I have had a fascination with Israel for many decades. It probably started when I was a child growing up in the Orthodox Jewish community of Crown Heights in Brooklyn, and my parents would discuss “planting a tree for Israel” with some of our neighbors. At age four and five I knew nothing of the politics that engendered Israel’s birth. A few years later I learned about the Holocaust, and the role it played in spurring the creation of a homeland for the Jewish diaspora. It never occurred to me that all those within its borders were not like the Jews I knew from Brooklyn. It also didn’t occur to me that not all Israelis were Ashkenazim. My parents’ leftist friends were also white, but secular. When we moved to Queens in the late 1950s I became friends with a girl who I thought was Puerto Rican—only to find out she was a Sephardic Jew from Spain.
In the mid-60s I went to high school in Harlem and while hanging out, met black Hebrews who were part of a broad cross-section of Afrocentric groups who were active up there at the time. I heard that a group of them from Chicago, the African Hebrew Israelites, had left the U.S. and relocated to Liberia. I found out later that they had migrated from there to Israel. In 1971 after spending some time in Algeria at the headquarters of the International section of the Black Panther Party, I was made aware of the formation of a radical movement that had borrowed the Party name—the Black Panthers of Israel. We announced our solidarity with their efforts. After returning to the U.S. I noticed that there was very little in the press about their struggle inside Israel.
Over a decade later in 1984, I had an atheist sabra as a roommate, and learned yet another facet of what an Israeli was or wasn’t. She grew up on a kibbutz, was raised non-religious and left Israel after doing her military service, angry about the presence of and tolerance for Haredi Jews by the state. She and I were similar in skin coloring due to her family ancestry as a Mizrahi Jew from Yemen. That same year, Operation Moses took place, taking the Beta Israel Ethiopian Jews home, or ‘making Aliyah’—which I was curious about and discussed with her. The Moses airlift was followed six years later by Operation Solomon in 1991. That was the year I entered my graduate studies in anthropology, and when thinking about my doctoral topic I decided to do my field research in Israel—I wanted to examine the acculturation of non-European origin Israelis. For a variety of reasons that subject did not become the topic of my research, but I have continued to follow news about each of these disparate groups with deep interest.
Much—or at least most—of the discussion of Israel in the U.S. tends to be polarizing (against or for), and is also about what we call the I/P debate—Israel/Palestine. Rarely do we examine the internal contractions within Israeli society, which is not a monolith or homogeneous. Israel’s population demographics are complicated not just by Jewish (and who qualifies as a Jew) vs. not Jewish, but also by diversity within Judaism.
Jewish ethnic divisions, including Ashkenazi Jews, Sephardi Jews, Mizrahi Jews, Beta Israel, Bene Israel, Karaite Jews, and many other groups. The Israeli Jewish community manifests a wide range of Jewish cultural traditions, as well as encompassing the full spectrum of religious observance, from the haredi communities to the hilonim Jewish communities who live a secular lifestyle. Among the Jewish population, hundreds of thousands of Israeli-born Jews are of mixed ancestry of both Ashkenazi and Mizrahi descent. Over 50% of the Jewish population is of at least a partial Mizrahi descent.
In the early 1970s a group of militants arose out of the Mizrahi community.
Black Panthers — Israel.
The movement began early in 1971 in the Musrara neighborhood of Jerusalem, in reaction to discrimination against Mizrahi Jews, which it considered to have existed since the establishment of the state. The Black Panthers felt that this discrimination could be seen in the different attitude of the Ashkenazi Establishment towards the olim from the Soviet Union. The movement's founders protested "ignorance from the establishment for the hard social problems", and wanted to fight for a different future.
At the beginning of March 1971, the Israel police denied the Black Panthers a permit for a demonstration; the Panthers ignored this decision and proceeded with the demonstration illegally, protesting the distress of the poverty, the gap between poor and rich in Israel, and the ethnic tensions within Jewish Israeli society. The movement successfully built a base of supporters, both in the public and in the media. On 18 May 1971, "The Night of the Panthers", between 5,000 and 7,000 demonstrators gathered in Zion Square in Jerusalem in a militant protest against the racial discrimination. The demonstrators even demanded to change the name of the square to Kikar Yehadut HaMizrah (Eastern Jewry Square). This demonstration was also held without police permission. The security forces that came to disperse the demonstration encountered an angry mob who threw stones and molotov cocktails. Both police and demonstrators were injured in the clash; 20 were hospitalized, and 74 demonstrators were arrested by the police.
Prior to the demonstration, representatives of the Panthers had met with Prime Minister Golda Meir on 13 April, who characterized them as "not nice people". She saw the leaders of the movement as lawbreakers and refused to recognize them as a social movement. The violent protest of 18 May brought the government to discuss seriously the Panthers' claims and a public committee was established to find a solution. According to the conclusions of that committee, discrimination did exist at many levels in society. Following this, the budgets of the offices dealing with social issues were enlarged significantly. However, the 1973 Yom Kippur War soon changed the government's list of priorities, and most of these resources were turned, again, towards security needs.
Some of this history is now rising to the surface, as seen in this article titled “Jerusalem Honors Israeli Black Panthers Founder.” It detailed how Jerusalem was set to name a street for Black Panthers founder, MK and longtime activist Saadia Marciano.
When the Israeli Black Panthers organization began its struggle in the early 1970s, they were rejected by state leaders as hooligans; then-Prime Minister Golda Meir famously called them “not nice people.” Now, one of the Israeli Black Panthers' founders is getting official recognition. The city of Jerusalem has decided to name a street for the late Saadia Marciano, one of the original “Black Panthers” who went on to decades of political and social activism and a brief stint in Knesset.
Marciano was born in Morocco and grew up in the Musrara (Morasha) neighborhood of Jerusalem in the 1950s. At the time, the neighborhood was an impoverished area crowded with new immigrants from Arab countries who had nowhere else to go. It was also on the seam between Israeli Jerusalem and the Jordanian-held eastern half of the city, and as such, was a frequent target of Jordanian attacks. In 1970, Marciano and several friends living in Musrara, who had been inspired by the Black Panthers movement in the United States, began the Israeli Black Panthers movement. Like its American counterpart, the movement fought for racial equality and social justice, and was controversial for its forceful tactics.
The Israeli Black Panthers’ more controversial tactics included stealing milk from well-off Jerusalem neighborhoods to distribute in poor, Mizrahi-Jewish areas, and violent, unauthorized protests that sometimes ended in injury. The movement quickly gained popularity in other poor, predominantly Middle Eastern Jewish areas, and led to government investigations into social inequality and discrimination against Jews of Middle Eastern origin. In the mid-1970s the “Panthers” largely moved into more mainstream politics and social activism. Marciano served in Knesset as a member of the short-lived left-wing Sheli party. Over the next few decades he continued his political and social activism; among other things, he established the Zoharim center to treat drug addicts, assisted struggling low-income families, and organized protests over various social and economic issues. Saadia Marciano died in December 2007 at the age of 58. He had suffered economic woes, as well as health problems, in the years before his death.
As I mentioned earlier, there is a small African-American origin Hebrew community in Israel, the African Hebrew Israelites. Here is how they describe themselves:
The African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem are comprised of approximately 2,000 men, women and children residing in three development towns – – Dimona, Arad and Mitzpe Ramon – – in southern Israel. We maintain a vibrant culture which includes a communal lifestyle, a vegan diet, a system of preventive health care and high moral standards – – a holistic approach to life based on righteousness. Our intent is to live according to the laws and prophecies of God.
In 2014, the leader of the group died.
Ben Ammi Ben-Israel, the founder and leader of the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem, died on Saturday at 74. The cause of his death has yet to be determined. The group, which has also been known as the Black Hebrews, moved to Israel from the US in the late 1960s and 1970s. Today there are some 2,500 African Hebrew Israelites living in Israel, most in the southern towns of Dimona, Arad and Mitzpe Ramon, as well as in Tiberias. Ahmadiel Ben-Yehuda, a spokesman for the African Hebrew Israelites, said the members of the community are “deeply saddened at the loss of our holy father’s physical presence,” but said they are “emboldened in knowing that his spirit truly lives in each and every one of us.” …
Ben-Israel was born Ben Carter in 1939 in Chicago. In 1966, he said he received a vision in which the angel Gabriel told him that the time had come for the descendants of these ancient Jews to return to the Land of Israel.In 1967, Ben-Israel led 350 people to the West African country of Liberia.From there, in 1969, members of the community began to arrive in Israel, where they became the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem. The community believed Ben-Israel to be the Messiah, referring to him as the “messianic leader of the kingdom of God.” When they began arriving in Israel, the African Hebrews were not recognized as Jewish by the Chief Rabbinate and were not granted citizenship under the law of return. They first gained legal status in 1990 when they were granted work visas, and then gained temporary- resident status a year later. In 2003, the Interior Ministry granted the community permanent- residence status, and a handful have successfully applied for Israeli citizenship. After a court battle, Ben-Israel finally received citizenship in August 2013, in a special ceremony with then-interior minister Gideon Sa’ar.
Young men from the African Hebrew community serve in the IDF, and have entered international sporting events and academic competitions under the Israeli flag, as well as having represented Israel twice in the Eurovision song contest. Ben-Israel is survived by his four wives and 20 children.
The last line of this obit reveals the main point of controversy swirling around the group in online discussions. They practice polygyny, and though only about one-third of the group is engaged in multiple marriage, it is interesting that though polygamy is currently illegal in Israel, the government has looked the other way, as it has for Bedouins.
There are other groups in Israel who are considered to be “black.” Among them are Nubian migrant laborers in Ein-Duke and Nuwayma. However, the group that has elicited the most interest and controversy, within Israel and internationally are the Beta Israel, who are Ethiopian born, or of Ethiopian descent.
Ethiopian Jews in Israel are immigrants and descendants of the immigrants of the Beta Israel communities of Ethiopia, who now reside in Israel.
Most of the community made aliyah from Ethiopia to Israel in two waves of mass immigration assisted by the Israeli government: Operation Moses (1984) and Operation Solomon (1991) Today Israel is home to the largest Beta Israel community in the world with about 125,500 citizens of Ethiopian descent in 2011, who are mainly assembled in the smaller urban areas of central Israel.
There has been debate about the internal politics of the decision to rescue the Beta Israel. Much of the pressure on Israel to do so came from the activism of The American Association for Ethiopian Jews (AAEJ).
The following film clip presents their point of view.
הסיפור האמיתי על עליית יהודי אתיופיה הידועים בשם "ביתא ישראל" ובשם הגנאי שהנוצרים כינו אותם פלאשים ("זרים") יהודי אתיופיה חייו בבידוד במשך מאות שנים, התפללו ושמרו על דתם בצורה עתיקה, טרום התלמוד של היהדות. במאה השבע עשרה, תרבות המשגשגת הזו נשלטת על ידי שבטים שכנים שהביאה שנים של רדיפות ואפליה. בשנת 1980 התנאים החמירו, גל חדש של אלימות איימו על פלאשים שנותרו. הסבל שעברו מאות שנים של התעללות בידיהם של אזרחים אתיופיים שמסרבים לקבל את קבוצת המיעוט, כחלק מהתרבות שלהם, מה שמובילים למריבות אינסופיות, וקונפליקטים יומיומיים. הסרט התיעודי חושף את השתלשלות האירועים ועמדתם של מנהיגי מדינת ישראל. סרט זה היווה חלק נכבד בפעילויות האינטנסיביות של AAEJ לגיוס מדינת ישראל לטובת העלייה והצלת השוהים בסודן. הסרט מתמצת את סיפורם של יהודי אתיופיה ומציג את המהלכים הפוליטיים אשר גרמו לממשלת ישראל, בסופו של דבר, לאפשר ליהודי אתיופיה להגיע לישראל. הסרט חשף לעיני יהדות התפוצות, עליה נסמכת ישראל, את מדיניותה של מדינת ישראל נגד העלייה של הפלאשים לישראל, כמו גם לא מעט גופים רשמיים בעולם היהודי.
לאחר הקרנתו הראשונית בישראל, צונזר סרט זה ונאסר להקרנה בארץ. הסרט הוא מ-1983 בבימויו של שמחה יעקובוביץ'. (הסרט שוחרר רק ב-2004)
The true story of Ethiopian Jewry known as "Beta Israel" and the name-calling Christians who called them Falashas ( "foreigners") Ethiopian Jews lived in isolation for centuries, prayed and kept their religion of ancient, pre-Talmudic Judaism.
In the seventeenth century, the thriving culture that was controlled by neighboring tribes led to years of persecution and discrimination. Conditions worsened in 1980, a new wave of violence threatening the remaining Falashas. Suffering that hundreds of years of abuse in the hands of Ethiopian citizens who refused to accept the minority as part of their culture, led to endless quarrels and conflicts daily.
The documentary reveals the sequence of events and the position of the leaders of the State of Israel. This movie was a significant part in activities by the American Association for Ethiopian Jews (AAEJ) to raise consciousness in the State of Israel to favor immigration, saving those residing in Sudan. The film encapsulates the story of the Jews of Ethiopia and presents the political moves which led to the Israeli government, in the end, allowing Ethiopian Jews to come to Israel. The film that exposed the Jewish Diaspora, is the basis for Israel, the State of Israel's policies against immigration of the Falashas to Israel, as well as quite a few official bodies in the Jewish world.
After initial screening in Israel, this film was censored and banned in the country. The film is from 1983, directed by Simcha Jacobovici. (The film was released only in 2004)
Here is video footage from Operation Solomon.
Actual footage of the rescue of Ethiopian Jews to Israel on Operation Solomon. Filmed, narated, and edited by American Association for Ethiopian Jews staff member Joyce Miller
I’d like to suggest two books which offer further insights.
Black Jews, Jews, and Other Heroes: How Grassroots Activism Led to the Rescue of the Ethiopian Jews by Howard M. Lenhoff
Seldom has a small grassroots organization polarized American Jewry as did the American Association for Ethiopian Jews (AAEJ) and seldom has a grassroots organization been so successful.
How were five governments persuaded that it was to their interest to allow the threatened Jews of Ethiopia to fulfill their dream of rejoining their brethren in Israel? From 1974 through 1991, active AAEJ members demonstrated that it was possible to rescue black Jews from Africa. They enlisted the support of college students, American Rabbis, editors of the Jewish press and other Zionists. Lenhoff’s memoir provides many untold stories behind this historic drama: How Israeli Ethiopian Jews and Americans Jews worked secretly to rescue over 1,000 Ethiopian Jews. How Jerry Weaver masterminded Operation Moses – the first mass exodus of black Africans as free people – not as slaves. How two gutsy American women set up a situation allowing Israel to rescue 14,000 Ethiopian Jews in one day of Operation Solomon. There is more: the intrigues in Israel between the politics of religion and the Law of Return; the daring heroic adventures of courageous Ethiopian Jews as they trekked from Ethiopia to Sudan. These are the stories of activists who challenged the establishment and won!
Baruch's Odyssey: An Ethiopian Jew's Struggle to Save His People, by Baruch Tegegne and Phyllis Schwartzman Pinchuk
In 1955, at age 11, Baruch was sent to study in Israel. Returning to Ethiopia at 19, he worked as an agro-mechanic and later bought a farm, on which he and his family prospered...until the Revolution in 1974, when life became unbearable. Baruch was determined to get his people out of Ethiopia and into Israel. His harrowing journey to the Promised Land took three years of travel - by land, sea and air. Baruch s struggles to save his people ran into many obstacles, not the least of which was racial prejudice. Here is the story of a man and a people who have lived their ideals.
Tegegne, who died in 2010, had a history of political activism.
Tegegne led a protest march in 1977 in Jerusalem that gained him recognition from Menachem Begin. He served in the Israel Defense Forces and worked with the Mossad in the late 1970s. In 1979 he appeared before the General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities. He also sought support from the American Association for Ethiopian Jews. He was married in 1980 to Susan Migicovsky and had a daughter named Yaffa. Beginning in 1980 Tegegne was involved in efforts to bring Ethiopian Jews to Germany and then to Canada. He met with Elie Wiesel and in 1984 led further protests in Israel and another in 1987. Although not directly involved, he was credited with raising the awareness that led to Operation Moses and Operation Solomon.
On the international stage in recent years, we’ve seen a member of the Beta Isreal, Yityish Aynaw, catapulted to celebrity by becoming Miss Israel in 2013.
She got a chance to meet President Obama in 2013.
While there are success stories, much of the internal situation for the Beta Israel has created an upsurge in protest.
Black Israelis Are Standing Up To Police Brutality (June 23, 2015)
Hundreds of Ethiopian Israelis have been protesting since the afternoon against what they say is the police's racist attitudes toward their community, as well as against a recent decision by Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein to close a criminal investigation into a police officer who manhandled Demas Fekadeh, an Ethiopian soldier.
I wrote here in 2013 about other issues that have been very disturbing, in an essay titled “Racism and reproductive rights in Israel.”
Echoing the history of sterilization of African American, Native American and Puerto Rican women, which included testing toxic birth control dosages on women in PR, the latest reproductive rights outrage is taking place in Israel, where it has been disclosed that Ethiopian Jewish women (members of the Beta Israel) have been given Depo-Provera without informed consent.
That essay cited this story, titled “Amid controversy, Israel issues new birth-control guidelines.”
JERUSALEM -- Rocked by a scandal involving birth-control treatments for Ethiopian Jews, Israel's health ministry issued new guidelines on the use of the injections known commercially as Depo-Provera. In a recent letter to the country's four HMOs reported Sunday, Ron Gamzu, director general of the health ministry, instructed gynecologists against renewing prescriptions in cases where the patient does not fully understand the treatment's implications.
The ministry's new policy comes in response to a controversy exposed last month by local investigative journalist Gal Gabbay, who reported that Jewish Ethiopian women awaiting emigration to Israel in transit camps in Ethiopia were coaxed into the treatment with little medical explanation and led to understand this was a condition for moving to Israel.
There have also been protests against discriminatory housing practices.
Likening their battle to fighting the institutionalized racism that was once present in America, hundreds of members of the Ethiopian community took to the streets of Kiryat Malachi on Tuesday to protest reports of blatant racist behavior publicized recently on national television. “We believe in what Martin Luther King did,” one of the protesters, 23- year-old student Shira Esayas told The Jerusalem Post. “We believe that racism has an effect on all of society and sadly Israel is very far behind America on this issue.”
Over the years, Beta Israelis have achieved prominence in many areas of life in Israel, and have been elected to the Knesset. The question being raised currently is the fate of those Ethiopians of Jewish ancestry (many of whom were forcibly converted to Christianity), and others who have parents and family members who now live in Israel. Promises made to bring them to Israel had been broken, and a series of political protests have forced the government to resume the migration program.
Crisis averted: 1,300 Ethiopian Jews coming home
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on Thursday reached an agreement with MK David Amsalem of his Likud party, according to which 1,300 Ethiopian Jews will be brought home on aliyah to Israel over the course of the current year. Amsalem and MK Avraham Neguise, also of Likud and himself an immigrant from Ethiopia, have refused to vote with the coalition in protest since early March. The move came after Netanyahu's office canceled the Knesset decision from last November to bring Ethiopia’s 9,000 remaining Jews to Israel, citing budget constraints as a reason.
The decision to rescind the resolution has led to large protests by Ethiopian Jews, and Amsalem and Neguise's bucking of coalition discipline has crippled the narrow government with its one-seat majority. Netanyahu was revealed to be feuding with Neguise in a Likud faction meeting late last month, but now the PM apparently changed his tune and decided to meet with Amsalem to reach the agreement.
We shall soon see what happens. I will continue to watch this and other news and information about the Beta Israel and other minority groups in Israel. I hope you will join me.