Tel Aviv, Baltimore share uncomfortable similarities

In a famous hilarious TV satirical sketch from 1972, Israeli actor Uri Zohar (now an Orthodox rabbi) and the late actor/singer Arik Einstein presented the biased and bigoted reactions of various “Israelis” to newly arriving immigrants.
In all the scenes, which stretch from the 1890s to the 1960s, the two are standing on a sandy hill, watching new immigrants from different countries (also played by them) arriving in Jaffa Port. Remember — this was satire.
In the first scene (1890s), they are dressed as Bedouin Arabs complaining about how these new pale, Russian immigrants are going to ruin everything about their traditional nomadic life.
In the next (1930s), dressed as established swamp-draining, settlement-building Russian pioneers, they mock new immigrants from Poland. Next (1940s), they are established Polish farmers mocking a just-arriving Yemenite couple (Zohar is the very pregnant wife). Next (also 1940s) the now-settled Israeli Yemenites make fun of the German immigrants, who later laugh at the Moroccan Jews in the 1950s, who mock the waves of Russians after the fall of the Iron Curtain, etc., etc.
This parody was actually based on fact. Every wave of Jews that immigrated to Israel over the last hundred years endured hardship, discrimination by earlier and now-established settlers, and relegation to communities in lesser attractive areas. One could justifiably argue that this was done out of necessity.
There was precious little money, including donations, to settle hostile border areas, build the IDF, fight wars, finance education, provide welfare and settle hundreds of thousands of immigrants at the same time. Immigration absorption was, unfortunately, a low priority.
However, with all the hardship, virtually all the immigrants, many of whom started in mud-paved tents of the “Ma’abarot” (transition camps established to absorb survivors of the Holocaust and North African immigrants in the 1950s), especially the second generation, succeeded, with some government and organizational help, in breaking out of the poverty cycle.
So why haven’t the 150,000-plus Ethiopian Jews, who have been in Israel now for more than 30 years, succeeded like the others? Why are they so frustrated and disenfranchised that they feel compelled to riot, like in Baltimore, against police brutality and lack of support or even caring by the Israeli government and local authorities?
Why do many feel ostracized by an Israeli public that received them with open arms just three generations ago?
The answer is complex, embarrassing and not necessarily politically correct.
First — there were two categories of immigrants from Ethiopia:

  • Those that came from the cities
  • Those that came from remote villages

The first group was, for the most part, educated; spoke many languages, with some having professional degrees or commercial experience. This group was absorbed relatively quickly in Israel.
The second group, the majority, was totally different. Having been pretty much disconnected from civilization for hundreds of years, most had never seen a structure bigger than a straw hut. They had never seen a door handle, sink, running water or anything electrical or gas-driven.
When it was clear that the normal process of absorption (several months in an absorption center for full-immersion language, culture, customs orientation and adaptation) was not appropriate here, other systems were tried. Some worked — some not so much.
While first-generation absorption has always been difficult, it almost always got better with the second generation once they were drafted into the IDF, which has always been the “great melting pot” of Israeli society.
The IDF prides itself as being color-blind (Israelis from Ethiopia serve in every unit and every command position), religion-blind (Jews, Muslims, Christians, Druze, Samaritans and atheists serve together), education-blind (soldiers and officers are evaluated and promoted by performance, not education level), race-blind (Arabs and Circassians serve) and social-status-blind (every recruit starts off as a basic trainee on equal footing).
Unfortunately this time the system failed. As Renee Ghert-Zand reported in the May 5 edition of The Times of Israel: “Although 89 percent of teenage boys (higher than the national average of 75 percent) and 62 percent of teenage girls of Ethiopian heritage serve in the IDF, one-third of them end up in IDF prisons.” Many are subsequently dishonorably discharged.
And these, together with their younger brothers and sisters, have become the critical mass of frustrated, disenfranchised, jobless young Ethiopian Israelis who live in crowded, run-down apartments, turn to minor criminal activities or drugs, feel harassed by the police and invisible to the authorities.
Similarly to Baltimore — the trigger was a videotape of two Israeli policemen attacking an Ethiopian soldier because he “looked at them.”
This cannot continue. The Israeli government and society dropped the ball. Bibi Netanyahu promised very publicly that he intends to deal with this explosive and growing “festering wound,” as President Rivlin called it, at “top priority.”
Let’s see which situation is resolved first … Baltimore or Tel Aviv. Hopefully it will be both — and the sooner, the better.
Agree or disagree, that’s my opinion.
Lt. Col. (IDF res) Gil Elan is President and CEO of the Southwest Jewish Congress, and a Middle East analyst. Email: Upcoming briefings and SWJC events are listed at:
DISCLAIMER: Opinions are the writer’s, and do not represent SWJC directors, officers or members.

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