The riot of Ethiopian Jews in Israel protesting against racism is a sad reflection on Israeli society. It must not be exaggerated but it should come as no surprise. There has always been a disconnect between the ideals of Israel’s state institutions and the petty prejudice and fighting against and between its minority communities. There has always been a distinction, in countries as well as people, between the theory and the practice.
Israel, as a matter of policy, has always taken pride in the fact that Judaism is colorblind. Unfortunately too many of its citizens have not been. Israel always voted against apartheid in the United Nations. But when it needed to protect itself it entered into covert negotiations with racist South Africa. Israel took great pride in welcoming thousands of black Jews from Africa, and many of them have risen to positions of prominence in Israeli society. But at the same time they have, as a community, suffered from both religious and secular prejudice. The poor Ethiopian soldier who was beaten was both black and religious. In some quarters in Israel that is a double whammy.
Israel has always been a complex, conflicted, and confused society. Originally the pioneer Zionists came into direct conflict with old time religious settlers in the Holy Land who had been coming to live there for a thousand years before Zionism ever existed as a movement. The newcomers treated the old ones with contempt and ridicule. As Zionism grew in strength and numbers, it came into conflict with Arab nationalism. The succeeding riots and wars only exacerbated tensions between them. Within the Zionist movement itself, left-wing ideologues fought with right-wing pragmatists. They struggled and even killed each other.
The Eastern European left-wing secular Jewish pioneers of the early years despised the more cultured and sophisticated Central European/Germanic refugees, who came in response to Nazism. Together they combined to discriminate against the Oriental Jews who came in droves after the state was declared, and they were expelled from Arab countries. It took 30 years before the Sefardi communities reached parity in power and social standing. Even within these communities Yemenites, Bene Israel from India, Karaites, and sundry exotic scattered tribes brought home, all had to fight legal and social discrimination. There was even a Black Panther movement in Israel of Oriental Jews fighting against prejudice and disadvantage. Once the Department of Statistics used separate categories for Oriental and Occidental Jews. Now no longer, because they are so intermarried. Yet still there is discrimination, particularly in the Charedi world, where the Ashkenazi rabbinic elite feel the Oriental Jews are neither as religious nor as acceptable as they are.
The Russian Jews who came later were discriminated against too. The women were all supposed to be hookers and the men all gangsters, until their intellectual contribution to Israeli life proved their value and equality. Then came the Ethiopians, who were welcomed (although their religious status was challenged by the Ashkenazi rabbinate). They were given a far better life than the one they had before, but then they were discriminated against because, like any immigrants, they needed more help to overcome their disadvantages.
The sad fact is that Israel, like a high school where the newcomers are made to pay by the top classes for the hazing and bullying they suffered as freshmen, has always given the new “pupils” a rough time. This doesn’t excuse it, but it is a sad reflection on human nature. Yet no country anywhere in the world has succeeded in absorbing so many disproportionately large and different cultures into one society with only marginal and occasional ruptures. Certainly the army plays a crucial equalizing role.
There is of course another form of discrimination: the economic one. Usually racial minorities are the ones who suffer disproportionally from this, if they come from societies with poor education. The economic issues in Israel were highlighted by the public protests in Tel Aviv two years ago. They went beyond any racial lines and focused purely on the gap between the rich and the poor. The Ethiopians suffer twice.
This is an issue throughout the world. In the USA spontaneous and organized violence has erupted in Ferguson and in Baltimore over police brutality, which is as much a problem as are poverty, unemployment, and disrupted family structure. Just as emblematic of the challenges are the demonstrations against Wall Street and the One Percenters. In the USA, as in Israel, the gap between the rich and the poor exacerbates the sense of insecurity and alienation. These issues must be addressed. Every politician says so. Yet the fact is that in the end political dysfunction gets in the way of finding solutions. So do ideologically different and conflicting approaches to the problems,. Actually, as the Torah says, “The poor will never cease”; so thinking that soaking the rich will solve the problem is misguided. Creating jobs is an important step. But still it assumes young poor people will necessarily want them.
The only truly effective answer (once legislation against discrimination is legally enforced) is the slow but inevitable intermingling of different racial and social communities. We have actually seen this happen in Israel over time. But it takes time, and it takes education and opportunity, to succeed.
Israeli leadership is responding well in public to the latest eruption. They are going out of their way to express solidarity and to bring rogue cops to justice, as indeed is the USA. But the social issues will continue to be a challenge until time and the better human qualities of our nature get round to realizing that we are, as the Talmud says, all the children of one God and all equal under the law.