(July 22, 2020 / JNS) “Educator” Nimrod Evron and groups including King’s College London Action Palestine hosted a virtual discussion on Ethiopian Jews in Israel on July 5 to frame their experience as part of a “global struggle against racial injustice” recently publicized by the Black Lives Matter movement. The key speaker was Efrat Yerday, a lecturer at Tel Aviv University and a leading figure in activism for Ethiopians in Israel.
It was evident from the outset of the meeting that Evron was out to dismiss the reality of Israeli society so as to frame it as a devious colonial enterprise. He guided the discussion with statements such as “Israel is a white, European culture” and “Israel is a white-supremacist society.” This shouldn’t come as a surprise since Evron is the facilitator of the “Occupation 101 Course” that boasts that it does not aim to be “balanced” or “equal” to “both sides” in its history of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Yerday supported Evron’s extreme narrative by suggesting that “Ethiopians are sick of being depicted as people who should be grateful to their white ‘saviours’ for … barely qualifying as Jews.” Her rhetoric is a textbook radical attempt to generalize entire identity groups as possessing a monolithic experience and political agenda simply because they are not “white,” and reinforces the myth that non-Ethiopian Jews derive privilege from being “white.” There have been plenty of wranglings between the Ethiopian religious tradition and rabbinic Judaism, but this has generally been associated with theological qualms rather than racism. Ethiopian Jews are visible across Israeli politics, religious life and entertainment, yet Evron and Yerday deliberately presented events through a narrow lens of racial oppression so to misconstrue Israel as being uniquely evil.
As far as the question of “why is there no joint Ethiopian struggle with the Palestinians?” Yerday replied that Ethiopians were fearful of being considered saboteurs for aligning with Palestinian activism. The real answer would appear to be that for all of Israel’s flaws, the Ethiopian community overwhelmingly supports the Jewish state’s right to exist, and their enlistment rate in the Israel Defense Forces can be construed as an example: It is higher than that of the general population.
Why would the broadly Zionist Ethiopian community find common cause with the “Palestinian struggle,” which consistently seeks to dismantle Zionism and Israel violently? It was clear that the purpose of this discussion was not to identify issues with racism against Israeli Ethiopians, but to forge imaginary alliances between communities for the sake of demonizing Israel as an irredeemably racist project, whose crimes necessitate alliances of all who do not form a majority in Israeli society. It was implied continuously throughout the event that along with Ethiopians, Israeli Arabs face ceaseless, racist oppression, although no attempt to evidence this provocative claim was made.
Nevertheless, the recent history of Ethiopians in Israel is a complex one. “Operation Moses” (1984) and “Operation Solomon” (1991), in which the IDF rescued more than 20,000 Ethiopian Jews from famine and civil war in East Africa, was the precursor to today’s Ethiopian community in Israel. As Yerday outlined, discussions in the lead-up to the talk were not unanimous in their support for the Ethiopian migration. World Zionist Organization writer Malkah Raymist, for example, complained that the Ethiopians’ “mental outlook is that of children.” The Israeli government conducted the rescue missions nonetheless, and many incoming Ethiopians exited planes to the greeting of thousands of joyous Israeli onlookers. It is dishonest to define Israel by its counterfactual mistakes.
Yerday also highlighted a 2015 incident in which two Israeli police officers assaulted and arrested an Ethiopian-Israeli in IDF uniform as evidence of Israel’s deep racialized corruption. She omitted how the travesty sparked outrage, that the police involved were fired, and that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu personally met the attacked soldier and declared that “Israel cannot accept racism.”
Another attendee who offered comment was Glyn Secker, secretary of fringe, pro-former British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s “Jewish Voice for Labour” group. He claimed that the “Israeli lobby makes it impossible to criticize Zionism for fear of being called anti-Semitic.” In 2017, he defended former London Mayor Ken Livingstone’s comments that “Hitler supported Zionism,” arguing that Livingstone’s “real mistake” was his failure to quote Adolf Eichmann in support of his point.
Yerday was right to highlight the concerns facing Israeli Ethiopians. Yet instances of discrimination and inequity are not evidence of a wholly intolerant society, nor are they reasons to destroy Zionism or Israel but to continue to improve them. Significant resources have been invested in promoting equal opportunities for all Israelis—Ethiopians included. In May 2020, Pnina Tamano-Shata became Israel’s first Ethiopian-born cabinet minister and is drafting plans to allow further Ethiopian immigration to Israel.
The anti-Semitic remarks of several attendees that went unchallenged by the panel suggest that this event was not about discussing solutions for racial harmony. To the contrary, it was an attempt to categorize Israel as an irredeemably racist society by pigeon-holing the experience of thousands of Ethiopian-Israelis into the framework of a fundamentally flawed and virulently anti-Zionist, intersectional ideology.
Georgia Leatherdale-Gilholy is a CAMERA on Campus UK Associate.
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