Bags of blood donated by Ethiopian Jews were found dumped Israel in 1996; stacks of them. The discovery led to protests and riots in Israel. According to the New York Times on 29 January of that year, “Thousands of Ethiopian Jews clashed with riot policemen outside the Prime Minister’s office today in a protest over the news that blood they donated was secretly dumped because of fear that it was contaminated with the virus that causes AIDS.” Israeli officials at the time did not even try to spin those allegations; they admitted it immediately and argued that, “The blood was accepted from Ethiopians and surreptitiously thrown out so as not to stigmatise the donors publicly.”
Many Ethiopian Jews were encouraged to migrate to Israel as the state continued to consolidate itself in the 1980s. The first group flew there between 1984 and 1985; in 1991, a second group was taken to Israel by the government. By 2011, there were around 120,000 Ethiopian Jews in the self-styled “Jewish state”. African immigrants, particularly Ethiopians Jews, have arguably helped to legitimise Israel as a multicultural and democratic country in the region.
Over the past decade or so, Israel has experienced an increase in migrants from the Horn of Africa; most, says Israel, have entered the country illegally. There were 27,018 Eritreans and 7,731 Sudanese in Israel as of March 2017, according to the Population, Immigration and Boarders Authority (PIBA). Since 2013, around 14,000 have left Israel as a result of government measures against asylum seekers involving prolonged or indefinite detention, which Israel’s High Court has twice ruled unlawful. The treatment of Africans in Israel has, in general, got worse. Moreover, there have been incidents involving right-wingers displaying hostility towards all people of African descent, irrespective of their immigration status.
Subsequently, there have been increasingly racist reports in Israel involving Ethiopian Jews, also known as the Falasha or Beta Israel. Ethiopian-born Israeli model Tahunia Rubel made headlines in 2016 when Yedioth Ahronoth published her remarks in which she accused Israel of being “one of the most racist countries in the world.”
On another occasion, TV journalist Gal Gabbay reported that Ethiopian immigrant women might have been given “the Depo-Provera birth control drug without a full explanation of its effects, although the Israeli health ministry has instructed all health maintenance organisations not to use the treatment unless patients understand the ramifications.” According to Gabbay, Ethiopian Jewish women waiting to make aliyah — the move to Israel — were given birth control while in transit camps.
Anyone who can prove their Jewish ancestry has the right to migrate to Israel and receive immediate citizenship. This has been used by most Israeli citizens whose presence in the land has been and remains at the expense of the indigenous Palestinians whose ethnic cleansing began in 1948 and continues to the present day. Palestinian refugees languish in UN-registered camps in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip and neighbouring countries, as well as the global diaspora.
The killing of 19-year-old Solomon Tekah last Sunday “after the bullet shot at the ground bounced up and mortally wounded him” has led to protests in Israel, including the capital Tel Aviv. The response to his death highlights the anger and discontent simmering within the Ethiopian community in Israel, whose members are using this incident to call for justice and an end to racism.
Moreover, the incident has brought to the fore an important political debate regarding the rethinking of Ethiopian-Israelis’ political positioning. While Ethiopian Jews have been happy to put their Jewish Israeli identity over their Black African heritage, the continuing racism inside Israel is making many realise that they share a common cause with other Black people and minorities around the world. What’s more, they should look towards solidarity with Palestinians inside Israel as well as the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the struggle against Israeli apartheid and all other forms of racial discrimination.
Black South Africans gained strength in their struggle against apartheid when they joined forces with other oppressed racial groups in the country. The so-called coloureds and Indians in South Africa had a slightly more privileged status than Black Africans, in a classic example of a divide and rule strategy aimed at promoting artificial racial divisions in society. The African National Congress, with leading activists like Nelson Mandela, Ahmed Kathrada, Dennis Goldberg and others fought for a non-racial, non-sexist and non-sectarian society as a solution to bring long-lasting political stability and racial harmony. They mobilised tirelessly in their respective constituencies to have such ideals embraced.
That is the strategy that the leadership of Israel’s Ethiopian Jews should adopt in the struggle for racism to be eradicated in the country. If that is it to happen, though, they need to accept that mainstream Jewish society in Israel is dominated by Ashkenazi Jews from Europe and Russia who have a sense of entitlement over others. The struggle for equality in Israel has a long way to go, but as they continue to resist racism in their adopted state Ethiopian Jews are more likely to find common cause with Palestinian Muslims and Christians than many of their fellow Israelis.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.