By Eetta Prince-Gibson
Jewish Telegraphic Agency
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.”