Ethiopian Jews, some of whom passed through Sudan as refugees on their own journeys to
Israel in the early 1980s, expressed horror and regret Monday as attacks – both physical and verbal – against African migrants from Sudan and Eritrea have been on the rise in recent days.
“When I think how people are treating the Sudanese and of how they treated us when we passed through as refugees, I am ashamed,” Ziva Mekonen-Degu, executive director of the Israel Association of Ethiopian Jews, told The Jerusalem Post.
“When we arrived there, they brought us water and helped us find work so that we could make enough money to live. [They were] difficult times,” said Mekonen-Degu.
“It should not just be the Ethiopian Jews who remember what happened to us in Sudan nearly 30 years ago – this whole country was created because we were all once refugees. We should all be thinking about what happened to those Jews who did not find shelter in other countries,” she added.
Mekonen-Degu’s comments come less than a day after a serious arson attack destroyed a Jerusalem apartment that was home to a group of foreign workers from Africa, and in the wake of a barrage of verbal attacks by some of the country’s key leaders against the growing community of illegal migrants or “infiltrators,” as they are referred to by their opponents.
On Sunday during a tour of Israel’s border with Egypt, National Union MK Arieh Eldad said that IDF forces should now shoot anyone that crosses into Israeli territory. His comment follows
claims by Interior Minister Eli Yishai – who said Israeli women are being raped en masse by African migrants but are too afraid to speak out for fear of being stigmatized with having contracted AIDS, and Likud MK Miri Regev – who referred to the refugees as a “cancer” on society.
“We [Ethiopian Israelis] feel very uncomfortable about what is happening but the government is refusing to listen to us,” commented Ethiopian MK Shlomo Molla (Kadima), who has in recent weeks voiced disapproval of many of the attacks on the African community.
“Jews talk about how we were
slaves in Egypt and how we suffered because of our religion and culture outside of Israel – but now we are making others suffer,” Molla said, adding that the increased attacks support claims by the Ethiopian Jewish community of inherent racism both within mainstream society and from the state.
Molla said it is very clear that the attacks against Africans, who are estimated to number up to 50,000, are based solely on the color of their skin. He said that Ethiopian Israelis – who have recently highlighted the large number of racial slurs made against them originating from within mainstream Israeli society – identify strongly with the migrants.
“We know that if these foreigners were Scandinavians, with blue eyes and
blond hair, then they would not be treated in this way,” said Molla.
“These incidents not only prove what we have been saying about racism in Israeli society, but also show that the racism is supported by the government, the
prime minister, mayors of various cities, celebrities and ordinary people.”
Gadi Yavarkan, the director of the Center for Social Equality for Ethiopian Jews and head of the union of young Ethiopian leaders, said that until now many Ethiopian Israelis have been hesitant to condemn the violence against migrants from Eritrea and Sudan. However, he said, now “we are left with no choice but to respond; what is happening is disgusting.”
“As Jews, it is clear that we want Israel to remain a Jewish country, but I am not willing to allow the fight against these people to be based on the color of their skin,” said Yavarkan “If we do not start speaking out about how these comments and acts are based on skin color, then tomorrow – once they are gone – people will start trying to get rid of Ethiopian Jews too.”
“The Jews were refugees for many years before the State of Israel was created and on that basis, we cannot let ourselves behave like parasites; it is anti-Jewish to call people ‘cancer,’” he noted.
“Not too long ago, we Ethiopian Israelis, marched through the streets of Kiryat Malachi to protest racism, so we cannot allow racism against others to continue on like this,” Yavarkan continued.
“What we are seeing is racism based on the color of their skin and most people here cannot differentiate between Ethiopian Jews or foreigners from Eritrea, Sudan and some even from Ethiopia,” pointed out Michal Avera Samuel, director of FIDEL – Association for Education and Social Integration of Ethiopian Jews.
“I know many young Ethiopians Jews who are now too scared to go to places where there are African migrants because they don’t want to be mistaken for them,” said Samuel, describing how last week an Ethiopian Jewish man was attacked in Tel Aviv during an anti-African migrant protest after demonstrators mistakenly believed him to be a foreigner.
“It is very sad that we are teaching our children not to accept those who look different to us,” Samuel said, adding that the message being sent to Israel’s younger generation is that it is acceptable to judge people based on their skin color.