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Israel is a state for only some of its citizens, as the saga of the captive Black soldier highlights

January 25, 2023 at 11:34 am

Ilan Mengistu (L), brother of Avera Mengistu (C), one of two Israelis held by Hamas in Gaza since 2014 in Jerusalem on September 6, 2018 [THOMAS COEX/AFP via Getty Images]

The words uttered in Hebrew by a person believed to be Avera Mengistu, an Israeli soldier of Ethiopian origin who was captured and held in Gaza in 2014, are telling. “For how long will I be in captivity? After so many years, where are the state and the people of Israel?” he said on a recent video.

Mengistu looked nervous in the footage, but also somewhat defiant. He called on his countrymen to end his nine-year incarceration, and more or less ended speculation in Israel on whether the soldier was alive or dead.

The timing of the release of the footage by Hamas was obvious. It was linked directly to the movement’s efforts to have a prisoner exchange similar to the one in 2011, which saw the release of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in exchange for the release of over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners.

The main target audience of the Hamas video was the new government and, specifically, the new military leadership. Israel has a new army chief, Lieutenant General Herzl (“Herzi”) Halevi, who has replaced Aviv Kochavi. The latter seemed disinterested in Mengistu’s cause, while the new chief arrives with lofty promises about uniting the country behind its military and opening a new page where the army is no longer involved in everyday politics.

It may appear that Hamas and other Gaza groups are in a stronger position than that which they enjoyed during Shalit’s captivity from 2006 to 2011. Not only are they militarily stronger, but instead of holding one Israeli captive they have four: as well as Mengistu they also have Hisham Al-Sayed and what are believed to be the mortal remains of two other soldiers, Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul.

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This is where the story gets complicated. Unlike Shalit, who is white and holds dual Israeli-French citizenship, Mengistu and Al-Sayed are an Ethiopian Jew and Bedouin respectively.

Racism based on colour and ethnicity is rife in Israel. Although no Israeli officials will admit to this openly, Israel is in no rush to rescue two men who are not members of the dominant Ashkenazi group, or even of the socially less privileged Sephardic or Mizrahi Jewish communities.

Black Jews and Bedouins have always been placed at the bottom of Israel’s socio-economic pile. In 2011, the Jerusalem Post shared statistics from a disturbing report, which placed poverty among children of Ethiopian immigrants at a huge 65 per cent. The statistic is particularly staggering when compared with the average poverty rate in Israel of 21 per cent.

Things have not improved much since then. The Israeli Justice Ministry’s annual report on complaints about racism shows that 24 per cent of them are filed by Ethiopian Jews. This racism covers most aspects of public life, from education and other public services to police mistreatment. Not even enlisting in the military — Israel’s most revered institution — is enough to change the position of Ethiopian Jews in Israeli society.

The well-known example of Demas Fikadey in 2015 is a case in point. Then only 21, the Ethiopian soldier was beaten up severely by two Israeli police officers in a Tel Aviv suburb for no apparent reason at all. The whole episode was caught on camera, leading to mass protests and violent clashes. For Ethiopian Jews, the humiliation and violence carried out against Fikadey represented their years of suffering, racism and discrimination.

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Many believe that the government’s lacklustre response to Mengistu’s prolonged period of captivity is linked directly to the fact that he is Black. Israel’s discriminatory behaviour towards African asylum seekers, which often leads to forced deportation following humiliating treatment, is well known. Amnesty International described this in a 2018 report as “a cruel and misguided abandonment of responsibility.”

However, discriminating against a Black soldier who, by Israel’s own estimation, is believed to suffer from mental illness, is a whole different kind of “abandonment”. A former Israeli army officer, Colonel Moshe Tal, did not mince his words in a recent national radio interview when he said that Mengistu and Al-Sayed are a low priority for the public “on account of their race,” Haaretz reported.

“If we were speaking about two other citizens from other backgrounds and socio-economic statuses… the amount of interest would be different,” added Tal. In stark contrast to Shalit’s story, the government’s “attention to the affair [and] the media pulse, is close to zero.”

There are around 170,000 Ethiopian Jews in Israel, hardly an important political constituency in a remarkably divided and polarised society. Most of them are immigrants or descendants of immigrants who arrived in Israel between 1980 and 1992. Although they are still known as the Falasha, they are sometimes referred to by the more dignified name of “Beta Israel”, or “House of Israel”. Superficial linguistic shifts aside, their struggle is evident in everyday Israeli life. The plight of Mengistu — as expressed in his question, “Where are the state and the people of Israel?” — sums up the sense of collective loss and alienation that this community has felt for nearly two generations.

When Mengistu arrived in Israel with his family at the age of five, they had escaped from a bloody civil war in Ethiopia and historic discrimination. The family, like most Ethiopians, didn’t know that discrimination would follow them, even in the supposed land of “milk and honey”. It is also likely that they knew little about the plight of the Palestinians, the native inhabitants of the historic land who are victims of terrible violence, racism and much more, including apartheid, which is akin to a crime against humanity.

Palestinians know full well why Israel has done little to free the Black soldier; Mengistu and his Ethiopian community also understand that race is an important factor in Israeli politics. Although a prisoner exchange could potentially free Mengistu and an unspecified number of Palestinian prisoners held in Israel, the suffering of the Palestinians at the hands of Israel and discrimination against Ethiopian Jews will carry on for much longer. One prisoner exchange isn’t going to eradicate Israeli racism overnight.

While Palestinians are resisting Israel’s military occupation and apartheid, Ethiopian Jews should mount their own resistance against the system which denies them their basic rights. Their resistance must be predicated on the understanding that Palestinians and Arabs are not the enemy, but potential allies in a joint fight against racism, apartheid and socio-economic marginalisation. In the meantime, Israel is a state for only some of its citizens.

OPINION: A State for some of its citizens: Captured black soldier’s saga highlights racism in Israel

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.