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Thursday, January 26, 2012

Ethiopian Jews are not alone - they are the latest in a long line of victims of Israeli intolerance

  • Published 08:03 26.01.12
  • Latest update 08:03 26.01.12

As the rest of the world marks International Holocaust Day, we – in Israel – face the challenge of standing up for the ‘other’.

By Rabbi Gideon D. Sylvester / Jewish Thinker blogger Tags: Jewish World

"Tottenhams are on their way to Auschwitz,(Seig Heil,) Hitler's going to gas them again."

On International Holocaust Day, I find it shocking that these offensive chants, accompanied by hissing in imitation of gas chambers, have become part of Britain's football culture.

immigrants from Ethiopia - Michal Fattal - 10112011 A family of immigrants from Ethiopia in Mevasseret Zion, outside Jerusalem, this week.
Photo by: Michal Fattal

Incredibly, racism is not limited to gentiles in the diaspora; sadly, it's also present here amongst Israeli Jews.
Last week, we heard reports that residents of Kiryat Malachi had signed secret agreements not to sell or rent out properties to Ethiopian Jews. Interviewed on Israeli television, locals described their Ethiopians neighbors as "cockroaches."
This discrimination is not limited to the south of the country. A Jerusalem bus driver was recently caught pouring racist invective on a group of Ethiopian children.

Representatives of the Ethiopian community say these news headlines merely reflect a phenomena that has been going on for years and this is borne out by recent statistics showing that college educated Ethiopian immigrants earn about half as much as their native Israeli peers.

Prejudice against Ethiopians is particularly sad given the excitement that accompanied their arrival in Israel. The world was riveted by this ingathering of the exiles. We, too, reveled in stories of how this community was adapting to modernity, proudly noting that ours was the first western country to bring black people to freedom in its land.

If the beginning was so promising, how did things go so wrong? Former minister Rabbi Michael Melchior points out that there is no such thing as "half-human rights"; either we respect everyone's rights or no one is safe." This winter saw a succession of attempts to pass ugly, racist legislation through the Knesset. "Price tag" attacks were carried out on Palestinian olive groves and mosques and these were followed by assaults on Israeli soldiers. Then, we heard about the humiliation of Israeli girls in Beit Shemesh, which were followed by revenge attacks on ultra-Orthodox Jews.

Ethiopian Jews are not alone. They are the latest in a long line of victims of intolerance.

Racist parties in other countries such as the English Defence League now carry our flag at their demonstrations, portraying Israel as an outstanding model of their racist ideology.

The Bible teaches that humanity is created in the image of God. It insists that we love our neighbors as well as strangers; and it forbids us from hating them. Israel's Declaration of Independence adopted these liberal values proclaiming that the new country would, "ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex". Its authors understood that Jews who suffered so much from persecution had to ensure that their new country modeled tolerance.

When racist taunts were the norm at British sports stadiums, several footballers took a stand. They established organizations like, "Kick racism out of football", playing on their influence among young people to campaign against intolerance. They could not completely eliminate it, but their high profile activities made the taunting of black and Asian players socially and professionally unacceptable.

Now, the same non-Jewish footballers are tackling anti-Semitism. It's deeply moving to see people who do not share our faith, history or heritage leading the charge to end anti-Semitic chanting at football grounds to prevent attacks on our people. Could we not do something similar to help those who suffer from discrimination here?

Our Biblical prophets envisioned a great Jewish nation led by people of stature offering a moral vision to the world. Sadly, after years of persecution, many Israelis have adopted a siege mentality in which they only look after "their own". Even the definition of "their own" gets narrower and narrower, with each group worrying only about their own constituency.

Those of us who love and care for the State of Israel must be concerned and act. Only if we are prepared to stand up for the "other" will we protect our own moral standing. Only when we step beyond our own communities to engage with those who are different from us will we escape the menacing shadow of racism and discrimination. As the rest of the world marks International Holocaust Day, this is the challenge we face.
Rabbi Gideon Sylvester directs the Rabbis for Human Rights Beit Midrash at the Hillel House of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and serves as the British United Synagogue's Rabbi in Israel.

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