Guest post from Dr. Silverman:
The anti-Ethiopian Jewish immigrant discrimination and prejudice that that John highlighted last night are part of a larger pattern of discrimination than most Americans, and even most Jewish Americans know. Israel has a serious problem with ethnocentrism and discrimination among its Jewish population. While there are many ways to divvy up Judaism according to religion – by how devout someone is or whether Jewish ritual practice is Ashkenazic (of Western and Eastern European origin) or Sephardic (of Spanish or Portuguese origin), Israeli society has always been stratified by the ethnic origins of its Jewish citizenry. Israelis of European descent, who also use the term Ashkenazi for their ethnicity as well as their religious practice, have always made up the top social, political, and economic positions of Israeli society. Below them were the Jews who came from the Arab states. While there are great differences in the histories and experiences of these different groups, from Moroccan Jews to Iraqi ones, they are often either lumped together either by the non-Ashkenazi religious descriptor of Sephardi or more accurately by themselves as Mizrahi (Eastern) Jews.
The Mizrahi Israelis were always treated as second class and looked down on by the Israeli Jews who came from Europe. This had to do with a variety of things: the religious chauvinism of Ashkenazi (European) Judaism against other surviving variants – Sephardic Judaism (Jews of Spanish and Portugeuse descent), the Mizrahim, the Kochini (Jews of India’s spice coast), etc. Some of it was the fact (WARNING!- .pdf download) that the earliest Jewish settlers from Europe were engaging in a clear act of ethno-national self-liberation that was at the same time also clearly an act of colonization. These European Jewish immigrants and settlers were themselves from societies that were generating the concepts of radicalized science/biology that would become prevalent in the late 19th and early 20th Century and provide much of the ideological basis for World War II and the Holocaust. They essentially brought their societal prejudices with them.
One of the best books dealing with these issues of Israeliness is Amos Oz’s Here and There in the Land of Israel. Oz pulls no punches in confronting differences in what it means to be an Israeli, even if his work is now somewhat dated. Another classic attempt to deal with the issue is the Israeli comedy Salah Shabati starring Topol. Salah Shabati is about a Mizrahi Israeli family and its wily patriarch (Topol) who outsmarts the supposedly more sophisticated Ashkenazi Israelis. The reality, however, is that it took until the 1980s to actually have a Mizrahi Jewish Israeli in the Israeli cabinet – David Levy.
When the Ethiopian Jews got to Israel they were placed into the societal/social space below the Mizrahi Israelis. As a result it is no surprise (WARNING!- .pdf download) that Israelis of Ethiopian Jewish descent are experiencing discrimination and outright racism and prejudice, such as forced birth control. It is also not surprising that some of the members of the Ethiopian Jewish community are finding themselves having trouble jumping through all the various hoops that are being created to keep them from immigrating to Israel. Moreover, Ethiopian Jewish protests against discrimination and prejudice is nothing new, it’s just that this time US news media decided to cover it. What the Ethiopian Jews are facing, like the Arab Jews before them, are problems navigating social integration into Israeli society – many of which are created by other Israelis. This is in marked difference to the experience of the Jews who came from Russia at the fall of the Soviet Union, which clearly shows some of the hypocrisy and prejudice at work.
Interesting and depressing. The forced birth control shocked me, to be honest, particularly given the collective Jewish experience during the Holocaust.