[Image: “Israeli Ethiopians protest against racism in Jerusalem, 1/18/12.” Photograph by Benny Voodoo, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.]
Part I of this essay is available here.
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
Placing African Israelites and Black Jews
Israeli rule over Afro-descendent, non-native populations began in earnest in 1969 with the arrival of a small group of African Israelites from Chicago by way of Liberia. As with Palestinians and Ashkenazi Jews, African Israelites narrate themselves as descended from ancient tribes of Judea and Israel. African Israelites joined the settler colony under Israel's 1950 Law of Return that provides citizenship for any Jews who move to Israel. Beneficiaries of the Law of Return normally receive benefits beyond citizenship such as intensive Hebrew language instruction, housing and assistance with job searches. African Israelites were not recognized as Jews but, according to Morris Lounds, “they were admitted to Israel with many of the privileges of immigrants until the question of their Jewishness could be settled by the rabbinical authorities.” They were settled in Dimona, a peripheral Israeli settlement in the Naqab Desert. Like most Israeli “development towns,” Dimona was populated primarily by Mizrachim (Arab Jews).
Development towns are normally/normatively at some distance from the economic centers of Tel Aviv and Haifa and have poorer infrastructures and lower incomes. Often they were placed near the borders with Egypt and Jordan (including areas then occupied by Egypt and Jordan like the Gaza Strip and West Bank), especially in areas mostly or completely depopulated of Palestinians, to help ensure that Mizrachim did not conflate an ethnolinguistic identity with Palestinian Arabs. By placing many development towns and recent migrants from Arab countries in areas more susceptible to Palestinian militants and those seeking to recover their stolen lands and belongings the Israeli authorities sought to force Mizrachi identification as Israelis and, more specifically, to counterpose “Jew” as a mutually exclusive category with “Arab.” In Ella Shohat’s phrasing, Mizrachim “were placed on the horns of a terrible dilemma, having to choose between ‘Arabness’ and ‘Jewishness.’” Sending marginalized populations to areas depopulated of Palestinians created facts on the ground intended to articulate conquered areas to the settler colony, to quash Palestinian title to the lands.
Lounds notes that in short order African Israelites “began to accuse the Israeli authorities of racism when others of their group were barred from entering Israel and when they could not obtain additional housing for their numbers who had arrived in the country and remained illegally. These latter lived in overcrowded apartments with other Hebrew Israelites and found it difficult to obtain employment with proper credentials.” The Israeli High Court ruled in 1973 that African Israelites were not Jews (which African Israelites did not exactly claim to be, narrating instead an ancient lineage different from Ashkenazi Jews, though originating in the same place and time) but recommended to the Ministry of Interior that they not be expelled. While this ruling offered some residency protection, it also established barriers to other African Israelites seeking to join their compatriots. Future arrivals had to enter on tourist visas, overstay them and hope to avoid deportation. This was reflected in labor relations. The illegal residency status meant “they were being hired illegally” and “working for less than Israeli citizens usually demand,” according to John Jackson.
Lounds noticed a chilly reception by non-Black Israelis when African Israelites brought up Israeli racism:
We observed the Hebrew Israelite leadership making a presentation to a group of Israeli school teachers. The latter were primarily concerned about the religious orientations of Hebrew Israelites (their origins, rituals, beliefs, proofs of their religious claims), but the Hebrew Israelite leadership was concerned about raising the level of color consciousness of the audience and spoke explicitly about the racist attitudes of the Israeli government towards the Hebrew Israelites. The audience, during a question and answer period, expressed bewilderment about the claims of the Hebrew Israelites regarding the racist attitudes of the Israeli authorities. Hebrew Israelites, on the other hand, interpreted the Israelis' bewilderment as 'denial' and not unlike the attitudes of many Americans who refuse to admit racism exists in the United States.
This indeterminate status of being in Israel “illegally” continues today for those still arriving whose Jewishness is still rejected. Israel gave veteran African Israelites temporary residency status in 1992 after two decades of living under the constant threat of deportation, and permanent residency only in 2003. Still, Israel has increasingly cracked down on African Israelite migration. In 2015, two Black Jews (Conservative converts, a mother and child) were denied entry “due to suspicions she belongs to the Black Hebrew community and was planning to stay in Israel instead of leaving on her August 20 return flight.” Whereas Israel offers lucrative assistance packages in order to encourage settlement by even the most assimilated, non-observant Ashkenazi US Jews, observant Black Jews are at times denied entry on even tourist visas exactly because they might stay in Israel.
A Haaretz article on the case notes that, “[i]n recent years, African-American converts have come under intense scrutiny by Interior Ministry officials. The ministry appears to be concerned that they may be using their conversion as a way to get status in Israel in order to join the Black Hebrews in Dimona.” The threat that Black Jews and African Israelites might stay in Israel and thus should be barred from entering has implications for Israel's claim to be the home of the Jewish people: Black Jews must not be Jews or must not be people, or both. Either way Israel denies them their own narrative including their Jewishness which, in the case observant Jews, means denying them the sacred.
Ethiopian Jews and liminal humanity
Major non-Ethiopian rabbinic figures in halakhic rulings recognized Beta Israel (“House of Israel,” or Ethiopian Jews) as Jews as long ago as the sixteenth century with non-halakhic discussions and notations preceding that by over half a millennium. The validation of Ethiopian Jews’ Jewishness by non-Ethiopians means jack shit but is noted here to show how Zionism’s adoption of European coloniality changed the Ashkenazi concept of Jewishness by adopting the borders of the colonized world. Only in 1975, over one thousand years after the famed travels of Eldad ha-Dani reacquainted southwest Asian, southern European and north African rabbis with dark-skinned African Jews, and over half a century after the Chief Rabbis of both the Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities in Palestine made a public appeal to “save the Jews of Ethiopia” did the Israeli state recognize Beta Israel as Jews and officially permit some Ethiopian settlement. Beta Israel settlement began in earnest in 1985 and the population today is around 125,000 souls, a bit over one-third born in Israel. As with Mizrachim and African Israelites before, Israel settled Beta Israel in peripheral socioeconomic areas.
Fred Lazin writes, “While official policy called for housing Ethiopian immigrants in communities with strong infrastructures in central Israel, most would be directed to permanent housing in spatially segregated clusters in specific neighborhoods and municipalities, often in Israel’s periphery. In education, political decisions at the highest level segregated Ethiopian immigrant children within an inferior school system.”
Writing on the earlier period of Mizrachi settlement mentioned above, Lazin illuminates the process later applied to African Israelites and Ethiopian Jews:
In the early 1950’s, arguing that national security prohibited concentrating the Jewish population along the coastal strip, the government adopted a policy of population dispersal. Most immigrants arriving in the 1950s were sent directly from boats or planes to new housing, furnished by the Jewish Agency, in development or ‘new’ towns in sparsely populated peripheral areas, some of which were in regions with Israeli Arabs and near hostile borders. Immigrants of means settled themselves in the major cities.
Critics claimed that the population dispersal policy was part of an overall effort by the existing political establishment to create a dependent immigrant population that allowed the retention of power during national growth and development. Regardless of intent, the population dispersal policy limited opportunities for new immigrants: During its early decades, Israel’s economic development and growth occurred in the center of the country, by-passing the development towns. Moreover, the level of educational, social, and health services in the new towns lagged far behind that of central Israel; for example, ‘[m]ost of the new communities lacked facilities for secondary education.’
The influx of Ethiopian Jews broadly coincided with that of settlers from the Soviet Union. Lazin contrasts the experiences:
The expected massive wave of immigration from the Soviet Union in 1988 led the government to institute a policy of 'direct absorption' which bypasses absorption centers. Following a short stay at a hotel or with relatives, the immigrant receives a financial stipend and rents housing on the private market. The immigrant then finds a job or participates in a subsidized job-training program. The government and Jewish Agency excluded Ethiopians from direct absorption. Officially, Agency and government officials argued that the Ethiopians were incapable of being absorbed directly into Israeli society; they lacked the education, skills, knowledge, resources, and appropriate culture to find housing on their own.
Ethiopian Jews were/are subsequently instructed in, as one example, Ashkenazi and Sephardi forms of Judaism to replace their own. This stems from a continuing Israeli denial of Ethiopian Jews’ Jewishness. Inbal Cicurel and Rachel Sharaby write, “Israeli religious leaders doubted the Judaism of individual Ethiopians due to concerns about marriages between Jews and non-Jews in Ethiopia. Some immigrants from Ethiopia perceived such doubts of their Judaism as degrading and racist, and publicly protested against it. The debate regarding Ethiopian Jews’ Judaism also affected the status of the Ethiopian religious leaders--the kessochs.”
It took protests to get kessochs official status as clergy and a hunger strike in 2012 to have a younger generation of twelve kessochs ordained. Even still the Israeli rabbinate is dedicated to ending kessochs’ position and has declared the 2012 class Israel’s last. This effort renders the sacred vulnerable to annihilation. It is an effort to disarticulate Ethiopian Jews from their cosmology and bring them instead to settler colonial worship.
Ethiopian Jews in Israel exist in a space of liminal humanity, both articulated to the white settler colony while being, at best, only partially accepted. This is evidenced by the Israeli state’s multiple attempts to end Ethiopian settlement altogether. Israel first did this in 1998 saying the entirety of Ethiopian Jewry was in Israel. Israel publicly ended Ethiopian settlement again in 2008 and 2013 and, without fanfare, earlier this year in ending the processing of migration requests. Here Ethiopians are constantly on the cusp of accepted/rejected as a matter of official policy. Each official end to Ethiopian settlement also reflects back onto those already in colony, reminding them of their precarious place in the Israeli body politic. Again, this is all done while Israel desperately tries to bring back yordim (Israeli Jews who permanently migrate out of colony), recruits (non-Black) French, U.S. and other Jews, and laments about the Palestinian “demographic bomb,” a racist term of weaponized Palestinian wombs to note an impending date when Palestinians will outnumber Israeli settlers between the Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea.
The Israeli distinction between ‘Ethiopian’ and ‘Jew’ is not limited to clerical decrees and settlement policies. It is common every day at the popular level. There was a minor scandal performance in 2008 when some Hebron settlers rioted against being removed from a stolen Palestinian house with some Ethiopian Border Police present. One Ethiopian soldier recalled an Ashkenazi settler yelling, “Who are you to expel us from our home? An Ethiopian does not expel a Jew! A nigger does not expel a Jew!” This led to some expected condemnations from the Olmert government but no political changes.
Little exemplifies the Ethiopian place in the Israeli national body like how the Magen David (the Israeli Red Cross) treats Ethiopian blood donations. Thousands of Ethiopian Jews laid siege to Prime Minister Shimon Peres’ office in 1996 when it was reported that the Magen David was dumping donated Ethiopian blood for fears of HIV. Mekonnen Zenaneh said at the time, "They threw away our blood - this is inhuman. Ethiopians feel that there is discrimination at every level, in education and in the military, that we are not equal." Here Ethiopians are a contaminant to the Israeli body with a different version of the U.S.’s one-drop rule. The rules against Ethiopian blood donations applied to “anyone born in Ethiopia or had spent more than a year there since 1977.” The official ban on Ethiopian blood donations ended only on July 1st of 2017 and it remains to be seen whether the official end will lead to a practiced end as well.
The blood ban is not the only rejection of Ethiopians at the biological level. In 2013, the Israeli Health Ministry admitted that many Ethiopian women in transit camps prior to settlement were coerced into being injected with Depo-Provera, a long-acting contraceptive. One woman said, “They told us they are inoculations. They told us people who frequently give birth suffer. We took it every three months. We said we didn’t want to.” These forced sterilizations played a role in a 50% decline in the Ethiopian birth rate between 2003-2013. This practice and that of the blood ban should be read in context of Ruppin’s eugenics formulation that Ethiopians “have no Blood connection to the Jews” and that “their number in Palestine should not be increased.” Ruppin’s formulations were both policy and prophecy.