Africans in Israel join forces for improvement (AP) Associated Press) By DIAA HADID DIMONA, Israel 03/16/12 3:21 am ET)
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DIMONA, Israel – 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
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
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
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
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
"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
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. (© 2012 The Associated
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