When I came to live in Israel, 28 years ago, I got an ulpan [a class for learning Hebrew] teacher who was extremely friendly and warm and very-dark skinned and I said to myself, he can’t be Ethiopian because he has this cynicism about him. He turned out from South-Africa, so I was right. At the time, I didn’t know any Ethiopian Jews personally, but all of the ones I met in passing were just sweet and relaxed. Not anymore.
What made that change? I’m sure, racism in Israel has done this. As eloquently and painfully clear described by Fkadu Kfalleh in his first (and featured) blog post for the Times of Israel (short, lucid, very well-written). Just know, it wasn’t always like that.
As a Jew and child whose four grandparents were gassed in Auschwitz, I know what is unfounded hatred and bigotry. Including wondering why on earth, people would detest whole groups of “others” they don’t even know.
I remember the pain and confusion in my mother’s eyes when she related how small children in her Northern-Netherlands’s village, still in diapers, not yet able to say “mamma,” already cursed her “Jew” when she was a child herself and barely aware of any differences with Gentiles. (Most children are not bigots and often they revolt when grownups try to impose bigotry on their lives: “You can’t play with so-and-so because s/he’s ….”) The resulting feeling is a mixture of being stunned and feeling hated.
That pain is much deepened by denial (and its twin cover-up), like, there is “no real” racism (there was no racism here). First they ignore you and then they blame you for getting upset. (Racism by people you’d expect it the least, is extra painful: lefties (Haaretz: “[they] aren’t necessarily [sic] … against the Ethiopian Israeli community”), the police, teachers.)
It’s no different from Holocaust denial. (To further complicate things, the Holocaust was the result of Nazi racism, but not White racism.) Except that the unspoken subtle Jew-hatred in the Low Countries was so wide-spread and deep, that it was impossible to become angry. One felt too intimidated. Hence, I welcome any anger about oppression. Better angry than timid. Anger means, you claim enough safety to feel it.
Also feminists, Gays, the handicapped, etc. never accomplished anything until a sizable group of them became militant. Niceness won’t cut it. Most people are too self-absorbed to care about anyone “else.” (Most of the 75% of the Jews from the Netherlands were murdered in WW II not by Jew-haters but by Gentiles who cowardly looked away, caring just about themselves, not even recognizing that Jews were their own too.) Especially, because racism kills, no one can be “too fanatical” about ending racism. Fighting racism is pikuach nefesh.
Why Serve in the IDF?
Fkadu Kfalleh wonders why he should serve in a combat role to protect Israeli citizens, when they don’t protect him. I understand that this question, first of all, is an expresses of anger. And of pride, not letting anyone take away his dignity and value. Still, I might have a couple of arguments why he still should have a good time joining the IDF.
1. Israel is essentially not a racist country. Racism is officially forbidden by law and rejected as unethical by most Israelis. This is not true in every country. In that respect, Israel is OK. Which doesn’t mean that there is no institutionalized and interpersonal racism.
2. After the Holocaust, under the threat of extinction (wars), the Jewish State had to be built. There was no place to face the deep pain of the Holocaust or other traumas of having lived in the Diaspora. One had to be “normal” and shut up and help or be locked away in a psychiatric “hospital.” Ask Gay and Queer Israelis how infuriated they are about this giant straightjacket of normalcy. (Judaism has no Commandment to “be normal.” But it has a Duty to be true, on the outside like the inside.)
So, Israelis got very used to thinking in stereotypes. And, much of their bigotry is not intentional or personal. It comes from still being in survival mode and having no room for the nuanced and personal. It does not all come from being told that Whites are superior. You’re quickly labeled, put in a box. This is a fertile ground for almost any oppression.
I bring this up not to reason away the racism in Israel but to recognize that it comes from a panic mode from most Jews being threatened with extinction. Anger then should mostly be reserved for the Gentile world that still has not ended anti-Semitism — to put it lightly. (I have a Gentile non-Israeli friend who says: Blame me, not each other.)
3. Most Israelis are not Caucasian. And the minority of Western Jews is shrinking quickly through “intermarriage.” Israel has now two million Arabs Gentiles and four million Arab and Sephardic Jews. They too suffer from racism. Blacks (a generic term for people targeted by racism) are not a minority in Israel. Which doesn’t cancel out the racism but it puts non-Whites in a more powerful position than if they were a minority.
Surely, Mizrachic Jews also play the “I label you, you label me” game. They make many jokes about Moroccans, Yemenites, etc. and partly believe all the stupid stereotypes. And Ethiopians not only came last but also got at the end of the picking line — like Orthodox Jews abroad get most of the anti-Semitism and “out” Gays bear most of Gays’ oppression. Standing out does that — but shouldn’t. It’s frankly embarrassing. But what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Enjoy that training.
4. I mentioned above that Israeli law and public opinion are anti-racist, but the IDF is even more so. The people’s army, besides protecting the citizens, aims to unite them — as must have been you experience during the pre-army year (mechina). All drafted Israelis are purposely put into this melting pot. In the army, there is extra support for any oppressed group. There are special rules to facilitate and empower anyone joining to be a soldier. Special protective rules for female, charedic, Gay, Druze, Trans, Bedouin, poor, vegan, etc., and yes: Ethiopian soldiers.
New conscripts are trained in anti-bigotry, anti-sexism, anti-homophobia, etc. Soldiers who didn’t get it are disciplined. This doesn’t make the army an instant paradise, but there is the desire and support to go against all oppressions thinkable. And the higher up one gets in the army, the more this is true. So, if your superior in the army doesn’t get it, appeal until you find support. And the longer you are in the army, the better it gets.
This is kind of a preview of what a non-oppressive society could look like. Just as Israeli hospitals, where mostly there is no discrimination between Jews and Gentiles – among the doctors, the nurses and the patients. (Only the cleaners are often only Muslims. Racism alert.)
If you’d ask if you should be among the soldiers who put their lives on the line, in a fighters, paratroopers, tank unit, etc., that is complicated. But in any case, you should see the IDF as your organization, and expect it to live up to your ideals and serve with pride and joy meanwhile building a good future including you and a racism-free Israel.
Here are my recommendations, for whatever they’re worth:
* If you have a choice between being angry and intimidated, be angry.
* Yet, you alone should decide when to show anger and when to smile.
* Avoid as much as possible people who infuriate you.
* Keep writing frankly about how it’s going; only being nice will not do it.
* Remember that you have the state, public, and majority on your side.
* Build alliances with all other oppressed groups; while they teach you how to be their ally, you teach them anti-racism, what you need from them.
* Support and train the most promising Whites how to be perfect friends and allies to you and to organize other Whites, together to end racism.
* Remember that most people hate to be racist but need a push to leave it.
* More than blame Jews, blame Gentiles. (Our best allies will appreciate.)
* Join the army and enjoy the extra support and goodness there. Also there, don’t settle for getting anything less than absolutely everything.
* Realize that no one has it perfect and that it’s a great honor to help perfect the world.
* Remember always that, in the end, you’re winning, even while you’re losing. Be part of the activism that will awe your grandchildren.
* Continue to be a proud and powerful Israeli and Ethiopian Jew.
* Remember that living well is the best revenge.
* Don’t ever believe despair — such a popular pastime in Israel.