.

Allow me to offer you a glimpse into my life. As far back as I remember, I and everyone around me have celebrated the differences in our country together; from climbing the mountain on the Ethiopian Sigd holiday, to gorging on pastries on Mimouna with my Moroccan friends, to getting rowdy together at Novigod with my post-Soviet friends, and all the way to Haifa and Nazareth to enjoy Christmas. On Memorial Day, I mourned the loss of my Indian friend, Tomer.

21% of Israeli citizens are Arabs, including Muslims, Christians, Druze, and Bedouins. This together forms a culturally and ethnically diverse country, with Arabs being the largest minority in Israel. In any given country, there is tension between majority and minority populations. Israel is no exception, and given the controversial nature of politics, culture, and religion here, there is always bound to be conflict.

Am I saying that Israeli society is perfect or that racism and discrimination don’t exist here? Of course not. There are minorities in Israel that often face systematic discrimination including employment opportunities, access to resources, and treatment by law enforcement. Take the Ethiopian community for instance. We face police brutality and racial profiling daily. This discrimination has sparked numerous protests. After the killing of Soloman Taka, a 19-year-old Ethiopian boy, at the hands of a police officer in July 2019, I and tens of thousands of others took to the street to protest.

Are these issues in Israel all that different than those faced elsewhere? This is not unique to Israel and every diverse society grapples with prejudice and discrimination. It is a widespread phenomenon, rooted in historical, social, and economic factors that are complex and pervasive. The reality is that no society is free from prejudice.

So why is Israel judged so disproportionately harsher than any other country? Israeli Jews are often presented to Western countries via social media as a homogeneous, white entity oppressing brown Palestinians. This oversimplification tends to place Israel in a single box, failing to represent the diversity in the country and the reality of the situation.

In the face of the recent protests against Israel, which narrative do I fit? The white oppressor, or the brown oppressed?

In my recent visit to Harvard University, I saw that American society is practically divided into two camps. If you support Palestinians, you are perceived as progressive, enlightened, and so-called “woke”. Since the political divide in the US is so binary, it firmly places those in that camp with LGBTQ+ rights, the #MeToo movement, and Black Lives Matter. Congrats! You’re one of the good guys.

If you support Israel, then you’re joining the other camp, the bad guys. If you’re Jewish, then you’re already in it regardless of your support for Israel. Here, you’re labeled as anti-immigrant, racist and misogynist.

I believe there is a middle ground where different perspectives can coexist. It is possible to support Israel while advocating for social justice and empathizing with the Palestinian people. One can be a woman, a minority or part of the LGBTQ+ community and still support Israel.

I urge people to have a deeper understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. See beyond simplistic and binary perspectives. Affiliation with Israel has nothing to do with the color of your skin, it is about human decency and fairness. And to the American police officer I would say, “Yes, there is such a thing as non-white Jews. I was born Jewish, into an Ethiopian-Jewish family and did not have to convert or be adopted to be who I am.”

About the Author
My name is Rivka-Sally Beyna, and I hold a Bachelor's degree in Government, Diplomacy, and Strategy. I serve as a Major in the reserves, in the role of Company Commander at the Home Front Command. I work as the personal assistant to the CEO of the Women's Lobby Organization. In the past, I worked in the Strategic Consulting Department at the Ministry of Public Security.