Ethiopians, taken for migrant workers, feel racisms sting

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,” said Elias Inbram, 38, 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.”

Based on his stated belief that “to white people, all blacks look the same,” Inbram posited, “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 brightly colored T-shirt. He then drew in by hand, in the upper left corner, the unmistakable yellow “Jude” patch from the Nazi era.

Elias Inbram wears a shirt he made that features a yellow star and reads “Caution: I am not an infiltrator from Africa.” photo/jta

Last week, he posted a picture of himself wearing the shirt 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,” said Inbram, who holds a master’s degree in law and is interning before applying for the bar.

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.”

“The violence has forced the Ethiopian community to come to some difficult, but mature, realizations,” said Shula Molla, 40, a Jerusalem educator who chairs the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jewry, a leading advocacy group. “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.”

Inbram said he feels no particular affinity or commonality with the migrant workers. He said he hesitated before adding the Nazi badge to his shirt. But then he thought: “We Jews and Israelis are very quick to condemn anti-Semitic attacks, like the ones in France [last weekend]. But the same thing is happening in our own country. We should be doing some serious soul-searching.”

Molla is particularly critical of Israeli leaders.

“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 said. “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.”

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 the situation is likely to get worse.

“Last year, in Tsfat, 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.”