Africans in Israel join forces for improvement

Associated Press
In this photo taken Tuesday, March 6, 2012, from right to left, Sheik Ayed al-Abed and Mohammed al-Masri and Khazrail Ben-Yehuda talk in a meeting room in the southern Israeli city of Dimona. For years, Israel's array of African communities had little interaction, divided by religious, linguistic and cultural differences that made it impossible to think about one another. But in an unprecedented gathering, some members of these communities, including Jewish Ethiopians, nomadic Muslim Arabs and migrants from Eritrea and Sudan are banding together, claiming their shared skin tone has given them a common experience of discrimination. (AP Photo/Diaa Hadid)

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DIMONA, Israel (AP) — For years, Israel's array of African communities had little interaction, divided by religious, linguistic and cultural differences. That is changing.

They are facing a common situation in Israel — relegated to bottom rungs, partly because of discrimination over their skin color. That has brought some members of a wide range of communities together, including Jewish Ethiopians, nomadic Muslim Arabs and migrants from Eritrea and Sudan.

"What is said against me is said against my brother," said Sheik Ayed al-Abed, referring to the derogatory names that he and other members of a newly formed advocacy group have been called.

Al-Abed was among dozens of members of the various communities with African roots who met for three days last week in the southern Israeli desert town of Dimona. They formed a group, the "Middle East African Diaspora Commission," but offered no specific plans.

Participants hope to launch economic projects that would provide employment to the most disadvantaged blacks in Israel — African asylum seekers and Bedouin Arabs. They also plan to lobby the government to improve the situation of blacks in Israel.

Ultimately, they hope to be recognized by the 54-nation African Union as a diaspora community, though such an affirmation of their roots would be largely symbolic.

Al-Abed is part of a community that descended from African slaves who served lighter-skinned Arabs generations ago. His last name means "the slave" in Arabic.

It's also Arabic slang for a black person.

Some Hebrew-speaking Israelis refer to blacks as "kushim," a term derived from an ancient name for Ethiopia but today considered derogatory.

Jonathan Takele, an Ethiopian-Israeli participant in the initiative, said he was thrilled to find a place to discuss "the future of black people" in the Holy Land.

"I can share my experience. It doesn't matter if you are Christian, Muslim, Jewish," he said.

Even so, few Israelis from Ethiopia have joined, identifying with fellow Israeli Jews more than with other black Africans.

"You can't say because of racism, we are all thinking the same way," said Shlomo Mollah, the only Ethiopian member of Israel's parliament. "If you are raising the Bedouin problem, it's not like the Ethiopian problem. We are Jews, we have the same identity as other Jews."

While still in its infancy, the new group is the first known case in Israel of blacks crossing rocky religious and ethnic lines to champion a joint cause.

"It's extremely unique and extremely exciting, but I don't know if it will hold," said Dafna Strauss, an Israeli academic who has followed developments of African communities in Israel.

The populations are vastly different. Bedouins are Muslim Arabs who identify more with Palestinians than with Israelis, though they are Israeli citizens. The Eritreans, who include both Christians and Muslims, are caught in legal limbo as asylum seekers and face the possibility of expulsion from Israel. Ethiopians are Jews and citizens of Israel, facing their own set of problems.

Reasons for low status among the various communities are as varied as their origins. One of the main causes is a difference in educational levels. Also, citizens and legal migrants are inevitably treated differently from illegals who sneak into the country looking for work.

Seeking to protect its Jewish character, Israel has implemented increasingly strict policies meant to limit the number of migrants who enter.

Government spokesman Mark Regev denied those policies are racist.

"The government of Israel has a zero tolerance policy on racism, and every time we've unfortunately seen the issue of racism raise its ugly head, the prime minister has forthrightly condemned it," he said.

The force behind the emerging alliance are the Black Hebrews, a 2,500-strong group of vegan polygamists who believe they are descendants of a lost tribe of Israelites.

The Black Hebrews, who first arrived in Israel from the U.S. in the 1970s, aren't considered Jews, but Israel has granted many of them residency rights. Khazrail Ben-Yehuda, a Black Hebrew, said he doesn't know how many members the group will have, because it is still collecting signatures.

Ben-Yehuda said the new lobbying group is meant to remind Israelis and their government of the higher standards they often claim for themselves.

"Israel is supposed to be a light unto the nations," he said. "That will be our agenda."

Out of some 7.8 million people in Israel, some 200,000 people have African roots. In addition to the Black Hebrews, there are about 120,000 Ethiopian Jews, 50,000 African asylum seekers, an estimated 10,000 black Bedouins and at least 12,000 dark-skinned urban Arabs. There are no official statistics based on skin color.

Ethiopian Jews, who trace their ancestors to the Israelite tribe of Dan and were cut off from the rest of the Jewish world for more than 1,000 years, first arrived in Israel in large numbers in the 1980s in dramatic airlifts.

As Jews, they are automatically eligible for Israeli citizenship, but their absorption into society has been problematic. Suffering from a lack of a modern education, many have fallen into unemployment and poverty and have watched their family structures disintegrate.

Ethiopian Jews say racism has added to their troubles. In some towns, Israeli parents have tried to prevent Ethiopian children from sharing classrooms with their own. Ethiopians have also claimed discrimination in housing and job opportunities. Ethiopian religious leaders have struggled to win recognition.

The Israeli government provides stipends to Ethiopians for housing and education and offers help in employment, among programs meant to help them integrate.

Ethiopian Israelis have average monthly household incomes of around $1,800 dollars, less than half the average of other Jews, according to the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews.

Still, the Ethiopian community is making inroads. Following a traditional path to integration, many have risen through the ranks of Israel's military. Others have entered politics, and scholarships are available to send Ethiopians to universities.

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