[Image: “Israeli Ethiopians protest against racism in Jerusalem, 1/18/12.” Photograph by Benny Voodoo, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.]
Content warning: Some uncensored anti-Black and anti-Arab quotations and descriptions of anti-Black violence, including gendered violence, follow.
This essay is dedicated to everyone resisting fascism, white supremacy and anti-Blackness in Charlottesville, but especially Sage Smith. #FindSage
Israel's relationship with African, Black and Afro-descendent populations is uneven and the following examination reflects this. The wildly different politics Israel expresses about Ethiopia as an occasional ally and Ethiopians Jews as subjects reflect in large part the difference in power between Ethiopia the sovereign nation and Ethiopian Jews the marginalized population. Put differently, geopolitics and bio/necropolitics frequently are at odds in important ways. Hence, Israel could align with anti-colonial socialist Kwame Nkrumah and newly independent Ghana while rejecting Ethiopian Jews as potential settlers and keeping Afro-descendent Palestinian refugees from their homes as part of the dispossession regime leveled against all Palestinians. What follows in this essay is a collection of the various ways Zionism and the Israeli state have interacted with non-Arab, Afro-descendent populations under or excluded from Israeli rule from the founding years of Zionism to the present moment, where Israel confines Africans refugees in desert concentration camps and South Tel Aviv ghettos.
I use “anti-Blackness” here with technical imprecision or, at least, differently. “Black,” as a subject position, is tied to African Slavery. Only one of the groups whose status is examined is descended from an enslaved population, and Zionism originates in the parts of Europe most materially distant from the everyday violence and profits of African Slavery. Yet Israel is a client state of the foundationally anti-Black United States. It exists within the U.S. empire and a political-economic world made ‘modern’ through African Slavery. It is not surprising then that Israel employs and reproduces the racist frameworks that empires export, including anti-Blackness. But racisms are first formed historically and materially. I originally titled this article “Israel and anti-Blackness” which would suggest the ways that Zionism and Israel interact with or produce anti-Blackness, the product of African slavery whereby “Black” is a marker of property, capital accumulation and a location for gratuitous violence rather than an identity or human grouping.
This essay is not about that, at least not entirely. This essay looks at the ways Israel racializes and interacts with non-Arab, Afro-descendent populations under its direct control. These are specifically Israeli formations and similarity in English-language and translated terminology, and some racist practices should not be interpreted as identical, and sometimes not even analogous, racial caste formations. So while I use the terms “anti-Blackness” and “Black” in this article I mostly do not conflate them with, for example, U.S., South African or Brazilian anti-Black formations that each stem from specific historical formations. This is not to say Israel’s is better or worse or somehow special, only that each is specific if still eminently comparable.
This essay progresses through Zionist racial formations in Europe prior to settler colonialism in Palestine, the founding racializations of Zionism in the colonial encounter, and the ways in which Zionism interacts with Afro-descendent populations. The goal is to help identify how race is constructed in Zionism, towards what ends, and to whose advantage. This essay necessarily looks at Zionist anti-Semitism and anti-Arab racial formations, as well, as they are intertextual with Zionist anti-Black racializations and praxis.
Who can be a colonizer? The origins of Israeli anti-Blackness
Israel is a settler colony. The late activist-scholar Patrick Wolfe describes settler colonialism's “negative articulation” toward colonized territories and populations. Every five acres of coastal Virginia is five acres less of Tsenacommacah. Every five dunams of Israel is five dunams less of Palestine. Israel, then, is the anti-Palestine and the dispossession of Palestinians is inherent to Zionism. Even beyond Zionism’s specific actions, all of the various proposals put forth by colonial and imperial powers, from the Balfour Declaration to the U.N. Partition Plan through the Oslo Process and the Road Map, are predicated on at least some Palestinian removal whether continued from the past, or furthered in the future and, thus, should be considered Zionist as well. This removal includes Afro-descendent Palestinians who comprise a small but significant part of the Palestinian people. This population is not, by and large, dispossessed on account of Afro-descendency but instead upon their indigeneity. They are dispossessed because they are Palestinian.
This does not mean that Zionism has no specific impact on Afro-descendent Palestinians, nor that individual Israelis do not express specific prejudice in interactions. Colonialism is a brutal distortionist and can amplify prejudices and oppression amongst the colonized population even when not causing them directly. As in, Zionism can and does impact Palestinian anti-Blackness in the same way other European colonizers introduced systemic, legislated homophobia to some colonized areas of Africa where it was previously absent or, at least, different. Yet, from Israel’s perspective, the Afro-descendency of any Palestinians is secondary to Palestinian indigeneity, its primary node of domination and dispossession. This brings into relief something the Palestinian left-wing has discussed for decades: that while ending Zionism could potentially bring liberation to Palestinians, it does not do so inherently. Anti-Blackness in Palestine, like patriarchy and peasant oppression, existed prior to Zionism and could well live-on past it if not ended along with Zionism. The depressing possibility remains for selective Palestinian freedom. This is to say that while anti-Zionism is necessary for Palestinian freedom, it is not synonymous with it.
That Zionism does not target Afro-descendent Palestinians systematically because of their Blackness does not preclude Israel and Zionism from having a founding anti-Blackness. The overwhelming majority of Zionism's history and cultural production is based in its material relationship of removal, its “negative articulation,” to the Palestinian population. Palestinian removal, the institutionalized Nakba, defines Israeli land and labor laws and ideologies, the racialization of Mizrachim and more. Yet European colonial ideologies like Zionism also bring part of Europe with them, a preaccumulation that impacts colonization if not wholly defining it. Included among these are theories of hierarchies of race as exemplified by the “father of Jewish settlement in Palestine,” Arthur Ruppin.
Ruppin was sent by the Zionist Organization (ZO, later renamed the World Zionist Organization) to Palestine in 1907 to investigate the conditions of the early Zionist settlements. After reporting back to the ZO, Ruppin settled in Palestine permanently in 1908. He founded the Palestine Office which eventually becomes today’s Jewish Agency for Israel, still today Israel’s central settlement hub. He was a co-founder of Tel Aviv, helped build the first kibbutz, and played a major role in establishing numerous colonizing institutions. Etan Bloom writes, “Between 1908 and 1942 there was hardly any large scale national [Zionist] undertaking in Palestine – economic, juridical, diplomatic or educational – in which Ruppin was not involved at the highest level of planning and direction.”
Bloom notes that Ruppin’s colonial contributions extended beyond settlement. He is also known as the “father of Jewish sociology” and his academic work guided his colonizing activities. Specifically, Ruppin's ideas about who is fit to be a colonizer stemmed from his academic theorizing. Ruppin's sociological framework was eugenics and the Rassenhygiene (racial hygiene) then popular in his native Germany. He, informed by German Romanticism, sought to define a Jewish Volk similar to the work of his fellow German eugenicists who were inventing a German Volk (one that generally did not include Jews, Roma, Slavs, Africans, people with disabilities and other Others, all of whom were deemed eugenically separate from Germans). This occurs after the shift away from a European Judeophobia best described as "anti-Judaism." Anti-Semitism replaced anti-Judaism and turned anti-Jewish oppression into racism; Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews in Europe were redefined as a biological race instead of a religious and cultural grouping, as with North African Jews in areas colonized by France. Bloom writes, “Ruppin took the Zionist enterprise from its ideological phase into a phase of culture planning based on eugenic perceptions and, in particular, on the practice of selections. The Jews now become 'human material,' a perception which legitimized and enabled the [Palestine Office] to increase its intervention in molding that 'material'.” This “intervention in molding” the settler society through European racial hygiene theory illustrates the origins of Israeli anti-Blackness.
Ruppin saw some Ashkenazi Jews as the true Jews, among whom the “fittest” would set the mold for all settlers. This essentialization of Jews takes away the praxis of Jewishness, the mitzvot, the halakha. It changes Jewishness from something someone does to something someone is. Ruppin sought Jews whom he considered to have a less “Semitic” physical/mental character. In other words, Ruppin’s founding sociological principal was anti-Semitism. Here he agreed with Theodore Herzl, A.D. Gordon, Ahad Ha’am and other leading Zionists; the Jews of Europe were not fully human. In their minds Jews were physically and morally weak, parasitical and without roots in the world. This is to say that the leading Zionists of the early years, they who formed the tenets of Zionism, broadly and often very specifically agreed with other, non-Jewish, anti-Semites. They created a key Zionist formulation called the shlilat ha-galut, the negation of exile, that spurned and derided all Jewish life and history outside Palestine. Eliezer Schweid writes that the shlilat ha-galut is a “is a central assumption in all currents of Zionist ideology.”
It is so discursively fundamental that the word galuti (exilic, of exile) is today a common Israeli insult. To associate with Jewish history outside of Palestine or, much more commonly, to be critical of Israeli anti-Palestinian actions or be otherwise deemed “soft”, is to have a “galuti mentality.” It is no surprise then that modern Hebrew has anti-Semitic slurs that Israeli Jews level at other Jews. “Yehudon” (“little Jew boy”), for example, was leveled at several U.S. ambassadors by prominent Israelis like Aviv Bushinsky and Rehavam Ze’evi after the ambassadors were very slightly critical of Israeli policies. In context, it suggested weakness and cowardice, classic anti-Semitic stylings of insufficient Jewish masculinity.
Like the Bund and others, Zionists could see no freedom for European Jews through assimilation in Europe. But whereas the Bund determined that Jewish emancipation could happen only in socialist revolution, an overturning of the system of capitalism and white supremacy, Zionists conceived of freedom as collectively assimilating into Europe as a separate, territorial nation. Herzl, Ruppin and ilk had a goal of making European Jews into, effectively, a European Protestant nation that happened to be comprised of Jews, through colonizing Palestine. It is the territoriality of colonization that would make Ashkenazi Jews, in Zionism’s view, true Europeans.
Anti-Semitism is sometimes thought of as a structure that fed Zionist colonization through driving Jews from Europe. There is an element of truth to that, but becoming a refugee from one’s home does not determine that you become a settler elsewhere. At a fundamental level we can say that anti-Semitism is a European social construction - I mean both that it is constructed in Europe and, along with African Slavery and colonialism, constructs Europeanness - that has Zionism as one of its branches. Anti-Semitism is the racial formation that is Zionism’s premise. Zionism’s two fundamental racialized antagonisms are then European/New Jew vs. Jew, and Settler vs. Native. It is this positioning whereby Ashkenazi Jews negated their very Jewishness in favor of the anti-Black coloniality of Europeanness that forms Zionist personhood and introduces at the normative level Israeli anti-Blackness.
Frantz Fanon writes:
At first thought it may seem strange that the anti-Semite's outlook should be related to that of the Negrophobe. It was my philosophy professor, a native of the Antilles, who recalled the fact to me one day: "Whenever you hear anyone abuse the Jews, pay attention, because he is talking about you." And I found that he was universally right — by which I meant that I was answerable in my body and in my heart for what was done to my brother. Later I realized that he meant, quite simply, an anti-Semite is invariably a Negrophobe.
To the specificity of anti-Black racializations though, Jared Sexton notes that Fanon “does not write that the Negrophobe is inevitably an anti-Semite.”
Ruppin’s anti-Semitism exemplifies Fanon’s point. He sought to categorize Mizrachi and Sephardi Jews with Bedouin Arabs and Berbers to prove they were not 'true' Jews with proximity to Europeanness but, instead, Semitic peoples less fit for the colonial enterprise. He further applied this racial hierarchy to Ethiopian Jews. According to Bloom:
The concept of race with which Ruppin “operated” all his life was essential to his culture planning activities. One brief example of the consequences of Ruppin's perception of Judaism in terms of European racism there can be seen in the case of the Ethiopian Jews. Ruppin's explanation for the racial components of the Jews is involved and not at all clear, but […] one that was very clear to him: there was no racial connection between the Jews and the Yellow and Black races. In 1934, following the request of Dr. Yaakov Feitlovich to bring the Ethiopian Jews to the Land of Israel, Ruppin claimed that the Ethiopians were, “Niggers, who came to Judaism by force of the sword in the sixth century B.C. They have no Blood connection to the Jews. […] [Therefore] their number in Palestine should not be increased.”
Ruppin counterposes the propriety of Ashkenazi settlement against the impropriety of Ethiopian Jewishness. Ethiopian impropriety shapes the ‘us/Ashkenazi’ category. Bloom further notes the distinct otherness projected onto Ethiopian Jews as compared to other Jewish populations subjected to Ashkenazi white supremacy. While Ruppin “rejected the completely Black Jews (e.g., the Ethiopians) as non-Jewish, he did not reject the 'Oriental' Jews outright but differentiated them.” This demonstrates a distinct anti-Afro-descendent racialization for non-native populations. Indeed from the early years of Zionist colonization, Yemeni Jews were subjected to a lower status than Ashkenazim and were often relegated to lower paying work. Yet Yemeni settlement continued over the years while Ethiopian was rejected for decades. Ruppin's and his compatriots’ rejection of Ethiopian Jews influenced policy long after his death. Only in 1975 did the Israeli government recognize Ethiopian Jews as Jews at all. As Ethiopian and Mizrachi Jews were targeted specifically as groups of Jews, we should understand this oppression being not only anti-Black and anti-Arab but also anti-Semitic. For contrast, the small numbers of Ethiopian Orthodox Christians who serve in Jerusalem as religious functionaries do not face Israeli denials of the sacred as Ethiopian Jews do. It is specifically their Jewishness that targets them for the subordinate racialization that is the very definition of anti-Semitism.
Critiquing Zionism's rejection of Ethiopian Jews as potential colonizers is not to argue there is an alternate, ethical colonization path that could be pursued. Described here instead is the way the Zionist settler society builds anti-Black racializations as part of constructing Israeli society, discourse and politics which is already anti-native (anti-Palestinian, including Afro-descendent Palestinians). Rejecting Ethiopian Jews as candidates for colonizers demonstrates how early Zionists conceived of a future Israeli national character without Afro-descendent people, and how Zionism is foundationally anti-Black. This, exemplified by Arthur Ruppin’s eugenics studies and Zionism’s anti-Semitic basis, is part of Zionism’s ideological preaccumulation prior to colonizing Palestine. Anti-Blackness is a part of Europe that Zionists brought with them to Palestine.