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The State Of Israel, Ethiopian Jews And A Continuing History Of Racism

By Jehron Muhammad | Last updated: May 14, 2019 - 10:48:52 PM

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Ethiopian Israelis scuffle with Israeli police during a demonstration outside the Prime Minister Office in Jerusalem, Dec. 18, 2007. Hundreds of Ethiopian immigrants protested Dec. 18 against the government’s decision to halt its operation to bring the Falasha, Ethiopian Jews who kept their faith through the years in the face of adversity, to Israel.

PHILADELPHIA—A couple months ago, at a program titled “Judea African America: Our Racial Relationship History & Crisis in Israel Palestine” was held at Uncle Bobbie’s Coffee & Books. A journalist and filmmaker who lives in Israel, David Sheen, took the Israeli government to task for its history of “racist” treatment not only of its Black Ethiopian Jewish population, but also against Jewish people of color.

In fact, the first Jews of color or Semites to come to Israel came in 1948 from North Africa and the Middle East and were settled in Dimona, a city now of 33,000 that sits in the Negev desert. But in 1948 it was unpopulated and simply in the middle of the desert.

According to Sheen, who actually lives in Dimona, against their will Jews of color were sent to Dimona. This began when Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, announced that he wanted Dimona to be the capital of Israel. The idea was to populate as much of the land as possible, and he “wanted Jews to inhabit that land.”

Sheen, who authored on behalf of the African Refugee Development Center a carefully chronicled report on the racist attacks against non-Jewish African asylum seekers in Israel said, “Jews were moving to Israel from all over the world. If you were an Ashkenazi Jew (from Europe) you could move to wherever you wanted to live … . But if you were of those Jews whose ancestors were from Morocco or North Africa or the Middle East what you found is that you were sent to these desolate areas of the country where nothing existed. The government needed you to be a foot soldier, so they would send you there … against your will.”

All Jews were told they could settle wherever they wanted. But unlike Ashkenazi’s, the Jews of color, thinking they were being settled in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem were taken to the middle of the Negev desert. “The trucks dropped them off and they realize they are in the middle of nowhere, and they realize they’ve been lied to and deceived by the government that they trusted. In fact, of the first 5,000 inhabitants of Dimona, two thirds of them were sent there against their will,” says Sheen. The government set up tent cities for them to live.

In 1969 exercising the Israel “law of return,” passed on July 5, 1950, the Chicago- and Washington, D.C.-based African Hebrew Israelites arrived in Israel. Sheen says since they were Black Jews, the immigration officials probably said let’s send them to Dimona.

“They are given all the rights of any Jews moving to Israel, given free housing, furniture, all kinds of other economic incentives to make the difficult challenge of immigration a little easier. They (then) begin establishing the beginning of their community,” notes Sheen.

But after a year, people, including government officials began noticing something different. Sheen says they were practicing a “Afro-centric” form of Judaism. They were told their practice wasn’t “authentic” and told to “convert to our form of Judaism … or you can leave.”

At first the community leaders outright rejected this demand. So what the government did was exhume the bodies of their elderly comrades who had died, from the area Jewish cemetery, and took them and dumped them on “the edge of town.” This area of town, says Sheen, very quickly turned into a garbage dump. “Folks in town (would) go there if they had any garbage or trash. It’s a real sickening story that barely anyone is aware of,” he says.

He knows this because “I went into the historical archives.” He said he found letters. He discovered people were rounded up and they began “kicking them out and sending them back to the U.S.” He also read a letter about how it comes out on the evening news in America. He read, “In tonight’s TV we saw that Israel was expelling Black women and children, and that Israel did the right thing.” And that “there was never an hour during the night or day that Black people didn’t commit purse snatching and rape and robbery.”

Also in the same letter, they reported that Blacks would bring drugs to White women. “Israel should make a law … when a Black man commits any crime, he should be expelled to another country,” the letter says. The interesting thing about this letter was that it was written by the wife of the head of B’nai B’rith of San Francisco, he adds.

Sheen also mentions Dov Shilansky, who became the speaker of the Knesset, or Parliament.

Shilansky says during a Knesset debate concerning the African Hebrews, “We need to be putting the Hebrew Negroes on a boat.” And as the conversation continued, “and drown it (the boat) at sea.”

Later the Hebrew Israelites, after making much media noise, are given a deal, he says. They can stay in Israel, but their children have to serve in the army. They were told if their children serve in the military, apply for and receive citizenship, their parents living in Israel for maybe 40 years or more can apply. “Sadly they are still not citizens, even though they serve in the army. Only five percent of community has citizenship,” according to Sheen.

Israelis say the presence of Ethiopian Jews is proof positive that Israel can’t be racist, observes Sheen.

“I find this very offense because it’s against reality altogether. They say Israel had great intentions and it saved Ethiopian Jews, (when in fact) Israel did everything in its power to prevent Ethiopian Jews from immigrating to Israel.”

According to Sheen, Golda Meir, the fourth Prime Minister of Israel said, “Why do we need this headache? She said we already have problems with the Arabs. That would just bring more problems.”

At the time Israel and Ethiopia had full diplomatic relations. Han Aynor Israel ambassador to Ethiopia sent correspondence to Israel saying, “We can’t even allow the Ethiopian Jews to visit Israel.” If we do, he said, it will encourage “their hopes of immigrating thousands of primitive, illiterate, sick, oppressed people we’ll never have capacity for.”

So to prevent Ethiopian Jews wanting to travel to Israel they allowed Ethiopian Christians free visas to travel and charged $600 for a visa for Ethiopian Jews. This was beyond the means of most Ethiopians.

The first large transport plane of Ethiopians was in the early 1970s. This was a military operation called “Operation African Wild Ass.” This was because it wasn’t people that were being transported, it was donkeys. In the early 1970s Israel spent over $500,000 transporting Ethiopian donkeys to Israel. This was because one of the leaders of Israel’s conservation movement, wanting to replicate the Israel of the Bible, convinced the government to begin to populate the country with the animals found in the Bible. According to Sheen, this was a part of the propaganda to convince people that the Zionist movement was legitimate.

In the 1970s there was much opposition to Zionism as a movement. Sheen says people were very upset with actions against the Palestinian people. And to top it off people were aware of its colonial expansion of the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem and Golan Heights.

This came to a head and the UN passed a resolution saying Zionism is a form of racism. And also, that Israel’s ideology against non- Jews is racist.

The Israeli government was outraged and ashamed of the perception. The Israeli government then began airlifting and supporting the migration of Ethiopian Jews to Israel.

“This was the Israeli government trying to change the perception of Israel. If they brought Black Jews to Israel they could be used as a fig leaf. And that’s what they did. Israeli groups (began) lobbying the government to bring Black Jews to Israel,” explains Sheen.

But life in Israel for Ethiopian Jews is no cake walk. According to the many articles discovered during a Google search, almost all Ethiopian Jews, or a family member, have a horror story.

In one piece discussing racism in Israel, Haftam Yizhak-Heathwood, a Jew born in Ethiopia, writes, “Ethiopian Jews struggle to fit in with the native Israeli population. We need to figure out how to break the systemic oppression that forces Ethiopians to fight to survive.”

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