Black Sheep

With the leading CNN, Newsweek and primetime headlines about Israel many would be surprised to learn Israel is one of the world’s leading metropolitan and technologically advanced countries. Israel has the second largest number of startup companies in the world and the largest number of NASDAQ listed companies outside of North America. In 2010 it ranked 17th among the world’s most economically developed nations according to the International Institute for Management and Development’s World Competitiveness Yearbook. It was ranked first as the world’s most durable economy in the face of crises,  and first in rate of research and development. For a country only 63 years young, no doubt impressive. But for all of its accomplishments and progress Israel has made very little strides in closing the gap of racial inequality.

For those looking outside of Israel when the word discrimination arises most minds immediately revert to the conflict between Jews and Arabs.  This is quite natural, given that this is the primary focus by mainstream media. However, many are not aware and would be shocked to learn of the deep-seated intraracial discrimination which has become so prevalent in Israeli society.  Of course if you were to ask most Israelis they would probably deny it. “What, me racist, my people suffered the Holocaust” — as if somehow being the descendant of those once persecuted exempts you from being capable of bigotry. (Although one would think those who have been victims of persecution would be advocates of tolerance.) But all one has to do is check the history of Israel.

In 1996 blood banks throughout the state of Israel indiscriminately discarded all blood which had been donated by Ethiopian citizens — a move which sparked outrage throughout the Ethiopian community and to this day has led to the hesitance of many Ethiopians to donate blood. The rationale for throwing out the blood – - fear it was likely contaminated with AIDS. That was 15 years ago. Things have progressed….or have they?

Just two years ago, three Orthodox private schools in the city of Petach Tikvah denied 100 Ethiopian children admission. The schools claimed Ethiopian children require more time and funds than other children. The majority of Ethiopian youth attend religious state schools — schools where many times the quality is sub par, a standard which by and large defines the quality of life for the majority of Israel’s Ethiopian population.

Here are just a few facts which are testament that racism in Israel has now become institutionalized. According to the 2010 report by the Central Bureau of Statistics, Ethiopians number approximately 105,000 which means they comprise around 2% of the Israeli population. Yet 47% of Ethiopian adults, almost twice that of other Israelis, do not participate in the workforce on any level. Only 38% of Ethiopian women participate as opposed to 68% of their counterparts. More than 90% of Ethiopian immigrants who are employed work in menial, low-paying or manual labor type positions. The majority of Ethiopian immigrants who have professional degrees or degrees of higher education have difficulty finding employment. Some argue the reason for the disparity can be attributed to the fact Ethiopians migrate from what is considered to be a third world country and agrarian culture. However, Black American Jews have encountered the very same racial barriers.

Aaron Stewart, a computer technician, who worked for some leading hi-tech companies such as Texas Instruments in the U.S. decided after almost two years of searching for a suitable job in his field to return to the United States. “It was a hard decision but I couldn’t support my family. I had a lot of prospects. A lot of places would call after receiving my resume and sound really interested. They would tell me over the phone I’m just what they’re looking for but when I would get to the interview they would have a completely different demeanor.”

Jacalyn Scott, Israel’s first African-American attorney, for years after making Aliyah still strugglied to find comparable employment. When she signed up with her local unemployment office where she registered for assistance to find work, the only job they told her they could find for her was working as a caretaker for the elderly paying 22 shekels an hour. That equates to about $6.00 per hour. Not exactly the sort of wage someone with her credentials was expecting.

The aforementioned experiences are not isolated. But if one needs further convincing all you have to do is walk into any bank in Israel, any school, any hi-tech company in Tel Aviv, Haifa or Ra’anana or any courtroom or law firm. You won’t find any Black managers, principals, executives, lawyers or judges. In fact the only Black faces you will find are those pushing mops and brooms. If you’re lucky you may occasionally run across a security guard. And anything more can be akin to a solar eclipse –  a rare and beautiful occurrence.

From the Sea of Galilee’s city of Tiberias down to the Bersheva negev, countless stories of Black American Jews who all recount similar experiences of not being able to fnd work in their profession, instances where their children encounter racism within the school system; this is something which I personally have battled with all of my sons. Phone calls to parents, meetings with teachers and the principal because once again my son has been called “cushie”.  It seems every country has its version of the word nigger. All the more reason for Blacks to disown this word — but I digress.

For Black American Jews confronting this kind of Jim Crow racism can be overwhelming. It’s almost as if you’ve stepped back in time 50 years. Walking down your neighborhood street and stopped by one of your neighbors who asks, “are you lost?” Answering the door to your home and asked if the owner or head of the house is available. Sitting in the lobby awaiting an interview and someone walks out, passes you by looking back and forth never stopping to inquire if perhaps you’re that 9:30 appointment. A logical deduction since you are the only one present. And my all time favorite, “you speak really good English”. Wow, really are you serious? That’s somewhat reminiscent of Harry Reid’s explanation as to why Barack Obama could become America’s first Black president.

No Israel, like so many nations, has yet to cross its Rubicon of race.  In 2011 the unspoken rule of law is still ‘if you’re Black get back’. Proving that Israel’s best kept secret isn’t that this tiny nation, roughly the size of New Jersey, is the world’s 9th leader in millionaires but rather those same people who cry “never forget” are indeed perpetrators of the very same oppression and bigotry they profess to be victims of.  No this truth doesn’t quite wash down well with a glass of King David but as we say in Israel –  “ma la’asot”– what to do. It is what it is.