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Ethiopian-Israeli Jews, mistaken for African migrant workers, feel racism’s pain

Elias Inbram wears a shirt he made that features a yellow star and reads: "Caution -- I am not an illegal African immigrant!" (Courtesy Elias Inbram)

JERUSALEM (JTA) — When violent riots against African migrant workers erupted in south Tel Aviv recently, a mob attacked Hanania Wanda, a Jew of Ethiopian origin, mistaking him for a Sudanese migrant worker.

“Wanda is my friend,” says Elias Inbram, a social activist in the Ethiopian community and a former member of the Israeli diplomatic corps who served as spokesman for the embassy in South Africa. “I knew I had to react somehow.”

He suddenly realized, says Inbram, 38, “that since to white people, all blacks look the same — I, an Israeli Jew who is black, or anyone in my family, or anyone in my community, could be attacked, too.”

That moved him to stencil “CAUTION: I am not an infiltrator from Africa” onto a bright yellow T-shirt. He then drew in by hand, in the upper left corner, the unmistakable yellow “Jude” patch from the Nazi era.

Last week, he posted a picture of himself wearing the shirt — the only one he has printed — on Facebook. It already has gained thousands of “likes.”

“I want to force people here to think of the racism and hatred in Israeli society,” Inbram, who holds a master’s degree in law and is interning before applying for the bar, told JTA.

The wave of violence in Israel against African migrant workers and asylum seekers, in which nearly a dozen Jews of Ethiopian origin also have been attacked in the past few weeks, has forced many Ethiopian Jews to deal with race in a way they have until now mostly avoided. Some said it has forced upon them a new consciousness and political awareness.

“I have a law degree and a master’s degree. I served in the army,” Inbram said. “Another friend of mine who was beaten up is a Ph.D. candidate. We’re Israeli citizens. But none of that matters. Ever since we came, the state has treated us as if we should say thank you for anything we receive, as if we have no rights as Jews and Israelis. But now we are afraid because in the eyes of whites, we are first of all blacks.”

Aliza, 23, a sociology student at Hebrew University who would give only her first name, told JTA, “At the beginning, when white friends would ask me how I feel about the migrants from Africa, I would get pretty angry. Why should I feel anything special? Just because we’re both black? I thought it was racist and patronizing. I’m Jewish and Israeli. Jewish history is much more relevant to me than African history. I relate more to Jews from Eastern Europe than to African Muslims or Christians. I was a baby when I came here.”

But the violence — and in particular, she said, the torching of an apartment where Eritrean migrants were living in Jerusalem early this week — have changed her mind.

“Now I’m scared to live in my own country — because I’m black,” she said.

Shula Molla, 40, a Jerusalem educator who chairs the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jewry, a leading advocacy group, said Aliza’s feelings were common.

“The violence has forced the Ethiopian community to come to some difficult, but mature, realizations,” she said. “Until now, some community leaders have tried to avoid talking about systemic racism. They tried to explain away racist incidents; some even blamed the community — that we’re not progressive enough, that we haven’t adapted quickly enough.

“But now we all must deal with racism,” she added. “Of course I don’t feel particularly connected to Africans, but society is forcing us into a common fate. How I define myself doesn’t matter. Only my skin color is visible.”

Inbram was a member of the Foreign Ministry’s committee that deals with asylum seekers and said he feels no particular affinity or commonality with the migrant workers. He said he hesitated before adding Nazi badge to his shirt. But then he thought: “We Jews and Israelis are very quick to condemn anti-Semitic attacks – like the ones near Lyon in France just this week. But same thing is happening in our own country. Instead of being a ‘light unto the nations,’ we behave worse than many of the countries we criticize. Germany has much more humane policies toward migrants and asylum seekers than Israel has. We should be doing some serious soul-searching.”

He added, “At first, Hitler only called for the expulsion of the Jews.

“I don’t think of myself as African; I think of myself as Jewish and Israeli,” he said. “And the majority of these people are not asylum seekers. They are migrant workers who should be deported. But while they are here, they should be treated with kindness and compassion and provided with vocational training. I say that because I’m human, not because I’m black or African.”

Molla is particularly critical of Israeli leaders.

“I’m certainly not justifying the racism against migrant workers, but I believe that each of us has a kernel of racism in him or her,” she said. “In South Tel Aviv, society has pitted a poor, neglected community of veteran Israelis against the even weaker, more vulnerable community of migrants.

“So I don’t expect the residents of Tel Aviv to rise above themselves, but I do expect our leaders to rise above their own racism, and to lead,” she continued. “Instead, they are fanning the worst form of racism.”

She noted that Miri Regev, a Kadima member of Knesset, compared the Africans to “cancer” while Interior Minister Eli Yishai of Shas “accused them of spreading disease and raping women.”

Meanwhile, Knesset member Aryeh Eldad of the National Union said that “anyone who touches Israel’s border should be shot, and even the prime minister says that the infiltrators threaten the character of our state,” Molla said.

With political leaders granting legitimacy to the violence, she says she has felt a change in how some strangers treat her.

“On the bus, people turn to me and speak in English, because they assume that I am a migrant. The security checks at malls and movie theaters aren’t the same as they are for white Jews, because I’m considered suspicious. It’s getting harder to stop a cab,” Molla said.

Pointing to recent events in Israel, she said that the situation is likely to get worse.

“Last year, in Safed, the rabbis called on residents not to rent to Arabs,” she said. “Our political leaders were quiet — and soon after, in Kiryat Malachi, apartment owners signed an agreement not to rent or sell to Jews from Ethiopia.

“It’s bad enough that an uneducated, deprived mob has taken to racial violence, but what is really terrible is that political leaders have legitimized it,” she said. “And now that it’s been legitimized, the racial violence will spread against all blacks — and that includes me, my children — all Jews from the Ethiopian community.”