On Race Relations, Israel Is Not America
In the summer of 2000, while touring Israel with a group of American teens, I met a group of Ethiopians in the North. They were slightly younger than us, and dressed in clothes one might find in an American inner city. One of them approached me and said in English, “What’s up n****.”
I went to a US public high school in a white middle-class neighborhood, but I estimate that a third of the students were bused in from black communities. Elementary school was about 65 percent white, 25 percent black, and 10 percent other. For middle school, I went to a school where the overwhelming majority of students came from black neighborhoods.
After playing basketball with the Ethiopians that evening in the summer of 2000, it was explained to us that many of them were influenced by American rap, hip-hop, television, and movies because those were the closest cultural match available. Mainstream Israeli culture did not speak to their experience, and they did not have many uniquely Ethiopian-Israeli cultural influences.
The Ethiopian experience, though, should not be compared to that of racial minorities in America.
When I was younger, segregation seemed like ancient history. When you are young, events that took place before you were born often seem irrelevant to your life. Now, when I think about race relations, it occurs to me that segregation existed while my parents were in school. Though our northern city never had formal segregation, when my father went to the same high school that I did, there were no black students. Had he lived in the South, he would have seen Jim Crow segregation, and even in the North, there was discrimination, especially in education, housing, and employment.
The message that was sent to black communities was that American society did not want them.
Many of my classmates graduated college and joined the middle-class. I do not doubt that, for many of them, race and discrimination make life harder, though many of them have overcome that to varying degrees. The problem some of my other classmates face is that they have never been discriminated against in a respectable employment setting because some of them never even got to a respectable employment setting.
Despite the prominence of figures like Colin Powell, Clarence Thomas, and others, some of the students I grew up with entered school having been taught that there was no reason to try, because they had no future, and that society was not going to accept them. Despite the prominence of Barack Obama, Condoleezza Rice, and others, in some places an ethos of hopelessness is still being passed down from parents to children.
The Ethiopian experience in Israel is different. Ethiopians have had significant difficulty, but they were never formally segregated. Unlike African-Americans, they are either immigrants or the children of immigrants — and whereas English-speaking olim come from developed societies, the Ethiopians came from a third-world country, which creates unique challenges.
Some in the immigrant generation still do not speak Hebrew at a conversational level, and many of them have little practical education. Therefore, despite the fact that many Ethiopians are struggling, many of the problems they face do not stem purely from racism. They are legitimate difficulties of modernization and integration that remain, despite significant efforts by Israel, including government-funded housing and education programs that are more extensive than programs offered to other immigrant groups, and are completely unparalleled in the United States.
I do not doubt that discrimination contributes to the Ethiopians’ difficulties, but their progress depends on their own ethos more than it depends on others’ acceptance of them. Mainstream society must work with minorities to prevent the entrenchment of a defeatist ethos, because those sentiments are harmful — both to minority communities and to mainstream society.
Both in the case of African-Americans and in that of Ethiopian-Israelis, riots and harmful rhetoric — like some of what occurred after Solomon Tekah’s death — only harm minorities, contribute to the ethos of hopelessness, and are unacceptable.
Baruch Stein is a writer living in Jerusalem. Previous columns of his have appeared in media outlets in both the US and Israel.