Israel – the hybrid of contradictions: On the history of Mizrachi and Ethiopian assimilation struggle

Less than 24 hours ago we witnessed the strike of Ethiopian Jews in Israel that ended in violence and casualties; thankfully, however, there were no fatalities. I will not write about what exactly happened yesterday, because all this can be read about (extensively) in newspapers, on blogs etc, and in my opinion the numbers do not change the reality and the reality is what we need to accept as a fact and approach the issue with an honest willingness to make a change.

This is not going to be a leftist rant. It will not be an anti-Zionist rant. I love this country. I love this amazing hybrid of history and modernism; of one nation which for centuries was scattered on all continents, but now strives to live as one; the mixture of people of different colours, builds and sizes; the mixture of food and music; as Idan Raichel asked: “What is Israeli music?” It’s a mixture of what all Jews bring from all the nations, combine, accept, share and cherish. This is what makes an Israeli Israeli.

This will not stop my however from voicing my disappointment with how the issue of new non-Western immigrants has been approached over time. Thanks to the “Masa” program, which I am gladly just about to complete, I have had a chance to listen to many people involved with Jewish and non-Jewish immigrants and I have heard various opinions. I have also read a lot and I think that I have, humbly speaking, a decent understanding of the situation here.

To start with, the Ethiopian Jews are not the first ethnic Aliyah that has complained to be treated poorly in comparison to European and Russian Jewry. I remember our visit to the Rabin’s Museum in Tel Aviv where the guide told us about the separation between Ashkhenazi and Mizrachi Jews in absorption camps following the establishment of the State of Israel. Many Mizrachi Jews were then flown into Israel and the inevitable happened – the shortage of food and shelter. The food ratios were introduced to keep the population alive and meanwhile think of a long-term solution. The Mizrachi Jews complained then that, despite understandably difficult conditions in general, they lived in worse accommodation in comparison to Russian and European Jews. One of the good things however was the forced equalisation of everyone at that point: everyone had to take on an Israeli surname and name, and everyone was forced to speak Hebrew. This certainly contributed to the better long-term integration, but the ill-feeling remained. I will address it later on in this article.

I remember the first time I touched on the subject of the Ethiopian Aliyah. It was probably a couple of years ago during of the lectures in London given by the grandmaster of krav maga Haim Zut with his right-hand, the Ethiopian instructor, Chalacho Balai. I remember the screening of a short movie showing the descent of the Ethiopian Jews from the airplane and one boy stopping at the bottom of the stairs and playing a tune on a flute. I heard the trembling in Chalacho’s voice saying that this was a very emotional moment for them – escaping Ethiopia and coming to Israel, the place were all Jews could live in safety. I saw an Israeli soldier attempting to rush the boy impatiently, but quite obviously being conscious of the camera and stopping himself half-way. I didn’t make any judgment then, how could I? The boy wasn’t the only person who felt emotional. If everyone who flies into the Ben Gurion Airport stopped and began kissing the ground beneath their feet I doubt the airport would be able to operate more than 3 full-loads of planes a day. One of my rabbis from London did that too and an IDF soldier ran towards him and shouted: “What are you doing?!” “I am kissing Eretz Israel” calmly replied my rabbi. “Why?” the soldier asked. “Because I love her”. “At least someone does” summed up the soldier. Quite consciously, I remained unmoved at that time.

In a nutshell, the Ethiopian Jewry presented the very similar issue as the Mizrachi Jewry. Their travel into Israel was nothing less than a travel through time into future. While Europe experienced industrial revolution, Africa and Asia remained largely unaffected. That means, crudely speaking, that in terms of Mizrachi Jews, modern Israelis saw the descent of Jews who looked like they literally came from the time of Moshe and the giving of the Torah, and in terms of the Ethiopian Jews – there descended the people who considered their African neighbours to be giants (Ethiopians have in general a reasonably petite build) and the land of Israel – heaven. This was the first time they saw someone of a different colour and I think everyone, equally, was in shock. Chalacho, I remember, said that they thought that people in Israel didn’t die at all; the place and the people were so alien for them, that they didn’t know how to behave. Suddenly from huts made of wood or, if someone was lucky, pieces of metal they moved into storied absorption centres. They were, quite rightly so, unprepared for what they saw. The Western world would call their living conditions in Ethiopia ‘backward’ and I can understand, seeing the pictures, where they are coming from; from the place of villas, Jacuzzis, Cadillac’s, insulated houses, gyms and supermarkets. We think we are so advanced, from our perspective. I am sure the Ethiopians wondered why on earth do we need so much? For example, many didn’t know what toilets were for. They thought that they were for storing food. This is how vastly our ‘luxuries’ varied. The State took for granted the fact that not everyone had a reason know what a toilet was. This is just an example, but it stretches much further in terms of the State’s lack of understanding that the Ethiopian Jews needed to be introduced to this new lifestyle, because it was both alien and frightening. What we consider ‘average’ living conditions was a trauma for them. The older generation very much struggled to integrate – how could they not? I think we would struggle too, if we were dropped on a different planet where there were no toilets, rather we were given a shell for that purpose. It’s just an example. I would personally demand a toilet as a matter of my basic human right.

The Ethiopian Jews often spent many years in absorption centres because of the civilisation, cultural and language clash. The Western Jews vastly know English or other European languages; they are vastly highly educated, which was not the case of the majority of Ethiopian Jews. All these little (or big, depending on the perspective) aspects stretch through the nation and create an image that the Ethiopians are less educated, thus less employable, thus poorer and thus ‘worse’. It’s an image, not a reality. The beginnings were difficult for them though and the crime rate, due to the negligence from the government in terms of effectively addressing the problem, rose. I will risk an opinion that we wouldn’t have the yesterday’s strike, if the problem of assimilation was addressed as it presented itself rather than brushed under the carpet. Over years, the living organism of the society stratified and in many respects perceived not only the Ethiopian Jews, but also Mizrachi Jews as second class citizens. This is absolutely distasteful and thankfully doesn’t reflect the everyday interaction between Jews from different part of the world; it does however affect the general perception of them and thus gives rise of the ill-feeling between the three ‘continents’.

One of the differences that we, the Western Jews, fail to notice is that many of us these days come here of our own volition. We know languages, we are highly educated, we have extensive work experience and we come here knowing that we want to make our life work here, not that we have to make our life work here. We have somewhere to return to, if we wanted to. Were are the Ethiopian or the Mizrachi Jews supposed to return to in case it didn’t work for them? We are all one; they were right chanting yesterday that we bleed the same.

A young Israeli IDF soldier of Ethiopian descent was brutally assaulted by two police officers. The issue of the police having way too much free hand in this country is another issue, which I will not address here. Whether there was a reason for this assault or not (I do not know, because there is a lot of misinformation around at this moment) what needs to be understood here is this: the beating did not cause this strike – the 20 years of either dismissal or negligence (pick your choose) did this. I personally prefer to balance somewhere between the dismissal and negligence, because no human is equal to another human and people can’t be generalised.

This is also not the time to yell that Iran is the threat to our existence. We are the threat to our existence. Our ignorance is what would kill us, as a nation, quicker than Iran.

Today, my head-teacher told me that if you are Russian (i.e. Ashkhenazi by her definition) you get everything and if you are Mizrachi or Ethiopian you get nothing from the government. I haven’t been here long enough to have a reasonable opinion about this, but all I know following my meeting with the Nefesh B’Nefesh and the Jewish Agency for Israel is thus; the State invests really (really) vast sums of money into the new olim to make their Aliyah successful. The resources available are shocking (positively), but it makes me wonder if it differs depending on which agency one deals with. It certainly has a lot to do with encouraging people to make Aliyah as opposed to saving them from physical death through cramping them onto a plane and flying them here. Western Aliyah is also, in my opinion, largely ideological and thus people are willing to lower their standards of living for a while, but will strive to raise them as soon as they can.

The standard of living in this country, apart from the salary, is really very high considering that the country isn’t even 70 years old and had gone through numerous wars. We are also very ambitious about our lives. This shouldn’t stop us from understanding that everyone’s starting point is different. The Ethiopian Jews have gone a long way, but still feel ostracised. I will say here that I doubt that it has anything, as much, to do with the skin colour as it has to do with the social perception of them based on what I have mentioned above. It is unfortunate, but in the end, when reasonable arguments fall on deaf ears the only thing a person can reach for in order to be heard is the physical difference. It shouldn’t have to come this far for the nation and the government to stop and think about what they have done wrong and what could be improved starting from now.

I am willing to accept that the issue has been overlooked, however long one can actually overlook something without appearing genuinely negligent – but this is time to act and not delay the action. We do not just live to survive, we live to secure our dignity and the dignity of our fellow citizens, so each can proudly work, live and participate in the social scene.

I fully support this strike. I think everyone is equal in human terms, and everyone should be fairly assisted especially during such a difficult transition. The country consisting of Holocaust survivors and immigrants from all parts of the world should know better than leaving people to their own devices. People can be both successful in their assimilation and productive long-term if only they are introduced into the society following an assessment of their origin. We are not talking about 10 people who will be just fine if they live here long enough. We are talking about a nation being shipped over here and left with much less attention than other groups. I want to make it clear that I am not talking about feeding the poverty, but equipping everyone with tools to make sure that each works for themselves and is able to function within this country without the feeling of being ostracised.

To sum up, Israel is a hybrid, both remarkable as well as illogical in many ways. It is a meeting place of all cultures, languages and colours and it cannot allow itself to sideline any of them. Tear gas and a water hose is not a solution. The government didn’t learn from the Mizrachi Aliyah, so I hope it will learn from this strike. The damage has been done, I only hope that any further assistance, which is needed, will be provided and no one again will be overlooked only because the ‘top’ assumes that some things are just obvious. They are not. We come from all places. This is the only thing in this melting pot of Israel, which one can consider to be obvious.


2 thoughts on “Israel – the hybrid of contradictions: On the history of Mizrachi and Ethiopian assimilation struggle

  1. Well said. A thoughtful analysis and written with humility. I think that this should also open people’s eyes to the way in which the police operate. One can imagine given what we’ve seen what it must be like to be an other of a different group altogether – in terms of their treatment by the police. At least the Ethiopians are Jews. What of the Bedouin and Palestinians? Police are a necessary institution in any society, but as we saw here and before this in the U.S. (Baltimore, Fergusen, etc.) they must be closely controlled.


    1. I very much agree with you in terms of monitoring the police.

      A good friend of mine was assaulted by the police officers on the streets of Tel Aviv only because she resembed a Palestinian girl that, according to the police, posed a terrorist threat. They beat her black and blue before she had a chance to explain anything. When they found out that they made a mistake they just drove off. This was just barbaric. People like this should not be allowed to have power to make such decisions. This of course does not reflect the majority of police officers, but sheds light on the issue of the abuse of power and, I assume, not having to be accountable of one’s actions.

      Thank you for reading and commenting. I very much appreciate it.


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