Jessica Desvarieux: So Lia, when the protests and the destruction of property took place in Baltimore last week, we covered it and needed to provide some more context about the deeply-rooted economic problems, and just the historically poor relationships that the black community has with police. What are the underlying social conditions faced by Jewish Ethiopians in Israel?
Lia Tarachansky: Well, before you start to understand the discrimination that the Ethiopian community in Israel goes through, you have to understand that Israel is not comparable to the United States, in the sense that Israel is not a democracy the way that Western democracies are democracies.
Israel is an ethnocracy. And what that means is that Israel is a Jewish state, defining itself as a state for the Jewish people, not just in Israel, also Jewish people all around the world. And it has elements of democratic rule for that Jewish population. But the Jewish people in Israel make up only two thirds of the population. So a quarter of the citizens of Israel are not Jewish. And so they fall into second-class and third-class citizen kind of standards.
Now, the Ethiopians are Jewish, but they are black. And before this struggle really rose up to the fore in recent weeks, we’ve seen another African population in Israel that has been challenging this ethnocratic regime in Israel. And that population, of course, are the African refugees, mostly from Sudan and Eritrea, who are not Jewish.
So basically what we’re seeing here is that because Israel defines itself as a Jewish state, it has a different kind of category of rights and citizenship levels depending on how you define yourself and how the state defines you in relation to that ethnicity. So if you are Jewish from Europe, you are most likely in the highest position of power. You have a naturalized citizenship, and you have the highest access to power in Israeli society. The next levels are Jews that come from the Arab world and North Africa. Then Jews that came from Russia and the former Soviet Union in the ’90s. And the bottom of the Jewish hierarchy in Israel are the Ethiopian Jews. After that, of course, you have the Palestinian citizens of Israel, the African refugees in Israel, which are most likely going to be deported very soon en masse, and then after them the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza who are not citizens of any state, and are therefore, don’t have any rights.
Jessica Desvarieux: Lia, hold on one second. Let’s talk about some specifics, though, of policies that—we want to kind of focus this on the African refugee population, for example. Just to speak to what the Israeli state has instituted in terms of housing and jobs, and how does that affect the African refugee population?
Lia Tarachansky: Well, you can’t understand that without understanding ethnocracy. So what I’m trying to get at is, there are two African populations in Israel that are black. There’s the African refugees who are not Jewish, and the African refugees who are Jewish. Both of them sort of fall in the cracks of the Israeli ethnocratic regime. The worst, of course, are the African refugees who are not Jewish. They don’t have any rights, they don’t have any status in Israel, and are basically living at the whim of whoever’s the Minister of Interior, and can be deported en masse to third countries at any moment.
The Ethiopian citizens of Israel should have been, or should at least according to the ideology of the ethnocratic regime of Israel, have the same rights as any other Jewish citizens, which of course in the ethnocratic hierarchy are the highest group. But because they are black what you’re seeing in practice is a lot of discrimination. And it goes back all the way to the 1980s when they first came to Israel. Basically the Ethiopian Jews lived in Ethiopia, the region of Ethiopia, for centuries. And finally in the ’80s as a result of turmoil in Ethiopia, Somalia, and Eritrea, started moving in the direction of Israel and finally were brought to Israel.
Now, their immigration to Israel was very different than the immigration of most white or Arab Jews. Because first of all, they were kept in internment camps where they were treated for many diseases. Their very Jewishness was questioned. They were forced to undergo mass circumcision, the men had to go through circumcision, because the Chief Rabbinate of Israel did not believe that in fact they were Jewish. And finally the women, in some recent investigations it was revealed, were subjected to levels of criminal forced sterilization, already in internment camps in Africa and in Israel.
And so we’re talking about a population who, while are Jewish and should according to the Zionist ideology be welcome in Israel as Jewish citizens, had to undergo humiliating and incredibly racist, borderline criminal policies where their Jewishness was questioned and their women were sterilized in camps where Jewish immigration agents were basically trying to tell them, where you come from you have too many babies, and you have to change your entire family planning if you want to come to Israel so there aren’t too many black babies. Of course, the same kind of policy does not apply to religious Jewish people who are white. Who have between seven and twelve children per family.
So that’s—the discrimination goes back to the very beginning of their immigration to Israel. Then of course the question of where this population was settled has everything to do with why they are today one of the most impoverished, isolated, marginalized communities in Israel. Basically Israeli power and economy rests between two centers, a few neighborhoods in Jerusalem and a few neighborhoods in Tel Aviv. And if you don’t live within that center of power, your access to basically a middle class or upper-middle class livelihood are very limited.
And of course the most impoverished populations, the Jews that came from the Arab world, North Africa, and these Ethiopian Jews, have been settled traditionally in the periphery. In the far north or the far south, in basically ghettos. These are some of the most impoverished communities in Israel, with some of the least investments by the governments of all the municipalities in Israel, except for of course the Palestinian municipalities.
So first of all, you see very minimal investment in them, the least investment of any Jewish community in Israel. You’re seeing that in fact they end up in the most frontier units in the army. The Ethiopians end up often in the Magav, which is the border police, units in the army. So they are taking on the brunt of the violence that is perpetrated by the Israeli army. Not somewhere in a comfortable office with a joystick, you kill Palestinians with a drone. They are on the front line, they are the ones who are basically perpetrating the Israeli regime’s policies against the Palestinians. And when they come home, they basically find themselves the most impoverished, neglected community in Israel.
At the same time, there’s a lot of racism in Israel based on the fact that they are black. They are often confused for African refugees. They’re often arbitrarily arrested. The police, which has a very racist practice towards the African refugees, treats the Ethiopians often as African refugees, bringing to the fore a lot of this racism.
Now, the reason that these protests are happening now, and not let’s say two years ago, is because in the last let’s say 14, 15 months we’ve seen the, the Israeli government’s attack on the African refugees, which brought to the surface a lot of these complaints about racism in Israel, and a lot of the complaints about the way that African people are treated in Israel. Now, after the government finished basically its attack on the African refugees, the Ethiopians saw that the same racism which is perpetrated against the refugees is perpetrated against them. They are often treated as African refugees. They have the same—they feel that they have the same policies and practices practiced against them. We’re seeing constant attacks, we’re seeing constant violence by the police. We’re seeing the police constantly questioning people on the street, treating them like criminals, questioning their identity, questioning their visas. Asking them to prove that they’re Jewish. All kinds of harassment.
And these protests, particularly, have come at the heels of that movement of the African refugees and against the African refugees by the government.
So basically, the protest that happened last weekend was very radical in a way. Because the protesters—until now, the Ethiopian community has refrained from protesting in what—in the kind of protest we see in Baltimore and other places in Israel. Their protests have been very pacifist, very peaceful.
For the first time in their history, they go out in a radical protest and they block the main highway in Tel Aviv, in the economic center of Israel. And what you see in that protest is that many of them are holding their hands like this. Now, this is an echo of a symbol that came out in the African refugee protest. In the African refugee protest this symbolized arbitrary imprisonment, because of course the Israeli policies meant that African refugees are imprisoned indefinitely in the large camp in the middle of the desert until they agree to self-deport to African countries such as Uganda and Rwanda. And you saw everywhere in the country the symbol of the two hands with the word freedom underneath.
The fact that the Ethiopian Jewish protesters are emulating this symbol shows that they are connecting their struggle to the struggle of the African refugees, which I have to say is a very brave position. Because the African refugees in Israel are one of those issues where everyone sort of agrees on this atrocious thing. Everybody agrees that the African refugees are refugees, and they probably suffered horrible things in Africa, but they agree that there’s no place for them in Israel and they should by and large be deported. There’s very few Israelis that believe that the African refugees should receive asylum in Israel and stay.
Most Israelis, and this is why this was such a successful political attack, by all levels of the Israeli government from the Prime Minister and down to the offices of the Ministry of Interior, is that most of the Israelis agreed to deport the African refugees. And the fact that the Ethiopian Jews are making this link with the most marginalized and weakest community in Israel is a very brave thing. And I think that the reason they’re doing it is to say that racism is racism, whether it’s Jewish or not.
Unfortunately though, they are also wrapping their message in a lot of Israeli nationalist symbols. So while they are crossing their arms and yelling freedom, they’re also wrapping themselves in Israeli flags and appealing to the Israeli public in a way that really kind of pulls on the Zionist, the nationalist extremes. So they’re singing the anthem. They’re constantly talking about how they served the country in the military and they’re not against what the country is doing, they just want to be treated as equal, Jewish citizens.
So in a way, they are both making links that are very radical and very promising and very interesting in terms of the anti-racist struggle in Israel, but on the other hand they are doing it by appealing to Zionist values so as to not to alienate themselves from the Israeli mainstream.
Now, the response to their protest—and this is, I think perhaps is the most telling and what we should be watching for in the coming protest—is that the state responded with violence. Mass violence, in the heart of Tel Aviv, in Rabin Square. A place where you’ve seen hundreds of demonstrations on every issue in the world, from healthcare subsidies to the Israeli-Arab conflict, to housing. Every protest that happens in Tel Aviv happens in this square. And this is the first protest in years that the Israeli police opened, basically attacked with massive—both policemen on horses and tear gas. We’re seeing a lot of violence from the police. We’re seeing a lot of attacks, the kinds that most protests—which are of course white protests, or protests by white Israelis—never see.
And so the exceptionalization of this kind of protest is going to be very polarizing in Israeli media and in Israeli conversation. And this is what we should be watching for. Because if the government continues to respond with this kind of violence they’re looking at alienating a large chunk of the Israeli population, and basically creating a crack in the Zionist mythology of the Jewish unity in Israel.
Lia Tarachansky is an Israeli-Russian journalist and documentary filmmaker who previously reported for The Real News Network on Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. Born in the Soviet Union, Tarachansky grew up in a settlement in the occupied West Bank. She is the director of On the Side of the Road, a documentary on Israel’s biggest taboo - the events of 1948 when the state was created. Tarachansky previously worked as a Newsroom Producer in The Real News’ Washington D.C. and Toronto Headquarters, and her work appeared on BBC, Al Jazeera, USA Today, Canadian Dimension Magazine and others.