#BlackLivesMatter, Israel and the fight against racism

#BlackLivesMatter, Israel and the fight against racism
Comment: Ethiopians have so far resisted alliances with other minority groups, but Netanyahu’s manipulations may drive them towards it, writes David Sheen
7 min read
14 Jul, 2016
Israelis from the Ethiopian community take part in a protest against police brutality [Getty]
In the United States, since the start of July, the Black Lives Matter demonstrations and discourse have renewed in intensity. These, in the wake of multiple cases of lethal police violence against people of African descent. At the same time, black people on the other side of the world have also returned to the streets to protest against similar phenomena in the State of Israel.

On 3 July, hundreds of Jewish Israeli citizens of Ethiopian heritage blocked a main street in Tel Aviv, the country's economic capital. There they marked the second anniversary of the death of Yosef Salamsa, an Ethiopian victim of Israeli police brutality. Protesters called out for violent police officers to be jailed. They also complained of government policies that segregate members of the community from other Israelis in various spheres of life, including housing, education and military service.

The timing of the Ethiopian Israeli protests were not directly related to the July resurgence of Black Lives Matter activity in the US, but many of the Tel Aviv protesters clearly drew general inspiration from African American civil rights heroes and black cultural icons.

In addition to posters proclaiming "Black Lives Matter" in English, regalia featuring the face of rapper Tupac Shakur and the Black Power salutes of Olympic athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos were worn by some demonstrators. Other protestors brandished stickers bearing the image of Malcolm X and a Hebrew translation of his famous quote, "You can't have capitalism without racism."

US support for the Israeli government, the most racist in the country's history, remains rock-solid

While the similarities between the two struggles are fairly obvious, there are also significant differences between the two movements. Diasporic sub-Saharan Africans have been an integral part of the American landscape for hundreds of years, and during the first few centuries of their presence, they were enslaved and legally deprived of human rights.

Today, though they are still the victims of institutional racism and disproportionate police violence, they are nevertheless a potent political force in the American landscape, in part because they amount to approximately 12 percent of the national population.

By contrast, the vast majority of Ethiopians have only lived in Israel for a few decades, since the mid-1980s, and since their arrival have enjoyed, at least nominally, all rights granted to citizens of the state.

Although they have not had to overcome debilitating trauma of direct slavery or blatant Jim Crow-style segregation, their economic improvement has been painfully slow, chiefly because their arrival was not desired by Israel's white supremacist leaders, but rather forced upon them politically by white Jewish American zionists. The US Jewish zionists hoped then, and now, to use those Ethiopian Jews to convince political liberals around the world that Israel is less racist than it actually is.

Over the decades, the community has failed to amass much political influence, in part because they only number a little over 100,000 souls, just over one percent of the total Israeli population.

Another reason for the Ethiopian community's inability to make significant inroads in their struggle against state racism has been the dearth of political co-conspirators. Up until now, many Ethiopian protestors have been loath to seek alliances with a group that outsiders might assume would be the community's most natural political partners: other sub-Saharan Africans.

It now remains to be seen whether the oppressed groups in each country can forge bonds of solidarity

This is partly because the next largest African community in the country - mostly fellow East Africans from Eritrea and Sudan who migrated to the country more recently over the last decade - are the victims of even more state violence and street racism in Israel.

Another reason many Ethiopians give these fellow black Africans the cold shoulder, is the same reason that the Israeli state has deprived them of work permits, rounded them into camps, and started secretly expelling them back into the interior of the African continent: because they are not Jews, but rather Christians, Muslims and animists.

The forces arrayed against a possible political alliance with the non-Jewish Arabs - the Palestinians, are also great. The majority of Ethiopians serve in the Israeli army, while only a minority of Palestinians who are citizens of Israel do.

As indigenous non-Jews, Palestinians are also far more likely to have negative interactions with Israel's armed forces, to put it mildly. This alone is cause enough for serious tensions between the two groups.

In a society where racism runs rampant and is statistically increasing, any alliance with non-Jews is guaranteed to make the Ethiopian movement lose popularity amongst religious-nationalist Jewish Israelis.

And while embracing racism against non-Jewish Arabs and Africans can currently grant privileges to any group of Jewish-Israelis, this political strategy can be especially tempting to Ethiopians, who are the most disadvantaged group in Jewish-Israeli society, by any measure.

In a society where racism runs rampant and is statistically increasing, any alliance with non-Jews is guaranteed to make the Ethiopian movement lose popularity

The most obvious evidence of this is the injection of Ethiopian women with long-term birth control shots which has resulted in the reduction of the Ethiopian birth rate. The current wave of Ethiopian-Israeli protest leaders blame the Israeli government for these, and they insist on calling them "genocide injections".

Naturally, lingering anti-black racism in Palestinian society does not make a potential alliance between themselves and Ethiopians any easier. Nor does the oft-repeated political pitfall of each community perceiving themselves as the most aggrieved group, and resisting any counter-claims to that title.

Interestingly, those divisions between Palestinians and Ethiopians, which have held fast for decades, could soon be in recession.

The Joint List Party - with representatives of Palestinian citizens in the Israeli parliament - began an official campaign last week to reach out to marginalised Jewish groups in the country. So far, their efforts have logically focused on the Mizrahim who make up about half of the state's citizens. As Jews who trace their roots to the Middle East and North Africa, Mizrahim often share with Palestinians more cultural commonalities, as well. But the party's efforts to reach out to Jews who have traditionally been disenfranchised by the state could eventually include Ethiopian-Israelis, as well.

Also, Netanyahu rejecting the demands of the Ethiopian protestors, as well as the deceptive way in which he did it, are radicalising at least some of them. More Ethiopians are starting to question not only the regime's treatment of their particular tribe, but also their tribe's allegiance to that regime.

Last year's exoneration of police officers who were caught on a viral video beating an Israeli soldier of Ethiopian ancestry has led increasing numbers of rank-and-file youth to doubt the wisdom of risking their lives to serve the state and what it seemingly stands for: black lives not mattering for much.

Additional wedges that could push Ethiopian-Israelis even further away from their long track record of loyalty to Israel's ethnocracy are the responses that their protests elicit on the other side of the Atlantic.

In the US, African American Christian zionist publicists continue to carry out the propaganda plan of the American Jewish zionist activists who originally forced Israel's leaders to grudgingly let the Ethiopians into the country. These publicists constantly broadcast token success stories and photogenic images of Jews of color in Israel, in attempts to convince themselves and others that Israel can’t be a racist state.

Prominent African Americans who are active in the American Black Lives Matter movement have mainly stayed on the sidelines of the Ethiopian struggle in Israel

But these publicists have been silent about the Ethiopian demonstrations, failing to augment the protestors' voices, just when their solidarity is needed the most. But to be fair, the loudest African American defenders of zionism have not only been hostile to Israel's Black Lives Matter protests; they have also consistently derided the local Black Lives Matter protests in the United States itself.

Meanwhile, prominent African Americans who are active in the American Black Lives Matter movement have mainly stayed on the sidelines of the Ethiopian struggle in Israel, cautiously watching from afar as the drama unfolds.

If some have so far been hesitant to openly offer solidarity to the Ethiopian activists, it may be because they are aware of the prevailing political tensions on the ground. They are conscious of the fact that the indigenous Palestinians with whom they have already been building partnerships have fewer privileges under Israeli ethnocracy than these continental Africans, the Ethiopian Jews.

As Americans prepare to head to the polls for the most racially-charged presidential campaign in over a generation, US support for the Israeli government, the most racist in the country’s history, remains rock-solid. It now remains to be seen whether the oppressed groups in each country can forge bonds of solidarity across longitude lines, and ethno-religious lines, for their mutual benefit.

David Sheen is an independent journalist originally from Toronto, Canada and now based in Dimona, Israel. His website is davidsheen.com and he tweets from @davidsheen.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.