Michael Hilkowitz

How should a Zionist respond to the Ethiopian protests? Join them!

I am a Zionist. I grew up on stories of an idealized, brave and virtuous Israel. From the Haganah and Irgun fighting to bring Holocaust survivors to the Mandate, to The Burma Road, to the Six Day War, to Entebbe, and Operations Moses and Solomon. Growing up on these stories about Israel, I thought there was nothing Israel couldn’t do. As I got older, more nuance crept into my understanding of Israel, and as I visited many times, and now living here for the better part of the last decade, I have come to learn that Israel is like any other country, blights and all. It has never diminished my Zionism though, I’ve always felt that Zionism as an ideology is some of the best of what the world has to offer. Zionism gives Israel the opportunity to be a light unto the nations. An example that others can follow.

That is why this past week has been so upsetting to me. I spent Tuesday night at the Shalom junction in Tel Aviv, standing in the heart of the Start-up Nation. As I looked up, I realized I was in between two of the most iconic symbols of modern Israel, The Kirya (Military Headquarters) and the Azrielli mall and office complex. The Israeli military, and the Israeli economy. It would be like an American standing between the Pentagon and 5th Avenue in Manhattan. And there between these two monuments to what Israel can achieve, was a protest about what Israel hasn’t been able to achieve. For all our military achievements, our commercial successes and our technological advancements, the Zionist dream, Hertzl’s dream, is being denied to Jews living in Israel. That night, Israel’s Ethiopian community vented the frustration and pain of years of their voices being ignored, and their equal place in the family of the Jewish people being denied.

When I talk with Israelis, of many different backgrounds, about the situation of the Ethiopian community in Israel, most of them readily admit there is a problem. I can’t count the number of times I have heard, after the uniquely Israeli sucking of the teeth, “it’s terrible what happens to the Ethiopians.” Every mainstream politician from the Prime Minister to town mayors lament the problems in public statements. Newspapers and television run stories on the problems. I rarely see anyone deny the hardships faced by the Ethiopian community.

This is where I get lost though. While a vast majority of Israelis freely admit to the problems facing the Ethiopian community in Israel today, when I’ve gone to protests organized by the Ethiopian community over the years, I haven’t seen all these people who admit the problems exist. For all the people who say “I support the Ethiopian community” I don’t see them at protests. When I go to a protest about issues facing the Ethiopian community, whether it be protests about the utter lack of any progress to get Avera Mengistu home (an Ethiopian Israeli with mental health problems who crossed the border into Gaza and has been held for close to seven years and counting,) or protests over the beating of Damas Pakada (an Ethiopian Israeli soldier who was beaten by police while he was wearing his IDF uniform,) or the protests over the killing of Yehuda Biadga (A mentally ill Ethiopian Israeli man who was shot dead by police while he was wielding a knife,) earlier this year, or last week protesting the killing of Solomon Tekah, I don’t see the Israeli community, I don’t see the Jewish community, I don’t see the Zionist community, I see the Ethiopian community, and very few others.

For a comparison, over the last few years, the issue of asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan has become important in Israel. Protests against the deportation of Asylum Seekers brought out tens of thousands of Israelis multiple times. I was so proud of Israelis and to be an Israeli when I was at those protests. I was talking to an Eritrean friend of mine about this tonight, and he told me how good it made him feel to know that there were so many other people standing with him. That even in this country that is not his, the people didn’t let him stand alone. Not to diminish the plight of Asylum Seekers, who I am a huge supporter of, but they aren’t Jewish, they are foreigners. How is it that in the State of Israel, the Nation of the Zionist Dream, The One and only Jewish county in the world, that tens of thousands of Israelis come out to support foreigners, but it’s a stretch for a couple hundred to come out for a Jewish community in Israel that faces everyday oppression and discrimination?

The only thing I can come up with is that to really confront the issues facing the Ethiopian community would make Israel really look at itself and see some things it doesn’t want to see.. At our core we are built on the Zionist Dream, the unity of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel. The in gathering of the exiles. The idea that Jews are Jews no matter where they might have been during the diaspora. The issues facing the Ethiopian community present an existential threat to the Zionist Dream more dangerous than Hamas or Iran. If we cannot uphold the ideals of Zionism, where does that leave us as a nation? What is Am Israel if it is only for some Jews? Who are we if we don’t not stand for Jews anywhere they are discriminated against, even Israel. These are the enormous questions that come into play when we start to come to terms with Israel’s treatment of its Ethiopian community. We are often reminded that it has never been outside forces that brought us down as a nation, it has always been baseless hatred between Jews that has doomed our nation.

Further, the issues facing the Ethiopian community make people confront the divergence of the national myth from reality. The Ethiopian Jewish community became part of the national myth of Israel with operation Moses. What is that myth? That Israel lovingly rescued the backward agrarian Ethiopian Jews who had no experience with the modern world and brought them back to Israel helping them to integrate into society so that in a generation they were represented in the Army and Knesset. Another miracle of Israel. Another miracle of Zionism. A light unto the nations of how to improve the lives of even the poorest among us. We get a lot of traction from this national myth too. It is used to defend Israel from charges of racism and European-ism, colonialism and elitism. The Ethiopian community has really become the Hasbaraist’s Swiss army knife.

Unfortunately, the reality is much more complicated. Yes, Israel, in daring and risky operations, brought tens of thousands of Ethiopian Jews to Israel. Yes, Ethiopians have reached high levels in the military and government in just a generation or two. But Ethiopian Jews were forced to go through a conversion when they arrived. Ethiopian Jews have family still left in Ethiopia, waiting years and decades to get to Israel. Ethiopians face over policing in their communities, higher arrest rates, higher rates of violence from the police, they face discrimination in work, in housing, in education and from the Rabbanut.

The reality of Ethiopian integration is not what the national myth would have us believe. But our national myth can not only be saved, it can be added to and advanced. We can truly show the unity of the Jewish people. As the protests restart tonight in Tel Aviv, It is time for Israelis to unify. To personify the Zionist Dream. Imagine the power, imagine the statement that we could make. Imagine one million Israelis from all over the country, from every walk of life, coming to Tel Aviv to stand up for, to stand behind, to stand next to their brothers and sisters in the Ethiopian community. Imagine the voice of one million Jews in unison saying “enough.” Imagine the unifying national moment that could be had, a chance to truly unify the Jewish people, a chance to rejuvenate, protect, and advance the ideals of Zionism.

So tonight, as a Zionist, I am going to make the strongest statement I can in support of Israel and its future. I am going to go out and stand next to my brothers and sisters, and I urge everyone who says “I support the Ethiopian community,” everyone who admits there is a problem, everyone who is afraid for the unity of the Jewish people, everyone who is a Zionist to come out there and stand with us. But let it not only be tonight, we must make sure that changes actually happen. Let tonight be the start of another chapter in the triumphs of Zionism. Let tonight be the beginning of another example that shows Israel can still be a light unto the nations.

About the Author
Michael Hilkowitz holds degrees in History and Secondary Education from Temple University and is a graduate of the Philadelphia High School for International Affairs. He is currently a Masters student in Security and Diplomacy Studies at Tel Aviv University. Living in Israel since 2012, he formerly served as the Chief Content Office for The Israel Innovation Fund, a 501.c.3 working to promote Israeli culture, art, and humanities innovation abroad.