Thursday, December 1, 2011

Studying ‘Race’ and Blackness among Ethiopian Jews in Israel: A commentary

In its various popular understandings, the idea of race is conflated with essentialized concepts linked to biology, ancestry, physicality and ethnicity. In the heated landscape of the Israeli-Arab conflict, race and racism provide the prism through which international commentaries on Zionism and Israel’s military actions are often framed. Locally however, within the realm of Jewish Israeli society, racial and ethnic dynamics have evolved mostly away from the gaze of the foreign press, at least until the highly mediatized airlift operations that brought Ethiopian Jews to Israel in the early 1980s.

The existence of the pejoratively termed “Falasha” or Beta Israels as Ethiopian Jews called themselves while living in northern Ethiopia, has fascinated Jewish and non-Jewish observers alike for years prior to their aliyah (immigration of Jews to Israel, meaning ascent). From the time that key contacts in the late 1800s and early 1900s between European Jewish and non-Jewish travelers to Ethiopia and the Beta Israel occurred, and their en-masse arrival to Israel some 80 years later, colossal transformations have taken root in Beta Israel religion and culture. Today, the heart of the Ethiopian Jewish community lives in Israel where they are officially accepted, albeit not without tension and conflict in some areas, as Jews by the government of Israel and the rabbinate. There are approximately 120, 000 Ethiopian Jews in Israel, comprised of various sub-groups based on: religious background (those who consider themselves “original” Ethiopian Jews or the Falash Mura, ie converts to Christianity who reconverted to Judaism); family lineage (former slaves who served Ethiopian Jewish families, pejoratively called barya, and their previous owners called chewa); ethno-cultural and linguistic origin and area of provenance (Amharic speakers from the Amhara region and Tigrinya speakers from the Tigray area); rural or urban provenance and level of education upon arrival; migration cohort and age group. While these divisions should compel researchers to account for the lack of coherence in regards to the (singular) “Ethiopian Jewish community”, intra-group fractions are not generally accounted for in studies on the group.

Thirty years have now passed since their arrival to Israel. By and large, young Ethiopian Jews socialized in Israel have mainstreamed into contemporary Jewish practices and integrated into secular Israeli society [1]. Ethiopian Jews represent a homogenous population block for outside observers, Israeli society, its various government bodies and policy makers.

Racial and ethnic tensions among Jewish populations in Israel preceded the arrival of Ethiopian Jews. Marginalized Jewish immigrants from the Maghreb and the Middle East known as Mizrachim (or Easterners, Orientals in Hebrew) were racialized as dark and ‘black’ upon their arrival in the 1950s. In the 1970s, a popular uprising gathered momentum among their children in protest of the discriminatory treatment by the dominant Ashkenazi elite. A young group of disenfranchised Mizrachim living in the slums of Jerusalem reared this racial epithet on its head, appropriating it as a tool of political empowerment and naming their group the Black Panthers following the African American movement of the same name. Some of the short-lived movement’s activists turned to mainstream political channels to fight for social equality, founding or joining emerging parties and social organizations and the Israeli Black Panthers eventually fizzled out. By the time Ethiopians reached Israel, subsequent generations of Mizrahim socialized in Israel had become acculturated and israelised. Segments of the Mizrahi population experienced upward mobility, making their way into previously inaccessible spheres of power once dominated by Ashkenazis.

Racialized variables and phenotypic differences that mark Ethiopians as internal ‘outsiders’ contradistinguish them from other Jewish Israelis and serve to reinforce in-group membership and create homogeneity. In the Israeli public’s imagination as well as in symbolic and discursive self-representations put forth by Ethiopian Jews themselves, they are, for all intents and purposes, ha shchorim - the Blacks. (They are also called ha Ethiopim, the Ethiopians, as well as the derogatory ‘kushi’, translated in its current and most popular form to ‘nigger’, as the Mizrahim were also called). It would be unwise however, to correlate this color-based label as an interpretation of their social status to the scheme of American race relations and politics.

In regards to my research, this has conceptual implications since I aim to decipher the place occupied by race in the lives of the latest “black” Jews in Israel and to understand how identity claims and grievances made under the banner of blackness shape social interactions on a day to day basis. Thus, it is important to look at what is at stake and for whom when looking at discrimination, exclusion and marginalization in Jewish Israeli society. Some Ethiopian Israeli teenagers are invested in cultivating an imagined (American) ‘black’ identity. In this process they are ‘whitening’ a phenotypically and culturally diverse Jewish population composed of European, Russian, and Middle Eastern Jews under the umbrella of the racial epithet ‘The Whites’ (ha levanim). To some Ethiopian Israeli kids I spoke with, the racial discourse articulated a clear separation between ‘us’ Blacks, as in, ‘us’ Ethiopian Jews, and the rest of Israel’s Jewish population composed of the ‘Whites’ (ha levanim). Thus the blackness and orientalness of the Mizrahim became somewhat normalized and seem to denote Jewishness and an unmarked reference to normative Israeliness encompassed by the skin color ‘white’. If becoming black in Israel is indeed part of a larger process deserving of academic attention, then whiteness and the racializing of former ‘kushis’ into ‘whites’ emerges as a salient research foci as well.

The fluidity, rather than the fixity of black and white as operative categories as described in the Israeli case, is an invitation to explore the social life of race. While concepts of race among Jews in Israel are indeed informed by globalized understandings of blackness emanating in part from the United States, undoing the mass that separates the rooting of global currents of black American culture from the local experiences of discrimination and grievances broadcast in the rhetoric of blackness highlights the importance of resisting the temptation to simply export the American model when looking at race in Israel. It also requires that the integration of Ethiopian Israeli be scrutinized not only in light of the Mizrachi experience, but also as an evolving process that has taken on another direction embedded within the continuum of local Israeli ethno-religious and racial dynamics that have changed considerably since the arrival of the ‘darkest’ Jewish immigrants (olim).

Gabriella Djerrahian
PhD Candidate
Anthropology Department
McGill University
Montreal, Canada

[1] The encounter of the older generation with Israeli society is not accounted for here since their integration to Israel has produced outcomes directly linked to factors that do not apply to those who came as children or who were born in Israel.

Suggested Readings

Anteby-Yemini, Lisa. 2004. “Promised Land, Imagined Homelands: Ethiopian Jews’ Migration to Israel.” Pp. 146-164. In Homecomings: Unsettling Paths of Return, edited by F. Markowitz and A.H. Stefansson. United States: Lexington Books.

Banton, Michael. 1978. The idea of race. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press.

Brodkin, Karen. 1998. How Jews Became White Folks: And What That Says About Race in America. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press.

Kaplan, Steven. 2002. “Black and white, blue and white and beyond the pale: Ethiopian Jews and the discourse of colour in Israel.” Jewish Culture and History 5:51-68.

Salamon, Hagar. 2003. “Blackness in transition: Decoding racial constructs through stories of Ethiopian Jews.” Journal of Folklore Research 40(1):3-32.

Shohat, Ella. 2001. “Rupture and Return: A Mizrahi Perspective on the Zionist Discourse.” The MIT Electronic Journal of Middle East Studies 1(May):14.

Tessman, Lisa. 2001. “Jewish Racializations: Revealing the Contingency of Whiteness.” Pp. 131-145. In Jewish locations: traversing racialized landscapres, edited by L. Tessman and B.-A. Bar On. Lanham, MD; Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield.

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