Israel’s “Ethiopian National Project” and the multiple faces of discrimination in the Zionist Entity

Yesterday we were lucky to meet with representatives of the Ethiopian National Project (ENP), an the Israeli NGO which assists the Ethiopian-Israeli community within Israel.

The story of Ethiopian jews in Israel is a compelling one. According to ENP, in 1991 the political situation in Ethiopea was deteriorating and Israel was afraid for the safety of jews there as rebel forces approached the cities. In a covert military operation named Operation Solomen those jews who had not yet left Ethiopia were air-lifted to Israel. Virtually no Ethiopian jews remain in Ethiopia, making this one of the sudden and complete migrations in modern history.

Ethiopian jews in Israel tend to be poor. When the managing director of ENP went to the state trying to find out how many Ethiopian jews there were in Israel, she was directed towards the welfare office. This was unfair – there are Ethiopian jews in all segments of society, but it is also telling; statistically they are far more likely to be on welfare or below middle class status. According to the representatives we met, ENP exists to improve the status of Ethiopian jews within Israel – to increase their education rates, and to push them up into the middle and upper classes of society.

Myself and some others found it quite strange that ENP directs itself only towards moving Ethiopian Jews from the “have-not” area of society towards the “have” region, and expressed as far as we could tell no desire to transform Israeli society so as to not have “haves” and “have-nots”, or even to reduce inequality in general.

Some of us also found directing so much energy towards Ethiopians who are fully Israeli citizens to be less than laudible, when many Ethiopians and Eritreans who left their homes under similar or worse persecution and fled to Israel, live here with precarious refugee status, without the right to work or to any of the state’s social welfare programs – which as citizens Ethiopian jews can access. The principle of directing attention towards where the need is greatest is not being observed here – in comparison to non-jewish Ethiopian and Eritrean refugees, the Ethiopian jews are already doing pretty well. It was quite uncanny actually – after the representatives had been critical of the way Ethiopian jews are sometimes seen as an “other” within Israel, they referred repeatedly to non jewish Ethiopians as “the other Ethiopians”.

Since ENP’s presentation concentrated almost exclusively on the socio-economic position of Ethiopian-jews in Israel, I asked about the cultural-religious position: is there discrimination against this group of jews in Israel – since they don’t recognize any of the rabbinical writings of the post 2nd temple period on account of having been split off from the rest of Jewry since the period of the destruction of the 1st temple. The answer I was given is a resounding “no”. Apparently Israelis see Ethiopian jews as arguably the purest form of judaism because their religion has remained virtually unchained since the Babylonian period. There are large gaps in religious practice – for instance there are many holidays they do not share because mainstream judaism stopped celebrating them, or because they hadn’t been invented yet when the Ethiopian jews were cut off from the rest of jewry. However, these differences, according to the ENP representative, are not the source of any social exclusion or discrimination within Israeli society – those problems are purely socio-economic.

Personally, I find the inclusiveness of Israeli society towards Ethiopian jews not altogether normal. As far as I can tell, in a religious sense, they are not jews at all, but Israelites. Judaism is intrinsically bound up with the transformation of the Israelite religion of the temple periods into a religion for a people in perpetual exile by the rabbis, and the transformation of an oral tradition into a written tradition. In terms of what I’ve learned about Judaism here in the state of Israel, it seems Ethiopian jews have more in common with Samaritans – a group which the state of Israel does not recognize as jewish. Samaritans are a group which rejected the transformations of Judaism during the period between the destruction of the first temple and the creation of the second one.

Why are religious differences sometimes the apparent ground for discrimination, while in other cases similarities are emphasized and differences played down? I think here it is simply the case that the state of Israel holds the major power in determining who is in the “in group” (jews) and “out group” (non-jews). If the rabbis had decided that Ethiopian jews were not real jews, I doubt they would be as culturally accepted as they are, and if they had not been accorded citizenship their position would be more similar to the Christian Ethiopian refugees who are called “infiltrators” by the centre and right-wing press. Personally, I find it frightening when the state holds not only military power – but ideological power to decide who is a jew and who isn’t.

I think what groups like Ethiopian Jews reveal is the complexity of layering within exclusionary societies – this is a society  divided in so many ways, there are so many different groups and distinctions between different levels of privilege. It is like there is an order of rank within Israel with white European jews at the top, and non-white Palestinian refugees at the bottom.

During our first week here we had dinner with an IDF soldier and his friend, who had an interesting comment about conflict in Israel – he said that as soon as the conflict with Palestinians is done, the jews will be at war with themselves. I think this is a serious question – to what extent is nationalistic in-group loyalty reliant on a specific conflict with an out-group who must function as the scapegoat, the source of the in-group’s problems? And to what extent will nationalistic in-group loyalty break down if an external scapegoat is no longer available? If the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is resolved, how might this affect Israeli public opinion towards refugees, or towards non-mainstream Jews within Israel, or towards the poor?

All of these thoughts tend to confirm my intuitions that nationalism, and especially exclusionary ethnic or cultural nationalism is in-itself a bad thing, and that we should not support states that base their national identity on the exclusion or oppression of “national groups” who threaten the cultural homogeneity of the state.

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2 thoughts on “Israel’s “Ethiopian National Project” and the multiple faces of discrimination in the Zionist Entity

  1. Birthright is an interesting phenomena. We’ve seen many birthright groups on tour while in the region; they tend to be accompanied by someone awkwardly holding a gun.

    The amount of money poured into the ideological defence of zionism is truly astounding, although it becomes less impressive if you compare it with other public relations projects like the election of political parties or the consumption of consumer goods.

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