By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
Among those who think they are being pro-Israel, in the face of rising criticism of Israel for being racist, there is a tendency to try to exploit Israel’s minorities as a shield, misleading about them and Israel’s supposed treatment of them.
At the root of this exploitation are statements about Ethiopian Jews. For instance misguided pro-Israel activists, instead of celebrating diversity and Jews ingathering from all over the world in Israel, will put a photo of an Ethiopian or black Jew and write something about how Israel is not an apartheid state. In this they use the fact that there are Jews from Africa as a way to disprove an assertion that Israel’s treatment of Palestinians is a kind of “apartheid.” For instance they will put a photo of an Ethiopian Jew in the IDF and use it to underline that Israel is “not apartheid.” But the Ethiopian Jews in the IDF, or those at University or working in hospitals and riding on buses, are in Israel because they are Jewish, just like Jews from Ukraine or Brooklyn. Using them as an example of how Israel “isn’t apartheid” is as ridiculous as putting a photo of a Jewish person from Iran or California and saying “not apartheid.”
Second, comes the common comment about how Israel “brought black people” to Israel. This statement is used to make it seem Israel is unique among the countries of the world for not enslaving black people or for welcoming black people. This is a bit of a strange statement because at its basis is the theory that it would have been natural for countries to enslave people, and that by not enslaving them Israel somehow did something good? That’s like saying “say thanks for us not enslaving you.”
But at the basis of this bait and switch argument is the assumption that Israel opened its doors to black Jewish people out of a form of charity almost, not because they had a right to come to Israel. Ethiopian Jews desired to come to Israel just like Jews from Canada or Poland or Yemen. They have a right to be in Israel, it’s not a charity, it’s not Israel “brought” them anymore than groups of Americans who come to Israel on free flights are being “brought.” Claiming that Israel is good because it allowed black people to come is as nonsensical as saying “Israel is the only country which has brought white people” as if by allowing Jews from Bulgaria that Israel “brought white people.” The Jews from Ethiopia who came to Israel came as Jews first, not because they were black. Israel didn’t “save” them or do anything special to them as black people, it helped bring them to Israel in two military operations because they were Jewish. Israel extended the same aid to others being persecuted. That is the reason that Israel exists.
Israel says that it exists as a homeland for the Jewish people and to help Jews and provide sanctuary for those fleeing persecution. The Law of Return is even broad enough that it is open to aliyah to Jews who are half Jewish or a quarter Jewish. The concept is to ingather the exiles. When someone says that Israel “rescued black people” or “brought black people” it negates the nature of the state. It was Israel’s job and reason for existence to facilitate Jewish immigration from Ethiopia. Israel didn’t bring every person from Ethiopia. It was open to Jews from Ethiopia, just like Jews from Iraq or from Italy. No one says that Israel is particularly great because “alone among the world’s nations Israel welcomed Moroccans and Moldovans.” No one says “Israel welcomed Arabs” when referring to enabling Jewish immigration from Egypt. Israel welcomed Jews from Morocco and Moldova and Egypt. Not “Israel brought white people.”
By claiming Israel “brought black people” or is special for “not enslaving” black people, one is negating Israel as a Jewish state and pretending that Israel had a choice to maybe enslave black people or not and that by not doing so it did them a favor. There shouldn’t be any points for “not enslaving” and Israel should be proud of bring Jews from Ethiopia only insofar as it was a difficult operation to bring them, not because they were black, but because they were Jewish. In fact one third of the Ethiopian Jews trying to get to Israel in the 1980s died in camps in Sudan on the way. Rather than belittle them through exploiting their suffering to make it seem like they got a favor for not being enslaved by Israel, it would be better to focus on their heroism rather than trying to use their blackness as a shield for criticism of Israel.
When pro-Israel voices compare the experience of Ethiopian Jews with Africans being enslaved to be brought to the Americas they other the Ethiopian Jews and are basically saying to them “say thank you for not being enslaved.” That is an oddly white supremacist way of thinking, especially since Israel has never had slaves and there was no one suggesting that Israel bring back people to be enslaved instead. Israel doesn’t deserve any applause for not being racist. Not being racist is the minimum. When people pat themselves on the back for “not enslaving” basically they are taking the view that slavery was acceptable and that somehow they deserve points for not doing it.
Using photos of diversity to pretend that “it’s not an apartheid state,” basically accepts the critique that it is an apartheid state. The right rejoinder to being told one is racist isn’t to point to black neighbors and be like “but there are black people here.”
Israel should celebrate its diversity and should celebrate the miracle that Ethiopian Jews returned to Israel. But pro-Israel voices should not get into the habit of denigrating black Jews in Israel by pretending they exist primarily as a shield for Israel and accusations of racism. If Ethiopian Jews were truly equal in Israel then there would be no need to use them as a shield. That means they shouldn’t be recruited for tours abroad to confront anti-Israel activists by using a black face. Or years pro-Israel groups would exploit Ethiopian Israelis by using them abroad at events to confront anti-Israel activists but the same pro-Israel groups never invested in the success of those voices they used, they never cared when those same Ethiopian Jews faced actual discrimination back in Israel. Because they were using them as a prop. A pro-Israel prop. And then putting up memes of them, packaging them as a sales tool to profit off. Ironically, in pretending Israel is not racist, an exploitative industry of using black Israelis was created, by organizations whose managers were getting massive salaries in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, while the young activists were used.
Israel is diverse because the Jewish people are diverse and because the country has tremendous diversity outside the Jewish community. Bahais have refuge in Israel, the Christian community is growing, there are Druze and Circassians, Muslims of different sects, and many types of people. That is good and Israel should be proud of that. But the main refrain to being accused of racism should not be to hold up a cliche of beduin, and Ethiopian and a Russian and say “look, we have black, Arab and Russian friends.”
A positive voice is one that says Israel is diverse, not one that creates cliches and manufacturers diversity and makes it seem Israel is diverse as if it’s a charity, rather than it being authentically diverse because of the diversity of the Jewish people and other citizens of the country. The pro-Israel voices that for years would hold up some Arab professor or film director and say “see, not apartheid,” failed on all levels of decency because when he same film director was detained at the airport and harassed by security, the pro-Israel voices didn’t defend them. The same Druze held up for “diversity” were not supported in their protests against the Nation State bill. Suddenly they were attacked as “anti-Zionist.” Because the pro-Israel misguided message generally only uses these people. It’s not authentic. And so is the misunderstanding of basic things, like why Ethiopian Jews are in Israel. Not because they are black, but because they are Jewish.