Ed Gaskin

Israel and its people: A story of diversity and discrimination

Photo courtesy Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs

From one person God made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth;  Acts 17:26

As we reflect on diversity and discrimination in Israel today, Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech still resonates for the many varied groups residing in Israel and their hope for a more just tomorrow.

When I visited Israel, one of my objectives was to learn about the country’s diversity. The land we now know as Israel has ancient roots that extend toward the beginnings of humanity. Several of the world’s religions originated in the region, including Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Baha’i and Druze, and the country is home to many of their most holy sites, along with some of the world’s oldest synagogues, churches and mosques. Centrally located in the Middle East, Israel sits between Eastern and Western trade routes, so people from Europe, Asia and Africa have been traveling through and settling in the area for millennia.

Discussions of diversity in Israel often focus on the varying ethnicities of Jews living there, including Ashkenazi, Sephardic, Mizrahi and Ethiopian, or on the numerous ways people express their Judaism, ranging from ultra-Orthodox to secular. Neither of these do justice to the country’s true diversity. The third floor of ANU, the Museum of the Jewish People, explores the extent of the Jewish diaspora. Thanks to the Law of Return, Jews from all over the world have moved to Israel, “making aliyah,” and people immigrating from Africa and Asia, both legally and illegally, have enhanced the country’s diversity even further.

According to Wikipedia, several different groups of Chinese people live in Israel, including Chinese Jews, university students, businesspeople, merchants, guest workers and Israeli citizens of Chinese ancestry. Additionally, many Filipinos have come to Israel as laborers and now constitute one of the largest groups of immigrant workers in the country. Immigrants from Asia also include Vietnamese “boat people.”

During my time in Jerusalem:

  • I met students from Tanzania who were studying in Israel, and I saw Tanzanian church groups visiting traditional Christian sites.
  • I visited a hostel that’s been owned and operated by an Indian Muslim family for generations.
  • I met with Afro-Palestinians, who are Palestinians of Black African heritage, and I learned about Bedouin Palestinians, who are descended from people of African origin.

Israel has offered a home to many African immigrants. Operations Moses, Joshua and Solomon airlifted Jews in crisis from Ethiopia and Sudan to Israel. Non-Jewish African immigrants include refugees fleeing forced, open-ended conscription in Eritrea or ethnic cleansing in Sudan’s Darfur region.

With such a diverse population, Israel has a great opportunity to demonstrate that people from disparate backgrounds can live in peace. Yet Israel is rich not just in diversity but in complaints of discrimination. While I was there, I noticed that everyone seems to feel discriminated against. Jews describe being discriminated against everywhere they go in the Arab, Muslim Middle East. Within Israel, where Jews are the majority, non-Jews complain that they’re discriminated against because they aren’t Jewish. Non-Orthodox Jews complain of discrimination by the Orthodox. Non-Ashkenazi Jews complain that they’re discriminated against because they don’t have white “European” skin or share a Western culture. Arabs and Palestinians who are Christian rather than Muslim often voice similar complaints. Everyone feels like a victim.

One rabbi told me that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has led to an us-versus-them/win-lose mindset, which influences how other groups see themselves in terms of discrimination in Israel. What works best is when diversity doesn’t drive polarization but instead drives collaboration and coalition building. The challenge is to recognize diversity as a strength. But how?

I succeeded in learning about Israel’s diversity, but it took a lot of advance work. First, I had to learn about the various ethnic communities. It was even harder to find guides who knew about these various communities and had the relationships to take me to meet with them. After all, this is not what most tourists want to see. The difficulties I faced might deter others, if they even cared to try. Disappointingly, Israel has not taken pride in or advantage of its diversity, even though doing so might bring in more tourist dollars or inspire the innovation of new products and services.

I believe American Jews, who also live in a diverse country, should model how people of all kinds can live in harmony and work together to make the world a better place. The reality is that just as the demographics of the United States are trending toward a country whose majority is non-white, Jewish demographics are also changing. But while we may read about racial justice issues in book clubs or form racial justice committees, we don’t do enough to hear from Jews of color on Shabbat or to work with them on tikkun olam initiatives.

Many Jewish congregations do a great job helping diverse groups on everything from resettlement to civil rights work. But they do it at arm’s length, never really including their partners in the core of the Jewish community, Temple life.

I have heard Black Jews complain that their Ashkenazi colleagues more often reach out to Black Christians than to Black Jews when seeking speakers or partnerships. We should commit to more frequent interfaith services, workshops and service projects — not just on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. Given the 2,000-year history of discrimination and antisemitism Jews have faced around the world, we should be leaders in embracing diversity and fighting discrimination.

Let’s work together to fulfill the inclusive vision expressed in Isaiah 56:6-8:

“And foreigners who bind themselves to the Lord
to minister to him,
to love the name of the Lord,
and to be his servants,
all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it
and who hold fast to my covenant—
these I will bring to my holy mountain
and give them joy in my house of prayer.
Their burnt offerings and sacrifices
will be accepted on my altar;
for my house will be called
a house of prayer for all nations.”
The Sovereign Lord declares—
he who gathers the exiles of Israel:
“I will gather still others to them
besides those already gathered.”

About the Author
Ed Gaskin attends Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, Massachusetts and Roxbury Presbyterian Church in Roxbury, Mass. He has co-taught a course with professor Dean Borman called, “Christianity and the Problem of Racism” to Evangelicals (think Trump followers) for over 25 years. Ed has an M. Div. degree from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and graduated as a Martin Trust Fellow from MIT’s Sloan School of Management. He has published several books on a range of topics and was a co-organizer of the first faith-based initiative on reducing gang violence at the National Press Club in Washington DC. In addition to leading a non-profit in one of the poorest communities in Boston, and serving on several non-profit advisory boards, Ed’s current focus is reducing the incidence of diet-related disease by developing food with little salt, fat or sugar and none of the top eight allergens. He does this as the founder of Sunday Celebrations, a consumer-packaged goods business that makes “Good for You” gourmet food.
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