Paul Alster
Israel-based print and broadcast journalist

Israel’s afraid of the dark

The two sickening incidents reported this week in which Ethiopian Israelis appear to have been singled out for unprovoked attacks by authority figures have been widely reported and deserve to be just as widely condemned.

Closed circuit video footage of the attack by two police officers on Ethiopian Israeli soldier, Damas Pakada, was the key to having the 21-year-old released from custody and his attackers reportedly suspended from their duties pending investigation. It can only be hoped that the authorities, should the attackers be found guilty of wrongdoing, are dealt with using the full force of the law.

A black man, despite his IDF uniform indicating his wilingness to serve his country, appears to have been the target for a plain and simple racist attack.

A not dissimilar incident reported in Be’er Sheva yesterday in which an Ethiopian father-of-four on his way to collect a character reference for a new job was allegedly assaulted by immigration officers, prompted a march in Jerusalem earlier today by Ethiopians demonstrating against the two attacks and calling for justice.

Israel is arguably no more and no less racist than most multi-cultural societies. Jews are just as prone to racial prejudice as Arabs, Christians, or any other religious or racial group.  This week’s alarming events in Baltimore, showing how fragile America’s social and racial fabric is, should serve as a clear warning to our leaders that attacks on our Ethiopian brethren cannot be tolerated.

In this week’s cases the incidents seem to reflect a fear and/or intolerance of black people, regardless of the fact that Ethiopians, despite often challenging social conditions and limited opportunities, have become an integral part of modern, multi-cultural Israeli society.

Those intent on pleading mitigating circumstances on behalf of the assailants have highlighted the extremely challenging problem of black asylum seekers from Eritrea, Sudan and Somalia, amongst other countries, who have descended in their thousands on areas such as south Tel Aviv prompting raised tensions in the area. They point out that Ethiopians are sometimes confused for illegal immigrants.

But how many asylum seekers wear a serving IDF soldier’s uniform and speak fluent Hebrew?

Back in the 1950’s, the legendary black American singer Nat ‘King’ Cole was far and away the most popular entertainer in the country, easily outselling Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and the rest. In a revolutionary move for the time he was given his own national television show by NBC and his became the first black face to host an American TV show. The show was a big hit, but it closed because no sponsor – in those days soap companies and car manufacturers were the pre-eminent advertisers – could be found to put their name to a show hosted by a ‘man of color’.

When asked by journalists at the time why he thought his show had been cancelled and no sponsor found despite its runaway success, Cole – who tended to distance himself from politics and generally preferred to let his superb singing voice speak for itself – uttered a phrase that caused waves across the country as he succinctly put his finger on the undercurrent of racism against African Americans at the time.

“Madison Avenue,” Cole simply observed, “is afraid of the dark”.

Sadly, it would appear that there are still too many elements in Israeli society for whom the same can still be said.

About the Author
Paul Alster is an Israel-based broadcast journalist with a special interest in the Israel/Palestinian conflict and Middle East politics. He is a regular contributor to a variety of international news websites including The Jerusalem Report, and was formerly's main Middle East correspondent. He can be followed on Twitter @paul_alster or at
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