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The Complexities of Blackness in Israel

By: Jacob Lewis

I attended the “Being Black in Israel” Center for Israel Studies event on Wednesday, September 2nd. Laura Cutler and Professor Michael Brenner introduced the panelists, who included cultural anthropologist Uri Dorchin, Director of Interfaces and Synergy at the Jewish Agency Pnina Gaday-Agenyahu, and Ethiopian-Israeli activist Ashager Araro. Dorchin focused on what “Blackness” means in Israel while Gaday-Agenyahu and Araro discussed the daily life of Ethiopian Jews in Israel and the United States.

A key point that Dorchin brought up is the difference between “Black” and “Blackness.” His area of research focuses on the abstract concept of “Blackness” in Israel but not necessarily Black people in Israel. The concept of “Blackness” can and does apply to some who are not Black. For instance, Dorchin brought up the fact that in eastern Europe Jews fell under the concept of “Blackness” in that they were the ultimate “other” in the areas in which they lived. “Blackness” also applies to the Mizrahi Jews who live in Israel. This was especially true when they first made Aliyah because they were othered by the majority Ashkenazi population of the state. These fundamental gaps between Jews in Israeli society still exist today, although they have narrowed in some respects. This being said, Dorchin clearly pointed out that Israeli society mainly revolves around the divide between Jews and non-Jews (mainly the Arab population) as opposed to the United States which revolves more around racial lines. Dorchin’s last major point was that non-Jewish Ethiopians living in Israel and Jewish Ethiopians living in Israel are treated differently in Israeli society. Again, this falls under a Jewish versus non-Jewish dividing line.

Gaday-Agenyahu came to Israel from Ethiopia during Operation Moses, the covert evacuation of Ethiopian Jews from Sudan in late 1984 to early 1985, and her family was one of the first Ethiopian-Israel families to arrive in Israel. She describes the Ethiopian Jewish community as being traditionally Jewish back in Ethiopia. Therefore, it was a shock for her family to come to Israel and encounter non-Jews and secular white Jews who questioned their Jewish identity. Gaday-Agenyahu described the socioeconomic struggle of making Aliyah and integrating into Israeli society, especially as Ethiopian Jews were some of the first Black people other Israelis had seen. Ethiopian Jews also shifted from a largely agricultural society to a more industrial, urban one in Israel. Most had no higher education. Gaday-Agenyahu emphasized the tokenization of Ethiopian Jews, including herself, and the prominence of the media’s narrative of Ethiopian Jews. She lived in the United States for several years and, while she was there, she did not feel stared at like she does in Israel. Her son was not questioned for being Black in their U.S. synagogue. Gaday-Agenyahu describes a struggle to be seen as individuals and as a community within Israel.

Araro came to Israel from Ethiopia when she was one year old. She described a home life that was very Ethiopian; the food, the Amharic language, and general culture all derived from her family’s lived experience in Ethiopia. However, as she grew up, she experienced an “Israeli” lifestyle where she learned about the overall culture in Israel and spoke Hebrew (although she had to learn the language with her parents in order to adjust to it). A major point that she touched on that Gaday-Agenyahu also brought up was the lack of narrative in Israel driven by the Ethiopian Jewish community itself. The only narrative that is present is that of the media and the government. In order to tell their own stories of their community, Araro and her aunt began the Battae Ethiopian Israeli Heritage Center in Tel Aviv following the killing of Solomon Tekah by the Israeli police last year. Araro is working through the center to let the Israeli public know about the Ethiopian Israeli narrative from the view of the people themselves.

I am so glad that the panelists and the Center for Israel Studies put this event together this semester. Not only is it timely, but I can admit as someone who studies a lot regarding Israeli society that “Blackness” and being Black in Israel is something I know very little about. I am hoping this is only the beginning of what I can learn and be a part of on these topics. I loved the event, and I will briefly share about two things I found to be particularly interesting. Both Gaday-Agenyahu and Araro talked about the conflict between Ethiopian Jews and Black non-Jews (in particular refugees) residing in Israel. There is a struggle within the community over whether to stand in solidarity with the refugees when they are facing issues. The Ethiopian Jewish community tends to put their Jewish identity before their Black identity and, according to Araro, the majority do not connect with the refugees. Secondly, Dorchin brought up a conflict regarding “Blackness” in Israel, being that the idea of who is “Blacker” has arisen in Israel since the arrival of the Ethiopian Jews. I noted earlier that “Blackness” has applied to the Mizrahi Jews in Israel, especially in the years after they first arrived as they struggled to live and integrate into Israeli society. In fact, there was a Mizrahi Black Panther movement in the 1970s as well as protests in the previous decades. This has contributed to a difference in the idea of “Blackness” as it applies to both the Mizrahim and the Ethiopian Jews. I hope that the Center for Israel Studies will host more events like this one with a focus on marginalized groups in Israeli society. I believe that the American Jewish community should do more to learn about marginalized Jewish groups around the world, especially since we are mostly Ashkenazim.

Jacob Lewis is a junior studying Political Science and Israel at American University. He loves to write, edit, cook, play guitar and violin, and do community service. He is active in AU Hillel, teaches Israeli Cooking at Washington Hebrew Congregation, and is the Business Manager of the TenLi Tunes a cappella group. He is also the president of AU’s chapter of Alpha Phi Omega. Jacob is an avid follower and analyst of Israeli politics and elections.

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