Sixteen Ethiopian rabbis recently won what is being touted as a landmark court case against discrimination in the Zionist State of Israel. In proceedings that spanned 12 years, the case was part of nearly 20 years of struggle by the clergymen against the state.
Observers say the friction stems from years of Ethiopian Jews struggling to integrate into Israel since arriving there. The Ethiopian Jews were brought to Israel under a political deal between the governments of Israel and Ethiopia during the 1970s. Although Ethiopian Jewish immigrants also known as the Beta Israel community are recognized as fully Jewish, they still face discrimination concerning race and some issues of religion.
Israel watchers also say the case is indicative of a wider problem of anti-Black racism and long held xenophobia in the Jewish state. “African immigrants are maltreated and mistreated in Israel,” said Dr. Gerald Horne, a professor of history at the University of Houston.
“There has been protests about that … in some ways analogous to the protests that has been taking place in the United States of Black people complaining about the heavy hand of the authority,” said Dr. Horne.
The racial discrimination and heavy-handed abuse of Israeli security forces on African immigrants is compared to police brutality of Blacks in the U.S., Israel’s strongest supporter and ally. Israel’s National Labor Court ruled that the Ethiopian rabbis are owed retroactive salaries from the state and local religious councils after decades of discriminatory allocation of resources against them, pay discrepancies and neglecting to redress the injustices despite protests and legal actions.
According to published reports about the ruling, the court charged that there were deliberate difficulties and failures in the conduct of the state and the religious councils to address the issue.
“The root of the process is discrimination based on national origin,” the ruling declared in a scathing admission to systematic racism.
Today Ethiopian Jews and African migrants suffer in Israel, are denied their rights, and as refugees are threatened with jail, if they refuse to leave Israel. Blacks are looked down upon by both political and religious leaders. In March 2018, the world witnessed one of Israel’s two chief rabbis, Yitzhak Yosef, calling Black people “monkeys” and the Hebrew equivalent of ‘nigger’ in a weekly sermon.
Currently Israel is embroiled in a battle with the International Criminal Court prosecutors for alleged abuses against its Palestinian population.
The plight of Ethiopian rabbis and other Africans in Israel is part of an undeniable and historical global record of Jewish anti-Black behavior that includes the horror of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, American plantation slavery, Jim Crow, sharecropping, the labor movement of the North and South, the unions and present day mistreatment of Blacks in the United States.
Ethiopian Jews were moved to Israel after Israeli chief rabbis determined in 1973 the community had biblical roots. However, the community was regarded as second-class citizens and Ethiopian rabbis were not recognized until 1992 after mass protests. The recognition entitled them to a salary for their services from local religious councils of each city. A dozen Ethiopians were also ordained as rabbis by the Chief Rabbinate which also came with salaries.
However, according to the case the government and religious council continued practices of discrimination and double standards directed at the Ethiopian clergy.
“It’s no simple thing to fight for the rights of the community and make sure our leaders receive exactly what they are due,” said Rabbi Avram Shai to the Haaretz Newspaper.
“I love Israel, but when they refused to make us equal to neighborhood rabbis, I realized that the religious establishment wants us to be slaves, water-drawers. That is even true in 2020,” added Rabbi Shai.
A win or otherwise, Israel since its inception has been a settler state rooted in apartheid which is a description rejected by the Zionist state.
Some observers describe the country as an “open air prison” for Palestinians and a bastion of racism for Africans. Over the years Israeli immigration policy was designed to deter African immigrants and asylum seekers from arriving. These Africans are described as “infiltrators” by Israeli law enforcement and political officials as an official designation and are accused by many Israelis of being the cause of crime and growing violence.
At one point Eli Yishai, while serving as Israeli Interior Minister had implemented a “deport” or “arrest” policy against African immigrants. He famously said: “Until I can deport them, I’ll lock them up to make their lives miserable.”
The political agenda of Zionism depends on Jews migrating to Israel to populate occupied Palestine. Today, Israel is home to over 40 percent of Jews worldwide. The Israeli government airlifted, 14,500 Ethiopian Jews in a massive operation called Operation Solomon on May 24, 1991, using 34 planes in 36 hours. Three massive airlift operations were conducted starting in 1984 when 8,000 non-Jewish Ethiopians were airlifted from camps in Sudan, concluding with Operation Solomon. Currently there are upwards of 130,000 Ethiopian Jews within Israel.
As of January 2018, according to the Population and Immigration Authority there was an estimated 30,000 African refugees, migrants and asylum seekers in Israel, not including children born to parents in Israel.
However, in the politically hardline government led by Benjamin Netanyahu, there was a program of expulsion of mostly Eritrean and Sudanese non-Jewish populations. Under protests and public pressure, the Israeli government held off on pursuing mass deportations.
The situation concerning the Ethiopian Jews should be understood in the context of its unique quest of assimilation into Israel. “It’s a multilayered issue,” said Bill Fletcher Jr., past president of TransAfrica Forum.
Mr. Fletcher told The Final Call that there is a very nuanced, difficult and hard question concerning Ethiopian Jews centered on their ambition to assimilate within Israel. He raised the question about their ambition in the framework of other marginalized “African” minorities who have no apparent ties like religion toward assimilation.
“On the one hand there was discrimination that faced Ethiopian Jews while in Ethiopia, that led many of them to flee,” Mr. Fletcher said.
“Then once they got to Israel… they were coming to a settler state and in order to become fully accepted members of the settler state they had to engage in supporting the Apartheid project.”
After leaving persecution in their home country, the Ethiopian Jewish community was then faced with the question of “what does it mean to be an Israeli?” Despite calls by international rights groups and voices of reason, African immigrants are “treated like dogs” in Israel. There is an issue of basic human rights that Israel continues to resist against Palestinians and immigrants from Africa and Asia.
Mr. Fletcher pointed out discrimination had existed since the beginning of Israel.
“A differential in treatment between the Ashkenazic Jews … the Sephardi … and the Mizrahi Jews and with the Ashkenazi or the Europeans (Whites) being in a more privileged position,” he explained.
Jewish ethnic barriers are strong within Israel. White Ashkenazic Jews dominate leadership roles in public institutions and despite being half the population, Sephardic and darker Mizrahi Jews are disproportionately underrepresented in the Israeli government. As a minority, Ethiopian Jews are also sidelined in the population of over eight million people.
Although the Sephardic and the Mizrahi Jews were marginalized groups, they don’t identify with the Palestinians as a marginalized group even when they were in conflict with the dominant European Jews.
Mr. Fletcher asks what the intention of the Ethiopian Jewish population will be as it relates to other persecuted Africans and the Palestinians? All of the facts are clear, the Ethiopian Jews are treated abysmally in Israel.
“This victory that was gained—is on one level wonderful—but the question that confronts the Ethiopian Jew is what is your attitude toward the Palestinians?” asked Mr. Fletcher. “To me it’s not enough to say, okay we’ve won a victory against discrimination … I’m glad to hear that.”
However, as a group who fought nearly two decades to assimilate and be accepted, does it mean they feel more in sync with Israeli apartheid or have they come to realize this is the system they moved into? They have to decide to what extent they are prepared to align themselves with, or against the racially oppressed in the country.
Mr. Fletcher, like rights groups and justice advocates supports their democratic rights and freedom from human rights abuses, however, he said he is raising a difficult question of intent in an overall struggle for justice in the country.
The Ethiopian Jews were a legitimate part of Ethiopia facing a certain kind of persecution and helped by Israel to migrate. “The question is what happens once you get to Israel?” asked Mr. Fletcher.