BY AHMADIEL BEN YEHUDA OCTOBER | 14, 2017 21:28
Whether a Mizrahi sabra, Afro-Bedouin, Ethiopian or Sudanese asylum seeker, each labors under this oppressive burden and strangling cloud of discrimination.
Members of our African Hebrew Israelite community in Dimona were recently the target of a mean-spirited, insulting and racist attack posted on social media, clearly calculated to do maximum harm to an innocent couple. It quickly went viral, sparking an outpouring of public regret and condemnation that was a welcome confirmation of the basic decency we expect from the majority of the Israeli population.
The couple, their family and the entire community is heartened by the response of friends and strangers from a cross-section of the society who reached out in the spirit of Yom Kippur. However, we are left to ponder – like so many others – why in 2017 do we still encounter the foul residue of a vile mindset? The answer is simple: We are all only doing what we’ve been taught.
Whether secular or religious, frontal or covert, our education promulgates a host of subtle and blatant messages of the superiority of European values and traditions, features and complexion. Rabbinic declarations and official statements – validating discriminatory rental bans or referring to African asylum seekers as “infiltrators” – send cues to their constituencies. Even in the relative safety of our homes, we are bombarded by media messages that consistently reinforce all of the above. Consciously and unconsciously, bias is deeply implanted into our society. We may be embarrassed at times like this, but need not feign being shocked.
Israel’s reality is part of a global phenomenon.
A resurgent virus has affected the US, France, Germany and Myanmar, to name a few, with one of the oldest and longest-debunked “fake news” claims: the very existence of race as a biological construct. In our topsy-turvy world, while race is surely a fiction, racism is anything but. The pandemic rise of racist sentiments and policies, whether of the dog-whistle or flag-waving variety, tears at the social fabric of the entire planet.
Israel is home to a broad spectrum of African communities, all of which are impacted to a greater or lesser degree by this debilitating phenomenon. Whether a Mizrahi sabra, Afro-Bedouin, Ethiopian or Sudanese asylum seeker, each labors under this oppressive burden and strangling cloud of discrimination.
At the most fundamental level, we are all victims, manipulated by those catering to their political base or playing to our fears and ignorance.
To revisit the painful past of our first two decades in Israel was unexpected. Reminders can be helpful, but we honestly have no intentions of returning to those days. A world in darkness awaits answers to the multiplicity of problems that beset the planet, which brings us to what we feel is the most important outcome of this unfortunate episode: remaining aligned with our prophetic charge to be “a light unto the nations.”
At times like this we feel betrayed. Our dedication is incontestable. Internally and externally – particularly in Africa and the US where Israel’s hasbara efforts are challenged – we’re not afraid to step up to defend the country. No pop star icon can speak with the passion, perspective and plausibility that we bring. We live here! But help us to help you! In 2009, at our own expense, we sent a delegation to the UN World Conference Against Racism (“Durban II”), and defended our homeland against a wave of condemnatory attacks. Despite these and other efforts, we still have cases languishing in which families – some for more than 20 years – are without the comfort and security of permanent status. We are constantly faced with issues regarding housing and educational opportunities.
We contribute to the economy, culture, security and image of Israel in numerous ways: tourism and entertainment; preventive health and healthy lifestyle promotion; midwifery (according to biblical guidelines); organic agricultural training projects; borehole drilling; academic forums; conflict resolution; and more – all shared with peoples across Africa and the Caribbean. We proudly take a measure of credit for having introduced veganism to Israel and are one of the largest producers of vegan food products.
Having actively promoted all of these progressive ideas for the past five decades, the value of our contribution to Israel’s fabric of life is self-evident.
Was Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s courtship of African leaders – and bold announcement that “Israel has returned to Africa and Africa has returned to Israel” – a sincere diplomatic outreach or merely an effort to engender support against the pro-Palestinian agenda? There is much work to be done in this arena and few in Israel have as much experience in Africa, nor is there any more logical face to put forth.
Dark-skinned people from across our variegated world are knocking on Israel’s door. We would hope that our own trials in resettling home demonstrate that we collectively have the capacity to overcome the illogical fears that keep us divided. Purposeful humiliation – on a public bus or from policymakers at the Ministry of Interior – is not the appropriate response! This is an issue that transcends the Right/ Left, religious/secular divides. Rudeness toward strangers is not just forbidden according to Hebraic law; it is simply wrong, an indecent behavior whose shelf-life has long passed.
The writer is a national spokesman for the African Hebrew Israelites in Dimona and author of the forthcoming book Hidden Roots: Race as a Catalyst to War and an Obstacle to Peace, due to be published in December.