With all there is to write about, I have decided first to do a follow-up to my posting about the Ethiopian riots sent out last Monday:
After I wrote, the issue lingered with me: I could not stop turning it over in my mind, in part because of having worked with this community. I was reaching for some of the complexities of the situation.
Last Thursday, something came to my attention that provided a focus for this posting: Five blog entries on the Times of Israel site, all written by young Ethiopian Israeli women: Accomplished young women, on their way to substantial academic achievement.
All five have been or are currently associated with Nishmat, an institute of advanced Torah study for women, in Jerusalem, which also features programs for developing leadership and social responsibility.
Four of them are associated with Nishmat’s Maayan program, which, along with Jewish studies, offers participants full financial support and provides them “with tools for their personal and professional advancement, enabling them to succeed in academic studies.”
Ninety percent of the graduates of the Mayan program “continue on to higher education and academic professional training (for example, teachers, lawyers, social workers and occupational therapists).”
What the women wrote in their Times of Israel blogs shocked me, and left me deeply, deeply sad. For their perception of what is going on – their subjective reality – has become so negative.
It’s the old story of the glass which might be seen either as half full or half empty. In what they wrote, there seemed to be either a reluctance or inability on their part – I cannot say which – to also embrace the good, even as there are significant problems.
In some instances (I will cite just a few examples) it seemed as if they had internalized a litany of grievances, and would not let go, even in cases in which those grievances have been rectified – as if these grievances are part of a running narrative. (Let’s not forget the bad stuff that happened to us.) This is painful twice over. It is, of course, a bad place for them to be; if they feel themselves defeated and alienated, it inevitably will inhibit their success in life. Additionally, and significantly, the picture they paint is one that does an injustice to Israel.
A primary underlying theme of these blogs is mistreatment, selective singling out, by police. I do not doubt that this is the case sometimes: they are, as was recounted, more likely to be stopped by a police officer and asked for identification. Both Minister of Internal Security Gilad Erdan and Acting Police Commissioner Motti Cohen have in recent days acknowledged that there are problems, and declared intent to address them.
But the corollary here, according to their accounting, is that innocent Ethiopians are shot by police. And the proverbial straw, they say, was the shooting of Solomon Teka.
Yerus Kasiah, for example, says:
“A police officer shot a civilian.
“How can this have happened?
“How does a policeman take out his gun and aim it at a person?”
But this rhetorical question distorts the evidence that has come to us after a police investigation. The off-duty police officer insisted that he did not aim at Teka; he shot at the ground in warning, because Teka and his friends were throwing rocks at the officer – rocks that hit him and endangered his children, the youngest of which is only seven months old. The bullet, or a fragment of it, then ricocheted.
The fact that the bullet hit the ground has already been confirmed, and now police have located a rock at the scene on which Solomon Teka’s DNA was found. This serves as substantial verification of the officer’s version of events.
Barhan Worku says that Teka was “murdered,” although that is not what the evidence indicates. She is grievously disappointed that all of Israel was not enraged by what had happened (emphasis added):
“I feel that the Nation of Israel has really lost its way. To me, it seems that it has become Israeli society versus the Ethiopians. I feel betrayed by my own country.”
When so many are trying to help, her perception that it is “Israeli society” versus the Ethiopians took my breath away. Barhan, for Heaven’s sake, is a graduate of Nishmat’s Maayan program, where she was offered support – emotional, financial and educational. Everyone is against the Ethiopians?
Here is more from Barhan:
“I look at what has been put up on social media and all I can see are huge hateful lies about Salomon Teka in order to justify his murder by the police. There are actually complaints that patients in ambulances have died en route to hospitals due to the protests that have been taking place throughout the streets of Israel.”
Of course, complaints about blocked ambulances do not constitute “hateful lies” about Teka. In any event, I do not know of any patients in ambulances that actually died during the riots, nor have I read of any such claims.
But the fact of the matter is that the risk existed: someone might have died because main thoroughfares were totally blocked. I know of one busload of kids, caught on their bus for eight hours, because their driver could not get through. And I learned of a bride on her way to her own wedding who had to get out and walk (I believe carrying her wedding gown); about half of her wedding guests never made it.
The behavior of the rioters in blocking the roads was not only illegal it was unethical.
And the irony, completely lost on Barhan, is that the police have been criticized for allowing violence and the blocking of roads during the “demonstrations.” As I have read it, the police actually held back, allowing the rioters considerable latitude, so that they might have an opportunity to vent without feeling that the police were after them in unreasonably restrictive (“racist”) fashion.
Adisalem Kampala – who is involved in a Nishmat program to teach students how to combat prejudice – echoes a similar theme, but carries it further, as she lists grievances. She tends to ignore context, and, as I indicated, refers even to problematic situations that have been rectified.
She speaks of “Blood donations from Ethiopians poured into the trash.” There was an issue: I remember clearly the hurt and outrage of the Ethiopian community, and I am not certain it was handled well. But this was not a “racist” action – with “black blood” being rejected, it had an underpinning of medical concern: With regard to Ethiopians who were immigrants from Africa, there was concern about AIDS, which was rampant in that continent.
As I understand it, even when the ban was in effect, blood donations were accepted from Ethiopian Jews who had been born in Israel. In any event, the matter was resolved some years ago, and today all Ethiopian Jews may donate blood.
She also refers to “People refusing care from Ethiopian nurses.” I have no doubt but that this has happened, because there are idiot racists who get sick. We must continue to do education, but eradicating all such ugly, small-minded attitudes will take time.
Adisalem’s statement is very vague. Is she suggesting that most Ethiopian Jewish nurses encounter these insults, or just some? Is this something that occurs regularly, or very rarely? Many see the Ethiopians as very warm and would eagerly receive care from them. And I have a memory of an Ethiopian Jewish nurse I knew, who had to work while pregnant; other (white) nurses covered for her when she wasn’t feeling well. I never heard her speak about anyone refusing her care.
We should note that Israeli medical institutions train Ethiopian Jewish nurses, i.e., we are not looking at institutional racism. What I see is a focus on the negative, on a sense of victimhood, without celebration of what has been achieved and what has been provided within the institutions of Israel.
Lastly, I mention this grievance from Adisalem: “Bar Mengistu, a mentally ill Ethiopian who crossed the border into Gaza and the government does little to rescue him.”
But wait! There is another Israeli, not Ethiopian, being held by Hamas, and there are the bodies of two white soldiers also being held. The parents of the soldiers implore the government to do something; they see the government failure to achieve success here as a betrayal. This has nothing to do with racism, but with the government’s inability to handle the issue with Hamas with strength and to make these rescues a priority.
Regrettable, but telling, that Adisalem narrows her focus and interprets this as racist neglect.
Sewalem Workneh registers grievances far too complex in their underpinnings to deal with here. But I do want to mention Galit Dajan, who, very impressively, is completing a B.A. program in Special Education and Jewish Philosophy at the prestigious Herzog College.
Her statement is more nuanced. She says the demonstrations were “the cry of an entire community to be part of the whole, and to receive our equal share.” It seems to me a matter of great sadness that someone with her academic accomplishments and bright professional future does not feel part of the whole.
She says, “I sit torn because while I really want everything to be smoothed over — I believe that violence may be the only way to get our message across.”
But she is as wrong as she can be. Violence will only generate more negative feelings towards Ethiopian Jews on the part of the general Israeli populace.
Bless her, however, she then adds this: “I mainly pray and look to add positivity to my community, I am working to bring hearts closer together and stitch the rift that exists.”
What Galit suggests with regard to stitching the rift is the only way to go. That requires work on all parts. Non-Ethiopian Israelis must acknowledge the suffering of the Ethiopians. Sensitivity is in order, as their suffering, what they are feeling, is real for them. And we must work to combat racism wherever we encounter it.
This does not mean, however, that we must agree that all of their perceptions represent objective reality. Teka wasn’t “murdered” and the rescue of Bar Mengistu is not neglected because he is Ethiopian. Certainly all of Israel has not abandoned the Ethiopians.
Years ago, I knew an Ethiopian Jewish educator who told me this story: He was in an elevator and he sensed hostility on the part of two other men standing with him – because of the way they looked at him, or their body language. “They don’t know who I am,” he told me. “I will teach them.”
This educator had a strong enough sense of himself so that the hostility he encountered did not touch him deeply. He saw the hostility as the failure, the problem, of the others, and not his problem. And he had confidence that the situation could be rectified.
This touches upon how the Ethiopian Jews more broadly perceive themselves, and it is at the heart of what I was wrestling with when I knew I wanted to write again: an awareness I have had of the Ethiopian Jewish sense of self as victim. Ethiopian Jewish community organizer Michal Avera-Samuel says ““We live in a self-fulfilling pit of low expectations” – negative attitudes from the outside are internalized. Changing this, I would say, is a significant part of the hard work that must be done.
Yes, yes, Ethiopians should vigorously (and peacefully!) protest the bad stuff, but they also need to look at how far they have come. They need to see what doors are open to them and move to fulfill their potential. The full absorption of this population is a process and we’re not there yet. The more Ethiopians fill various roles in our society, including professional roles, the closer we will be to getting there.
We are definitely seeing changes – increases in educational achievement on the part of Ethiopians, and an growth in their average income (admittedly low).
The Ethiopian young women whom I have cited are in a position to make a difference as they assume professional positions. They can play a role in teaching Israelis exactly who the Ethiopians are. I would like to think that they are able to see this potential that lies before them, and to rejoice in it!
I close with this personal story:
The city of Beit Shemesh has a fairly sizeable Ethiopian Jewish population, mainly centered in one neighborhood. A small number of this population regularly attends Shabbat services in the synagogue where my daughter belongs (and I frequently visit). The women come in their traditional garb, and are treated with respect.
This past Simchat Torah, an innovation was introduced at this Orthodox synagogue: A time was set aside for the women to dance with the Torah scrolls. At least a hundred women came and there was much excitement.
Among these women were a handful of Ethiopians. It was a first for them, and they were jubilant. When a Torah scroll was passed to one of the Ethiopian women, her beautiful face was so radiant that it was a joy to see.
When the dancing was over, the white members of the synagogue concluded that it had been better, more special, because of the Ethiopian participation. It was not a question of tolerating the black women, but rather of welcoming them and feeling gladness for their active involvement.
This is how it can be, and how it already is sometimes. And this, too, must be told.
© Arlene Kushner. This material is produced by independent journalist Arlene Kushner. Permission is granted for it to be reproduced only with proper attribution.