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Why Does Israel Fear Black Youth?

Anti -Shemetism in Semites! Black lives do not matter in Israel. Israeli state and religious authorities’ racist attitudes towards African refugees may have deadly consequences. Anti-blackness in the Jewish community is pushing black Jews out. Countless black Jews have made the decision to leave Judaism because of racism.

Israeli society is not racially divided between Blacks and whites in the way that American society has long been. Still, Blackness in Israel has shaped the relations between Jews and Arabs, Ashkenazim and Mizrahim, Ethiopians and immigrant workers from Africa. Despite the prominence of Blackness in Israel, scholars of Israel and the wider academic field of Israel Studies have largely ignored it so far. In this essay I argue that the reason for this scholarly neglect is that in Israel, Blackness does not neatly fit into the conventional configurations that exists in countries like the U.S. and the U.K. The Israeli case shows that Blackness transgresses color lines, offering fresh perspectives on Israeli society and challenging Blackness as a concept.

While Israeli society is not racially divided between Blacks and whites in the way that American society has been, Israelis are not color-blind, and having black skin can have fatal consequences in Israel. For instance, in June 2019, Solomon Teka, an 18-year-old Israeli Jew of Ethiopian descent, was shot to death by an Israeli policeman, sparking widespread demonstrations and rioting. The Solomon Teka incident was not an unprecedented event. In April 2015, video footage of Israeli policemen brutalizing Damas Pakada, a Jewish Ethiopian soldier, moved thousands of Israelis, Ethiopians and others, to the streets.

One of the reasons this incident prompted a strong reaction was the fact that Pakada was an on-duty soldier wearing his military uniform. Military service is widely perceived as the ultimate rite of passage into Israeli society and as a stamp of approval for being a loyal Israeli citizen. Watching the footage of his assault (that was captured by a security camera), many Israelis saw Pakada not only as an individual but as an example of the successful assimilation of Ethiopians in Israel. Yet, the incident revealed that despite this assimilation, Ethiopian Israelis still suffered from police brutality and discrimination, even when they are in uniform. Like the US all that mattered was skin color not whether or not an actual crime was committed.

This was not the first time, however, that Blackness was associated with official racism and discrimination in Israel. In 1971, second-generation Mizrahi immigrants living in the poor neighborhood of Musrara in Jerusalem formed the Israeli Black Panther Movement not associated with the American Panther movement as India's affiliated chapter was. By identifying themselves as Blacks, these Mizrahi youngsters alluded to the gap between the official Zionist narrative of ingathering the Jewish exiles and the reality in which some Jews remained outsiders in their home country (Frankel 2008). For the Israeli Black Panthers, Blackness served mainly as a metaphor; whereas, for Ethiopian Israelis, Blackness is the material fact of their skin color that makes them a permanent target for institutional and systemic discrimination they aren't allowed to "get tired " or switch sides.

Despite the salience of “Blackness” in Israel, scholars of Israel and the wider academic field of Israel Studies have largely ignored it so far.1 In this essay, I argue that the reason for this scholarly neglect is that most of the candidates for Blackness in Israel do not neatly fit into the conventional configurations of Blackness that exists in countries like the U.S. and the U.K. Hence, to better understand Blackness in Israel, it must be examined from its regional perspective. This regional perspective, I claim, will not only highlight aspects of racism in Israeli society but also broaden our understanding of Blackness as a concept.

The first step in this direction would be to recall that what we now consider “white” Jews have been historically racialized as non-white subjects in European societies. Representations of Jews as possessing certain physical characteristics, including a different skin color, marked them as “others” in Germany, France, Poland and other nations across Europe (Boyarin 1997). In this context, and in an effort to take part in the historical turn to nationalism, European Jews embraced some of the anti-Semitic stereotypes attributed to them — and their bodies. For the Zionist movement, which called for the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine, the construction of a national identity was akin to a process of mental and physical rehabilitation.

Such national consciousness, claimed Zionist leaders, could only be achieved by actual deeds, namely returning to their ancestral homeland, cultivating it, and defending it. Imagining themselves as successors of the glorified heroes of biblical times, early Zionists aimed at reconnecting to the region, hoping to feel indigenous in it once again.

"Within this context, the tan-skinned and masculine appearance of “the new Jew”— crystallized in the image of the Hebrew farmer and laborer — signified a somatic representation of healing the defected diasporic body."

The blackened bodies of Zionist pioneers, and their Sabra sons and daughters, should be seen against three opposing models. First, the model of the European Jew’s body, who despite being considered non-white in European eugenic terms, has been depicted in Zionist discourse as pale and feminine.

Second, the model of American Jews, who went through a successful process of assimilation into the white mainstream American society (Brodkin 1998). Third, the model of the local Arab, to whom Zionists had an ambivalent relationship. Palestinians who became citizens of Israel after the establishment of the state, embraced this symbolism of color. As Honaida Ghanim (forthcoming) reveals, insofar as Israeli Jews became whiter, Blackness served as a symbolic resource for Palestinian Israelis in their effort to construct their sense of national identity following the Nakba.

Not unlike Zionists — and other ethno-national movements — their imagined bloodline, connecting the people to their land, was indexed by color. Since the 1950s, Palestinian poets like Rashid Hassan and Mahmoud Darwish depicted their people as made of the same substance of the local soil, making the dark complexion of Palestinians a central motif in their poetry. This metaphoric strategy achieved its full effect when opposed to Israeli Jews — and later to the Jewish state itself — who were depicted in terms of whiteness. Color thus decoded Jewish-Arab relations in Israel. Jews have largely identified themselves as white, while Palestinians identified themselves as Black, associating the opposing color to delegitimize the other group.

Soon after they arrived in Palestine in the early 20th century, European Jews were attracted to the dark appearance of the local Arab fallahin (peasants), whom they saw as the missing link to their imagined history in that land. This fascination was ambivalent; as exotic as they were, the local Arabs and their ways also signified backwardness that stood in sharp opposition to the European civilization that was left behind. Aiming to reduce the Jewish community’s reliance on Arab workers, Zionist leaders embarked on a plan to bring Yemenite Jews to Palestine. For Zionist leaders like Arthur Ruppin, Yemenites’ dark skin indicated a “touch of Arab blood” that made them, according to Shmuel Yavnieli, “natural workers [at] the same backward level as the [Arab] fallahin” (quoted in Shohat 1997: 50).

The mass influx of Jewish immigrants during the 1950s, the first decade after independence, reinforced the division between Jews of European background and those of Middle Eastern and North African background, who are now referred to as Mizrahim. The latter’s skin color has been construed as dark to emphasize their difference and their alleged incompetence. In an infamous journalistic portrayal of Moroccan immigrants living in a transit camp, the writer referred to them as "Africans"!

Israel had no significant population originating from sub-Saharan Africa before the arrival of Ethiopian Jews, mainly in the two big waves, Operation Moses in 1984 (some 8,000 people) and Operation Solomon in 1991 (14,000 people). The seminal experience of Ethiopians in Israel was, therefore, one of “discovering” their physical difference. A difference that was not necessarily perceived by the Ethiopians in a simple dichotomy of Black and white. As scholars point out, racial categorization in Ethiopia includes more than two options. In Ethiopia, most Ethiopian Jews regarded themselves as “reds” and distinguished themselves from those whom they considered as Blacks, who occupied a lower social status than they did (Salamon 2003).

Thus, a Black identity was not obvious for Ethiopians in Israel, but instead was “learned” as Ethiopians gradually realized how other Israelis look, think, and talk about them. Indeed, for many Israelis, the visible otherness of Ethiopians was related to a long history of “folk knowledge” about Africa as “the Black continent” and the supposed primitive nature of its inhabitants (Bar Yosef 2013).

In 1996, an Israeli journalist revealed that the Israeli medical establishment discarded all blood donations given by Ethiopian immigrants out of fear of HIV/AIDS contamination. In Israel, blood donation has symbolic aspects of brotherhood and contribution to the Israeli collective. Categorical rejection of all blood donations from an entire community, therefore, symbolized the exclusion of this community from the Jewish national collective.

“The blood scandal” was a defining moment for Ethiopian Israelis. Clarifying boundaries of belonging, it pushed many in the Ethiopian community to embrace racial self-identification and to affiliate themselves with a global Black diaspora (Anteby 2004, Ben Eliezer 2008). They were inspired by African American celebrities, especially famous rappers and athletes, who signified power and success. Many Ethiopians have also dedicated themselves to studying the history of the Black Power movement as a source of inspiration for their own struggle and resistance. A new study by Omer Keynan (forthcoming) shows that nowadays, third-generation Ethiopian Israelis use social media not only to learn about the history of the Black Power movement but also to appropriate their ideas and terminology in their own discourse about their local situation. Recently, protesters have also used the hashtag #Black_Lives_Matter_Israel, locating their protest in a global virtual sphere (rather than the local Israeli context) and alluding to their affiliation with other Black people, particularly those in the United States.


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