Look not upon me, that I am black
By Yaakov Gonchel | 18/02/2010
The exile of the Jews of Ethiopia has not yet ended, the feeling that the earth moves uneasily at the footfall of the Jew still darkens the Ethiopian’s sky. Upon returning home, the Ethiopian discovers that the other residents of his home, his brothers and sisters, who were away from home just as he was, look at him with suspicion, refusing to believe that he too is a part of the fabric of the nation. Yaakov Gonchel settles accounts with white Israel
Black Israelis have become a common sight in the past two decades. Despite the long period that has passed since their arrival and the immediate interest taken in the members of my community by “white” Israelis, which has not faded over the years, the encounter between the two groups is still accompanied by a sense of estrangement. In this article, the words “black” and “Ethiopian” will be used interchangeably to refer to the same thing – Ethiopian Jews; the word “white” will be used to refer to the entirety of groups in Israeli society that are not black, the average Israeli.
Who are we then? In the past, “black brothers,” today, just “black.” In this article, I will try to describe one small part of the relationship between the Ethiopians and the rest of the population, and the place where these two groups touch. I will not be discussing black people in general, only Ethiopian Jews. I will base my remarks on scholarly writings and publications, but I am dissatisfied with papers that debate the analysis and definition of the black man – and consequently, I have made very little use of them in my definition. The time has apparently not yet come for novels to be written by and about members of the Ethiopian community. My words, then, do not profess to represent a reflection of the entire community to which I belong, but only myself. From this perspective, that of a member of the community in his late twenties, I will try to delve into the depths of the Ethiopian experience in Israel.
A black that has managed to assimilate into the white society that surrounds him on all sides must be aware that every aspect of his life will be affected by his interrelationship with the white. What is the life of the black Ethiopian in Israeli society? It goes beyond the confines of this article to provide a complete description of the experience of a black person in white society. It is a given that different people experience the same events differently, each in accordance with their own personality, and each black individual experiences their own blackness in their own individual way. Despite this, we cannot ignore that, despite the differences, human beings share more commonalities than differences, and the experience can be characterized in rough terms.
Because at this time, we are still talking about the generation of transition, we should distinguish between those who experienced a full life in another land – a land in which its government, people, leaders and water carriers are all Ethiopians like himself – and those who have known no other country than Israel, those for whom being a black in a white world is the experience into which they were born.
To understand the Ethiopian adult who boards the bus wearing the traditional Ethiopian garb, swathed in a white, sheet-like fabric, and who speaks only his own language, one must examine the fabric from which he is cut. This Ethiopian Jew lived in Ethiopia for most of his life. There, he was master of his own life and fate, for better or worse, a form of independence that is lost to him in the Western world. The fact that the central Ethiopian government was weak gave the Ethiopians, especially those that did not live in the city, but rather lived in a village, almost complete autonomy over their own lives. That farmer was in most cases someone who earned his bread by the sweat of his brow. The Jewish Ethiopian, unlike his fellow Jews in other diasporas, enjoyed the feeling of sovereignty and self-worth of an individual who needs nothing from anyone, except to be allowed to live on his land. This phenomenon is one that is gradually disappearing in the modern world, which is founded on the concept of a relationship of dependence between populations and individuals, which has replaced the soil as the most immediate source of existence.
The Ethiopian Jew, who lived among Christians, Muslims and the members of other religions, was ostracized by general society, persecuted because of his religion and bore the burden of various primitive anti-Semitic beliefs that ascribed magical powers to him. Despite all these things, his lifestyle, with the exception of matters dictated by religion, could hardly be differentiated from that of the general population, which was also dominated by religion. The Ethiopian Jew viewed all these difficulties as part of the hardships of the exile, some of which were the lot of the descendents of converts and immigrants, as well as hardships that were the lot of Jews throughout the various diasporas.
Despite the fact that the life of this Ethiopian Jew was not easy, he always stood proud and erect. The cultural richness in Ethiopia, the ancient history of the state and government, and the fact that it is one of the most ancient countries in the world – all these were sources of pride for its Jews too. The current state of the citizens of the country is perceived by the Ethiopian eye as no more than a temporary setback. Ethiopians are convinced that its days of glory will be restored, the days when it was considered the fourth strongest power in the world, when it crossed the Red Sea in warships, easily conquered Yemen and disrupted Egypt’s military plans by threatening to dam up the source of the Nile. Ethiopia managed also to resist the efforts to colonialize it in the nineteenth century. The Italian occupation army was defeated and forced to return home cowed and humiliated, and this humiliation would continue to simmer in its veins for many years to come.
The Ethiopian Jew finds it difficult to get along in his new, alien Israeli environment. He is unable to find his place within the Israeli social mosaic. The Ethiopian, so it would appear, stands on the sidelines of society without participating in it.
The prevalent view is that the Ethiopian’s adjustment difficulties are the natural result of the painful transition from a primitive society to the modern world. In truth, many of the difficulties are indeed the result of the transition from a world of maximum independence to a world of minimum independence. Western man has filled his world with a profusion of bureaucracy and bureaucrats, and they narrow the scope of the citizens’ free movement. In contrast to the bureaucracy, which so constrains the life of the Western citizen, who has subjugated himself to the establishment, to “Big Brother,” the wide open Ethiopian spaces enabled people there to take control of their lives, with minimum contact with the authorities. Despite, or perhaps because of this, the feeling of collective identification and patriotism of the Ethiopian people is as deep as the connection between the Ethiopian farmer and his land-homeland. The Ethiopian, who was accustomed to deciding his own fate, feels awkward and unnatural in a world in which control over his life is no longer in his own hands, but rather in the hands of the sovereign government. The Ethiopian stands mute in the face of these huge organizations and agencies, with their numerous tentacles that embrace every area of life, from birth to burial. Because he lacks the language and means to communicate with these huge organizations, in his eyes, they are akin to huge machines. In Ethiopia, the Ethiopian had known rigid institutions, but the need to make use of these institutions was negligible, and his interaction with them minimal. The demand that all Ethiopians, young and old, must adapt to Western life cannot be viewed as a legitimate demand. In my humble opinion, one cannot ask of someone who has lived most of his life in a cultural, social and economic framework that is entirely different to abandon his past and adjust to a completely new life. It is Israeli society as a whole that must adjust to the Ethiopians and understand that despite the differences, they are part of the fabric of Israeli society.
The older Ethiopian, who toiled hard his entire life, seeks now to rest; he has done more than enough to deserve it. He does not expect to become an integral part of the Israeli discourse. His entire life is limited to the narrow confines of his community. His contact with whites is limited to official contact: The white is the supplier of work, the collector of taxes, but voluntary communication with him, of the kind not based on contact of a fundamentally coercive nature, is rare. The older Ethiopian recognizes the intrinsic difference between him and the white, and for him, the bridge between the two worlds is only for technical purposes. As for the younger Ethiopians, the demand that they adjust to Israeli society is superfluous. They want to adjust to society even more than society wants them to.
The Ethiopian sabra is quite different from his immigrant father. The choice to live in a white society was not his. In fact, he is forced to be black, and he is black only because of the fact that he lives in a society that is not black. His father knew a place in which he had no color, a place in which any discussion of his color, if such a discussion took place, was always an objective one.
The Ethiopian sabra swims in a turbulent sea. He cannot rely on his mother and father. The Israeli family culture, generally known to be a strong source of support, collapses on his doorstep. His parents, who do not know the language of the country, abandon their son, for lack of any other alternative, to fate. The young man is forced to take charge of his own life, with all the difficulties he endures as an Ethiopian youth, without the support of a strong family. The Ethiopian sabra, or those who immigrated in their early years, cannot help being swept up by temptation. In the absence of a firm guiding hand, the young man finds himself lured by the accessibility of money and control offered by the underworld, and the younger he is, and the less he has managed to strike root in familiar ground, the more likely he is to be swayed.
One of the first things that the young Ethiopian sabra is unable to evade is the contrast between the home, which is run by his father, and the outside world, with which he comes in contact in his daily social life. From all sides, he senses the aversion directed at his father in his traditional robes. At the second stage comes the distinction between himself and his father – he notes that his father’s clothing, customs and lifestyle are different from his own. His father conducts his life in Israel just as he did in Ethiopia, as far as possible. Consequently, the young man concludes that society’s judgment of his father does not apply to him. He will make every effort to create distinctions between himself and his father, and in most cases will take deliberate action to widen the abyss between his father and himself. He does not speak his language, does not recognize his value. In his eyes, his father carries his curse in the color of his skin.
At the third stage comes the desire to become a part of general society. The young man seeks to become as similar as he can to his new, white brother. He adopts white customs and abandons the customs of his ancestors. As time passes, he starts to feel resentment towards his father, feels revulsion at his lifestyle, his color. Shakespeare has already said that the whole world is a stage, and the Ethiopian indeed becomes an actor. Everywhere he goes, a pale-colored spotlight illuminates him. Whether he likes it or not and for better and for worse, wherever he goes, his color will not allow him to completely blend in with his surroundings. His presence carries with it the awareness of color. The Ethiopian is the trigger than enables the white to experience his own color. When an Ethiopian comes into view, the color of the white and the black can no long remain a matter of no importance. This is not merely a physical phenomenon related to different wavelengths as they are reflected by a person’s skin as a result of one kind of pigment or another, but rather colors that take on a metaphysical meaning. The black and the white move aside and their colors become the main actors in the play.
This endless drama splits the spirit of the Ethiopian into two separate images. Every Ethiopian living in Zion has two faces, a dual personality: Wearing one, he hangs out with his Ethiopian buddies, and wears the other when interacting with whites. The Ethiopian is perceived by the white, the other, as the proper representative of all Ethiopians. After all, the blacks are all the blacks, and the white does not distinguish between one black and another, between one Ethiopian and another. It is a well-known human weakness that people seek out rules and frameworks. The behavior of one Ethiopian in general society will determine the behavior of all the Ethiopians in the eyes of the white. Any Ethiopian with a minimal social sense, who feels solidarity with his fellow Ethiopians, finds himself caught in a trap when meeting with whites. Frantz Fanon, a French black physician and psychiatrist, describes in his book Black Skin, White Masks the thin tightrope a black doctor in a white society must tread:
“It was always the negro teacher, the negro doctor; brittle as I was becoming, I shivered at the slightest pretext. I knew for instance that if the physician made a mistake, it would be the end of him and of all those who came after him. What could one expect after all, from a Negro physician? As long as everything went well, he was praised to the skies, but look, no nonsense, under any conditions. The black physician can never be sure how close he is to disgrace. I repeat, I was walled in: no exception was made for my refined manners or my literary knowledge, or my understanding of the quantum theory could find favor.”
In such a state of affairs, when the Ethiopian bears the burden of his entire community, he loses his own individual personality, shedding the private individual inside himself. He starts to behave the way in which he would like to paint the image of his community in white eyes. The Ethiopian loses his spontaneity, blurs his unique nature and tries to adopt behavior that is just the opposite of the collective stereotypes through which the white sees the Ethiopian – and he does all this in order to “prove” that despite the color of his skin, he is not an “other,” and that the only difference between them is in the color of his skin. Aimé Césaire, a poet and philosopher from Martinique in the Caribbean islands, gave an excellent description of this in his poem Negritude:
“…Those who say to Europe:
You see, I can bow and scrape,
Like you, I pay my respects, in short
I am no different from you;
Pay no attention to my black skin;
The sun did it…”
This constant positioning vis-à-vis the white causes a destructive self-awareness in the Ethiopian: In everything he does, he sees himself from without, as he is in the eyes of the white. It is this tremendous emotional effort that brings about the rigid and unnatural behavior of the representative Ethiopian, the solo actor on the white stage.
The difference embedded in the Ethiopian’s skin cells works against him in his desire to cast away the barriers between him and the white. Without being aware of it, he is inundated by the whirlpool of direct and hidden messages sent to him by white society. This society leaves no room for the black’s dignity in its perceptions, behavior or language, which embodies the social unconscious. In the language of the white, that which is positive is represented by the fair, the light-colored; on the other hand, a person whose reputation has been soiled is said to have a “black mark” against his name, and if one has a particularly bad day, it is a “black day,” which may be heralded by a “black cat,” and I could go on and on. The young Ethiopian unconsciously internalizes the attitude of the white towards him and towards his father, and emulates the behavior of the group he so desires to belong to. And so we can find the attitudes of white society mirrored in the young Ethiopian. His father, in his view too, is a primitive, antiquated African. The associations in the mind of the white paradoxically appear in the mind of the young Ethiopian too, with one difference: In him, there is a strong negative emotional feeling attached to this attitude towards his father. He hates his father for being Ethiopian. Gradually, that young man becomes a white in a black skin. Sometimes, at a certain stage, there is a crisis. The day comes when the young man suddenly realizes that he is not really an integral part of the white fabric. That is when he will seek out his elderly father, in the hope that it is not too late.
The immigration of the Ethiopian Jews is considered yet another feather in the cap of the IDF and the Israeli security services. The IDF, thanks to its strength and resourcefulness, saved starving blacks in one of the weakest countries in the world. The Jews of Ethiopia did not immigrate to Israel like most of the other immigrants that came from the other diasporas. Their immigration will always be different.
The history of the Israeli Ethiopian is dictated by activists and sponsors, instead of being written in the blood of the people who determined its path. It is a “historical fact” that the Jews of Ethiopia were brought to Israel by the IDF. The Ethiopian Jew did not play a role in the story of his immigration beyond the one played by a piece of furniture or any other object moved from there to here. That is how the pages of history are written, how the memory is engraved in the collective Israeli mind. The Ethiopian stands amazed in the face of history, as it changes before his eyes. Until not too long ago, he was convinced that it was he who was the first to act, he who resolved to return “home,” whereas the governments of Israel were occupied, almost from the time of the establishment of the state, with slow, internal debates over whether the white hegemony over the Holy Land should be relinquished. He took his life in his hands, loaded his entire life on a beast of burden and on his own shoulders. Airlifts and ships have the ability, so it emerges, to rewrite history too. In time, as the Ethiopian sees all the credit going to the IDF on every occasion, he begins to lose faith that his sacrifice is indeed worthy of recognition. With the rushing flow of life, he doesn’t find the time to conduct an in-depth examination, and his own feelings and awareness are replaced by the public awareness, which he encounters wherever he goes. One cannot eradicate the facts as they happened from the minds of those who experienced them firsthand, but the young Ethiopian, who does not have his own memory of the events, but rather draws on the same sources as society as a whole, sees his parents in a passive and needy light, just as general Israeli society sees them, because in his home, no one ever talks about the horrors of Sudan. In his home, he clearly feels the presence of death and the silence that envelops the walls, but the scars have not yet healed, and no mention of them may be made. The more the credit is given to the IDF actions and the empowerment of this complex immigration story, the more the Ethiopian finds himself bereft of any recognition of his actions and deeds.
Perhaps this article is an opportunity to provide a little social justice. The true courage was demonstrated by people who abandoned their homes and property, the courage of people who walked through forests for weeks and months under the cover of night, sometimes in groups of hundreds. The true heroes are those who managed to evade the cruel soldiers of the Ethiopian army, those who stood up with resolve to the robbers on the roads, who were willing to live in refugee camps, compared to which the Palestinian refugee camps in Gaza are a paradise, who were forced to spend their days in hiding from the Sudanese army, lest they be revealed to be Jewish activists. The heroes are those who clung to life by a thread, and who were tortured in the Sudanese and Ethiopian dungeons, who stuck to their dream although that dream took the lives of their loved ones. Truth be told, the courage of the IDF in the story of the Ethiopian immigration is a matter of doubt.
The lives of the Ethiopian Jews in Sudan, on their way to Israel, were tolerable at first. The representatives of the Israeli Mossad encouraged the local activists to work to bring over more and more Ethiopian Jews to Sudan. And come they did: Carried on the wings of messianism and imagining the representatives of Israel’s security forces to be the representatives of Messiah himself, they thronged by the thousands to Sudan. The representatives of the security forces were unprepared for the masses of people that streamed into the camps day after day. The IDF managed to get only a trickle of these people out of Sudan, about ten at a time. In the meanwhile, the days turned into years. Many of the Ethiopian Jews had time during those years to master Sudanese-Arabic. When the IDF finally got properly organized, it had become a rescue mission. Within a short time, Sudan had become a hellhole, and those who remained there ultimately became survivors. Those who risked their lives and withstood all the dangers of the way were forced to helplessly contend with the hazards of the camp. Children breathed their last in the arms of their parents, who waited for the Messiah. The IDF, the Messiah that failed, and only knew how to tell the story of its own courage, despite its failures, became the hero of the day. The Ethiopian, who was willing to give his life and suffering for his faith and for the land of his forefathers, discovered upon his arrival in Israel that his journey was in vein, that he was mistaken to believe that he was Jewish.
The class theory
Every statistical survey repeatedly shows that the Ethiopian community is one of the weakest populations in Israel, if not the weakest. These surveys, which are conducted very frequently, have catalogued the Ethiopians as “needy.” As a rule, the Ethiopian does not have any standing in the Israeli discourse today, and he is viewed as someone who has been given a place as a favor. The label of needy, which accompanies the Ethiopian wherever he goes, erodes his spirit and at the end of the day, he internalizes his external definition and adopts corresponding behavior.
Imprisoned in this position of inferiority, every claim the Ethiopian makes regarding inequality is treated with dismissal and viewed as ingratitude on his part. It would appear as if every white Israeli feels as if he, the lord of the land, brought the Ethiopians to Israel with his own hands, and consequently, the Ethiopian owes him his life. An acquaintance of mine, who recently immigrated to Israel from France, explained to me that the real racism exist in France, in Europe, and that the situation in Israel is far better. In other words, “You have nothing to complain about. The situation could be much worse.” His condescending point of departure, of which he was completely unaware, was one I am unwilling to embrace. Entrenched in the assumption that blacks must be prepared to suffer a certain measure of racism, he offers me the suffering of the blacks in Europe. I refuse to accept local ignorance and thereby doom myself to a life of marginality simply because there is even greater ignorance out in the world. If the situation were the other way around, if I were in his place, if it were the white that was in a position of inferiority vis-à-vis the black, he would certainly not agree to live with that evil, even if it were the lesser evil. Society must uproot all feelings of racial superiority of any kind, whether in Europe, Africa or Israel. The role of the Ethiopian, if you like, is to bring the Messiah that tarried in coming to the refugee camps in Sudan. The Ethiopian, who more than anything else today lacks a sense of his own worth, seeks no more than recognition that he is an individual. He wants the simple recognition, just as one person recognizes another, he wants to be recognized as a valuable individual in his own right, not only as part of a collective. He asks no more than that the element of pigment in his encounter with the white, which for some reason is a fundamental one that is never absent, cease to exist.
The exile of the Jews of Ethiopia has not yet ended, the feeling that the earth moves uneasily at the footfall of the Jew still darkens the Ethiopian’s sky. Upon returning home, the Ethiopian discovers that the other residents of his home, his brothers and sisters, who were away from home just as he was, look at him with suspicion, refusing to believe that he too is a part of the fabric of the nation.
The black Ethiopian in Israel has to face the most basic questions: First is the question of identity followed by the question of belonging, which in certain senses, is a derivative of the question of identity: the perception of the “self” of someone who was born in a country in which identity never posed a question. Those who tore themselves away from a land in which different ethnic groups with distinct and separate identities coexisted is fated to deal daily with the question of his self. At this stage, when Israeliness with all its fragments is trying to consolidate into a single homogeneous identity, the white must remember that the black component in it must also find its place. Like the white, the Ethiopian must also learn how to break down the walls he is surrounded with, to recognize his own worth as an Ethiopian and to stop trying to be a white in black skin. The Ethiopian community must shed its preoccupation with its color, give up its mask and see its individual self beyond the mantle of color. There is no place for the Ethiopian’s internalization of the white’s perception of color. If you like: “Look upon me although I am black.