Efrat Yerday, Writer, scholar, and activist Efrat Yerday shares her perspectives on the history and current position of Ethiopian Jews in Israel, how Ethiopian activism has changed in recent years, and how Ethiopians and Palestinians face the interlocking systems of Zionism, white supremacy, and anti-semitism. The following text, presented in interview format, was developed out of Yerday’s preparation for a panel discussion hosted by the American Jewish Historical Society on contemporary parallel struggles of Ethiopian Jews in Israel/Palestine and Black Lives Matter in the US.
GrayLit: Can you help us trace the connections between Zionism, white supremacy, and anti-semitism? What does it mean for mass movements to address all three at once?
Efrat Yerday: Israeli discourse is anxious on racism. The very language of Israeli Hebrew changes in order to perpetuate the same system of oppression on Jews and non-Jews and to silence critical voice within Jewish society. Because Jewish society legitimizes the Israeli state, silencing critical voices creates the illusion of a monolithic Jewish society that fulfills this role. Therefore, instead of talking about racism or white supremacy, the terms will soften as though it’s a minor agreement between brothers and sisters, who are Jews of course. For example, "genie" or "jinni" and "Hashed Ha'adati," which literally translates to "ethnic demon," of course perpetuate rampant racism but also minimize conversation about discrimination toward "North African" and "Middle Eastern" Jews. The term "eda" describes something between an ethnic group and a tribe and echoes the idea of the Jewish tribes. "Kipuach," which means deprivation, diverts discussion away from institutionalized discrimination and state policy and toward people's feelings. In each case, these terms obscure the specific mechanisms of discrimination and whom such discrimination affects. Judaism, anti-semitism, and Zionism legitimate the State of Israel and Israeli racism. When we look at history and today’s social reality and the strong denial that racism exists within Jewish society, it will be impossible to ignore the infrastructures of hierarchical citizenship that rely on white supremacy. Mizrahim and Ethiopians need to view this situation through a critical lens in order to make connections between types of oppression.
The Israeli identification between Judaism and whiteness is a result of the Zionist movement. Zionism doesn’t only dispossess Palestinians of land, resources, and self-determination, but it also dispossesses non-white Jews of rights and their own cultural heritage. Zionism led to the identification of being Jewish with being white, in part because Zionist visionaries fantasized about Israel being a small Europe in the heart of the barbarian Middle East. The state aspired to whiteness, and this is particularly evident when looking at how Israel has treated Ethiopian Jews.
Israel institutionalized racist practices such as forced conversion for those whose Jewishness they failed to recognize, splitting Ethiopian families by separating children from their parents and sending them to religious boarding schools, and weakening Ethiopian spiritual authorities by not recognizing their social and religious roles and dismantling the community’s religious structure. The State of Israel also implemented quotas that limited immigration from Ethiopia. These methods reflect Israel’s overarching strategy to consider non-white people, in addition to non-Jewish people, a demographic threat. Zionism would accept only a small number of Ethiopian Jews to leave its whiteness as intact as possible and allow the State of Israel to maintain the fantasy of being a Europe in the heart of the brown Middle East.
GL: What is the historical relationship between the Zionist establishment and Ethiopian Jews, particularly in terms of how Ethiopians came to Israel?
EY: While the State was invested in the immigration of Russian speakers, it did very little for the immigration of Ethiopian Jews. Like many Jews, Ethiopian Jews were dreaming about Jerusalem, not in terms of a nationalistic ideology but in terms of a spiritual and religious ideology. Zionism, as a political ideology and movement, and the State of Israel have replaced the spiritual and religious attitudes of Mizrahim and Ethiopians with a nationalistic attitude. Thirty-five years before the First Zionist Congress of 1897, Abba Mahari tried to arrive to Jerusalem from Ethiopia. He took his community, and they marched until the Big River (Tekeza). He tried to cross the river as it is written in the Bible and did not succeed. The Ethiopian Jewish tradition considers Abba Mahari a messianic prophet and spiritual leader.
Ethiopians struggled to arrive in Israel against the will of the State. In the late 60’s and early 70’s, Ethiopian youth arrived in Israel and started to advocate for the Aliyah of their families and communities. In 1973, some of them received a deportation order from the Ministry of Interior because they were considered infiltrators. With the help of a Yemenite ally, they went into hiding and sought recognition of their Jewishness from Rav Ovadia Yosef, the chief Sephardi Rabbi in of Tel Aviv back in those days, so that they would not get deported. Even after they received Rav Ovadia Yosef’s recognition, the Ministry of Aliyah and Integration published a report known as the Litbak report, which claims Ethiopians are not Jews and have genetic diseases. Racist attitudes sought to bar them from the purportedly modern state.
After 1975 however, Ethiopian Aliyah was encouraged. In 1973, the African Union had broken off relations with Israel because of the wars of 1967 and 1973. Then in 1975, the United Nations General Assembly passed resolution 3379 declaring Zionism a form of racism. American Zionists saw this resolution as a disaster. Ashkenazi Americans were also feeling their relations with African American communities in the US deteriorate. Thus, they began advocating for the Aliyah of Ethiopian Jews in an attempt to absolve themselves of racism.
After the UN resolution and American Zionist advocacy, the government of Yitzhak Rabin decided to accept Ethiopian demand for Aliyah. The Likud party, which became the ruling party under Menahem Begin, began to implement this decision slowly in 1977. Ethiopian activists who had been in hiding received recognition and had to go back and forth to bring about the actual Aliyah from Ethiopia. American Zionists also began to bring individual and small groups to Israel, but Israeli governmental institutions refused to help. Only in 1984 did the State of Israel actually bring a substantial amount of Jews to Israel through Operation Moses. It took eleven years from from Rav Ovadia Yosef’s recognition of the Ethiopians’ Jewishness and thirty-six years from the establishment of the State of Israel for the State to accept Ethiopian Jews to some degree, demonstrating the State’s lack of interest in black people, even if they were Jews.
GL: How does the State of Israel treat Ethiopians today?
EY: The Ethiopian community continues to be marginalized by the State of Israel. Israel erases the narrative above by only telling the story of Operation Moses and treats Ethiopian Jews as stepchildren. The State uses Ethiopian Jews to promote an image of diversity and multiculturalism while institutional and structural racism continues. Ethiopians have been forced to convert by rabbinical missionaries and resettled in the economic and social periphery of Israel. We have been and continue to be locked up in immigrant housing centers, where we are forced to live mostly in trailers and RVs for two years, creating ghettos and incarcerating us. Ethiopians make up only two percent of the Israeli population, but just until one year ago, forty percent of young people in juvenile prison were Ethiopian. There is also rampant police brutality. The security forces, including border and state police, are not obligated to protect Ethiopian Jews but instead exist to protect the state from us. During a recent Ethiopian demonstration, I was running away from police who were riding horses. I fell to the ground and felt terrified when I saw a group of them running toward me. I was terrified and afraid that they were going to beat me. That was one of the moments when I realized the paradoxical situation of police brutality and why I and others feel that the police and militarism are things to be afraid of and sources of insecurity.
GL: What does the Ethiopian struggle in Israel look like? Have there been any changes to Ethiopian activism in the last few years?
EY: Two significant demonstrations took place among the first and 1.5 generation immigrants. One was the hunger strike in 1985 against forced conversion. The other was the “blood case” of 1996 when it was revealed that the State of Israel had been setting aside Ethiopian blood donations as infectious waste due to a fear of AIDS. The police responded forcefully and violently to the ensuing demonstration, which some journalists called “The Ethiopian Intifada.” The Jerusalem Police Chief testified that it was the most violent demonstration Israel had ever seen and the first time police used tear gas against Jewish protesters.
I think the demonstrations of May 2015 after the brutal police beating of an Ethiopian soldier named Damas Pakada were a turning point. Up until those demonstrations, Ethiopian activists felt committed to the State of Israel. The beating was recorded on video and erased the minimal trust that existed. Even Ethiopians who thought racism was only in the margins realized that being a “good citizen” and serving the army like Pakada will not erase the color of your skin or protect you from the institutionalized racism that continually manifests through individuals. The U.S. Department of State even documented the brutality of police during the demonstrations: “Participants and bystanders commented on widespread police use of sound grenades, skunk water, and water cannons; these crowd-control methods were rarely used within Green Line Israel.” Since these demonstrations, Ethiopian activists use terms like “racial profiling,” “blackness.” They have even described a “genocide against Ethiopians” referring to Ethiopian women being injected with the contraceptive Depo Provera without their knowledge or consent.
The recent demonstrations show a new sense of urgency among the younger generation of Ethiopians. Ethiopian Jews also used to not relate their struggle to non-Jewish struggles, and particularly Palestinian struggles, because they did not want to risk their status as Jews, the most precious privilege in Israel. Today, however, Ethiopian activists who sought asylum in Israel have dedicated themselves to protecting others, especially black people, who are seeking asylum. Ethiopian activists who have experienced police brutality also realize they cannot ignore how this affects others too, including Eritreans and Palestinians. For instance, Ethiopians responded strongly to the lynching of Eritrean refugee Haftom Zarhum. That is also why we see the family of Yosef Salamsa, an Ethiopian-Israeli victim of police abuse, speaking out against police brutality against a Palestinian truck driver on national media. Ethiopian activists also see similarities between their activism and the activism of the Black Lives Matter movement, so they have changed their discourse to address institutional racism against all black people, including black Americans, and others who face police brutality.
GL: What is the relationship between Ethiopians Jews and Palestinians within Israel?
EY: When I think about Palestinians, there is a continuous line that connects white supremacy of early Zionist “visionaries,” the erasure and denial of Palestinian dispossession, the exploitation of Mizrahi and Ethiopian Jews, and the incarceration and attempts to deport non-Jewish African asylum seekers. We cannot separate these methods of oppression. Only through sharing and talking about all kinds of oppressions can we dismantle the overall system.
To illustrate the complexity and precarious privilege of being an Ethiopian Jew, I would like to give an example. One of the few members of the Israeli parliament to march in the May 2015 demonstration was a Palestinian member Ayman Odeh. His arrival put the Ethiopian activists in a tough position. Some said it made sense for him to march with us, but mainstream marchers were scared that they would be seen collaborating with the enemy and lose their legitimacy in the eyes of the Israeli public. One is forced to choose: should I earn legitimacy from the Israeli public or should I collaborate with non-Jewish minorities and lose that legitimacy? That is a tough question that only Ethiopians can answer.
Hirut Ruth Yosef is an Illustrator, Fashion Designer and Graphic Artist from Israel. She was born in the city of Gonder in Ethiopia in 1979. Her family immigrated to Israel in 1984 hoping for a better future. In 2005 she graduated from Shenkar College of Engineering and Design with a B.A in Fashion Design. Determined to follow her dreams and passion, she moved to Istanbul leaving everything she knew behind. While there she started working on a series of colourful illustrations which she named Mulu and The Beta Clan.
Hirut draws her inspiration from various sources and life experiences. Some of her biggest inspirations would be her Ethiopian mother and grandmother, her African roots and her lifetime love for street art and old school american hip hop and soul culture.
For the last 4 years she has been living in New York and teaching art.