Friday, January 6, 2012
Report: Being Black in Israel
I visited Israel en Palestine during the Christmas holidays and saw many things I didn’t expect to see. One of these things is the striking presence of black people in urban Israel. They represent a diverse people of whom most are Ethiopian Jews who made aliya (i.e. the migration of the jewish diaspora back to Israel) and settled in Israel in the 80’s and early 90’s. Besides this Israeli group it is striking to see many immigrant workers from Africa and Asia, among them West-Africans, Sudanese and Ethiopians.
The Ethiopian Jews are commonly known by the slightly derogatory term Falasha but the name they chose for themselves is Beta Israel (Hebrew for The House of Israel). They are today virtually no Ethiopian Jews anymore in Ethiopia. Israel organized mass migrations in the late 80’s (Operation Moses). If you want to know more about Operation Moses read this.
Many Ethiopian Jews converted to Christianity at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century. They faced discrimination and hardship and chose to become Christians in a predominantly Christian country to make their lives easier. However, today many of the descendants of these converts feel they are still Jews and should also have the right for aliya, i.e. to ‘return’ to Israel. These people are named Falash Mura and after many discussions the Israeli government made them eligible for migration although with many restrictions and limitations. More on this phenomenon here.
An excellent movie on this situation is the 2005 Israeli-French film "Go, Live, and Become" , directed by Romanian-born Radu Mihăileanu. The film tells the story of an Ethiopian Christian child whose mother has him pass as Jewish so he can emigrate to Israel and escape the famine looming in Ethiopia. The film was awarded the 2005 Best Film Award at the Copenhagen International Film Festival. See trailer below:
While Ethiopian Jews face discrimination and had a difficult time integrating in Israeli society things are changing. Through the compulsory military service (3 years for men, 2 years for women) they become more and more part of Israeli society, many today prefer to speak Hebrew than the language of their parents. I saw many blacks in the army forces (the Israeli army is omnipresent in Israel and the Palestinian territories, there are many security checkpoints on the West Bank) and I dare to say that 1 out of 20 soldiers I saw, was black.
Still, black Israeli face discrimination (nearly half of all Israeli employers would rather not hire an Ethiopian Jew) and I saw that all dirty jobs in Israel are done by black people. Virtually all janitors I saw looked like Ethiopians, of course I couldn’t tell if they were black Israeli rather than Ethiopian immigrant workers.
Israel wants to protect its Jewish character. So while a Jew can be blond with blue eyes, a brown skinned South Asian, an Arab looking person or even a black African, if you are not Jewish you can actually not migrate to Israel. The Knesset (the Israeli parliament) recently voted a law limiting the years that an immigrant worker can actually reside in Israel to 5 years. Exceptions are made for diplomats’ personal and for non Jewish spouses of Israeli citizens.
Conversion to Judaism is also possible but extremely difficult as you actually have to study the Jewish Holy Scriptures thoroughly, follow the kosher rules strictly and have an orthodox Jewish lifestyle. During this process you are followed by a Rabbi, who will eventually decide if you are a Jew are not. Of course men have to be circumcised and all have to make the ritual immersion in a bath (mikveh). However, there are also Reformist views on conversion that do not expect converts to do as much, wanting ot be a Jew is often enough. However the State of Israel leans upon the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and the supreme religious court for these matters. These institutions are mostly dominated by orthodox rabbis. But it is a complicated issue, very alive in Israeli society. For more info read this.
Blacks in Israel are also African Hebrew Israelites also known as Black Hebrews, who settled in Israel in 1969. They are of black American ancestry and were therefore not recognized as Jews. But after decades they have been granted permanent residency status in 2004 and became eligible for military service since then. In 2006, Eddie Butler, a Black Hebrew, was chosen by the Israeli public to represent Israel in the Eurovision Song Contest. They mainly live in the Negev town of Dimona were they form a community of 3000 people, but other families live in other towns too.
Some famous black Israeli of Ethiopian descent are Hagit Yaso (singer), Shlomo Molla (politican) and Abatte Barihun (jazz musician).
Below a video telling the story of the Ethiopian Jews and their exodus to Israel: