Many years ago, I taught a course called, “The Challenge of Diversity in Educational Institutions” at Ono Academic College. This institution, where I have since founded the world’s first International Center for the Study of Ethiopian Jewry, was created to be accessible to all groups and sectors, so I was not surprised to meet many students from the Israeli Arab sector in my class. At the beginning of the semester, I thought to myself that a meeting between a lecturer of Ethiopian origin and Israeli Arab students is not unusual. But it turned out, to my surprise, that the meeting between us created an extraordinary opportunity to raise important issues that mainly touched on questions of identity.
What is it like to be an Israeli Ethiopian or to be an Israeli Arab or to hold myriad other identities? We were able to engage with and discuss these complicated issues with polite civility. That is until a military operation in Gaza began. At that point, it became clear that there was a large political and conceptual gap between some of the students and me. I supported the operation, arguing that it represented a war of no choice since missiles were being fired upon our civilians from Gaza. What will happen if we sit idly by?
On the other hand, many of my students saw the same situation but drew very different conclusions. Some of them not only opposed the military operation, they even supported the Gazan side. It was difficult for me to understand how an Israeli citizen supports a group that shoots indiscriminately at all the citizens of the State of Israel, without any distinction between Jews and non-Jews.
The discussion turned heated and suddenly, one of the students shouted me down and expressed the essence of his pain, saying, “We are Arabs. You, as a Jew, will never understand us.” My student was, in essence, telling me, ‘’Yes, you are indeed black, but more importantly, you are Jewish.” And that seemed to make all the difference.
I fell silent. This was a silence that grew from a dialogue of mutual listening. It seemed to me that this was the first time since I came to Israel, that someone was shouting from the depths of his soul and with all his heart, without expressing any doubt, that I am Jewish. And in this context! I felt that this was the first time since immigrating to Israel that I received full recognition of my Jewishness. And from whom? From a Westernized Israeli? No, from one of my Arab students who was supporting Hamas’ indiscriminate missile attacks on Israeli civilians.
This event shook me and raised deep questions concerning intra-Jewish recognition and familiarity as well as the relations between Jewish Israelis and the various other groups that make up Israeli society today.
So what is our situation today? What has changed? How do we continue to live together? Are we moving towards becoming an inclusive society or an abusive society? How can one explain what is happening in Israel today?
The inter-group relationships here in some ways parallel those of a married couple. At first, we believe we have a common destiny, and are too busy with day-to-day survival, to think about it too much. We rely on our conviction that our relationship is based on love, understanding and agreement. So, the years pass, and as this couple gets closer to each other and gets to know each other more they become more aware of the differences that separate them. In such a situation, the relationship between them may turn to be based on suspicion, on “identification” with our own needs and not on our “identity” as a unit. In such a situation the relationship between the two can turn to be based on making practical decisions rather than having a deep underlying agreement. And this may happen to just one side or the other. As the writer Oscar Wilde said, “Loveless marriages are horrible. But there is one thing worse than an absolutely loveless marriage. A marriage in which there is love, but on one side only.” We may have stumbled into a situation of a marriage with one-sided love.
Sadly, this may have been what has happened in the couplehood between Israel’s Jews and Israel’s Arabs. Extending Wilde’s metaphor to our reality, the ironically paradoxical situation is such that each sector in society feels that it is the one that is unloved while giving its all to make the connection work.
This seems to be the relationship between the majority and the minority in Israel. Each side, for different reasons, ignores the differences in the fundamental goals of the other side. Everyone was busy trying to survive during the period of the establishment of the State. It was accepted that there was a common destiny. Even if from time to time there was a feeling of one-sided love, there was an agreement that we must continue building together. Even in difficult moments of disappointment, we continued to believe in the Israeli relationship. Each side wanted this partnership so badly; each side was willing to do almost anything to keep the alliance between the different groups alive. And each party thought to themselves that, over time, as in a relationship, we would become closer to each other.
Now, suddenly each party is surprised to discover that our closeness only blinded us to the existential and ideological distance that separates the different groups in Israeli society. Each side is disillusioned. One morning, love suddenly turns into fear and displeasure, peace into restlessness and above all great worry. Mutual trust turns into mutual suspicion. In such a situation, a relationship between the different groups that was based on agreement could turn into a relationship based on pragmatic decisions. In this situation, every group that makes up Israeli society feels that it is a minority group, a persecuted group. Each group feels that the attitude towards it is an attitude of oppression, discrimination and ignorance. And in a strange way, all these groups broadcast at least outwardly, that they own the house. All this creates a hierarchical and judgmental encounter that could turn explosive.
I believe we are entering a critical point in time. Getting a divorce would be the easiest solution, at least for one side. However, this is a solution for the short term and not a solution for the long term. This is a solution that deals with “identification” and not a solution that deals with “identity”.
After one of the lectures that I gave to the Israel police, an investigator who works with youth approached me, and said that while interrogating an Ethiopian boy, the youth claimed that the officers could not continue to interrogate him. When the policemen asked why, the boy replied, “Because you are white and I am black, and the whites will never understand the blacks.”
I asked myself, “Where does all this thinking come from?” Do all Ethiopians understand each other just because they are Ethiopians? And do all Muslims understand each other just because they are Muslims? Do all Palestinians share the same identity? Are Hamas and Fatah brothers? The answer is obviously no in all these cases. It would be stereotypical to think that all Arabs share the same interests.
And the same thing applies to Israel’s Jews. Not everyone who lives in the South votes for a right-wing party, and not everyone who lives in Tel Aviv votes for a left-wing party. We all make this mistake of generalization and therefore we all have a moral obligation to move from seeing ourselves and the other in terms of “identification” of our grievances and turn toward exploring the joining “identity” that unifies us all and makes us all Israelis. The key is certainly not the color of our skin, nor a Palestinian identity nor the Jewish religion.
In the words of Avi Sagi, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Bar Ilan University, the answer is as follows: “Turn to each other with compassion, concern and care. This solidarity turns the other’s pain into my pain, his suffering into my suffering, and his joy into my joy.” A Jew and an Arab who live in the same building in Israel, who address each other with compassion, concern and care, they share more of a single identity than any other inhabitant of the world.
We believe that the Second Temple was destroyed due to the lack of proper human interaction, due to baseless hatred. All those who lived at the time were religious Jews who observed the commandments, both the light and the severe. And still, their hierarchical perceptions and the difficulty of recognizing each side’s inner identity, led them down a path to destruction. This lack of vision made it difficult to recognize common interests, increased their fear of each other, and led to a desire to take revenge, one upon the other, as soon as they realized that they were no longer interdependent.
I learned an important truth from my grandfather, Abba Dejan (Gideon) Mengisha. At the base of “Beta Israel’s” (Ethiopian Jewry’s) theological world view is a fundamental value, the value of equality. In contrast to philosophies in which the entire culture is anchored in a distinct hierarchical concept characterized by a code of honor, the Ethiopian Jewish community sees all humans as equal before the eyes of God. No one person is more or less important than any other. Perhaps this education that I received from my home, from the Ethiopian tradition, is what allows me to find a balance between my personal identity and the collective national identity.
This education helped me deal with heavy questions like identifying which of the parties in any given dispute offers me separation instead of equality? Who is suggesting that I judge people by their color, their gender and their religion rather than by the content of their character? Who offers me a society where the minorities and the “weak” groups will receive their share by grace and not by right? Who offers me a solution for the short term and who offers us a solution for the long term? Who offers us a cosmetic solution and who offers us a fundamental solution.
My training also allows me to understand that as dark as today is, the sun will rise tomorrow. The current darkness, in which we are sitting, still holds lot of light that is useful for clarifying and refining our situation. One day this little light will become a great light. With this light we will be able to see that the human qualities of different groups in Israeli society are stronger than the prejudices we have about each of them. We need all the groups. Tomorrow will be much better. The possibility of divorce will be replaced by the knowledge that the best solution is alliance. Through our suspicions, trust, fear, and love, we will all have the privilege of continuing to establish our faithful home in Israel.