Al-Jazeera / June 23, 2021
Using token Black Israelis in Israeli PR will not help make Israeli apartheid more acceptable to the world.
On June 1, Ashager Araro, an Israeli army reserve lieutenant of Ethiopian Jewish descent, released a video on Instagram captioned “My Zionism”. In the almost three-minute clip, Araro accuses those who consider Zionism to be an “imperialist idea”, of “actively” deleting “the history of Brown and Black Jews”.
She claims that such a stance dismisses “our stories, struggle, and survival” and ignores “the fact that the Zionist cause have [sic] built a safe home for Jews like us”. She explains that the opposition to Zionism is “especially hurtful when it comes from people who know exactly how it feels when your history is being tossed aside, when your heroes are not being remembered.”
You would be forgiven for thinking that the video is a harmless statement in which a Black Jewish woman is sharing her feelings, especially given the message of “peace” at the end. But the clip appears to be part of an Israeli PR campaign trying to repair its image after the latest bout of brutal violence against Palestinians caused worldwide outrage.
Israeli government officials, military personnel – including Mohammad Kabiya, a Palestinian citizen of Israel who reposted a video defending the Israeli army – and various supporters of Israel have all been active on social media trying to challenge growing pro-Palestinian sentiment in the West.
Araro’s video seems to particularly target narratives that draw parallels between the Palestinian struggle against Israeli colonialism and the struggles of other native and oppressed people facing colonial and neocolonial forces.
It attempts to shut down the debate on Israeli settler-colonialism through a mixture of guilt and affective language, which puts Araro’s “lived experience” before the Palestinian reality.
She makes a case against the erasure of Black and Brown Jewish communities by aligning herself with a political ideology that is based on the erasure of the Palestinian people. She references Jewish Ethiopian migration to Israel in the face of anti-Semitic persecution to portray Zionism in a positive light, but makes no mention that Jewish migration has resulted in the mass expulsion, death, and systematic oppression of Palestinians. She seems to be excusing the brutal subjugation of an entire people because it supposedly delivered relief for another.
Araro relies on lazy identity politics which imagines a hierarchy of persecution. She uses frequently the word “white” to challenge the arguments against Zionism and creates the illusion that the criticism of the Israeli settler-colonial project pit white activists against a Black version of Zionism.
The truth is, even the “safe home” that Zionism has provided for Ethiopian Jews is, at best, tenuous. A brief look at the facts confirms the very point she is trying to argue against: Israel is a European, settler-colonial, and therefore racist state – even for its Ethiopian Jewish citizens.
Since the 1980s, more than 80,000 Ethiopian Jews were brought over to Israel in state-sponsored operations to save them from famine and conflict. Although their “Jewishness” was recognized by Israeli religious authorities, it continued to be questioned, as the community faced wide-ranging racism from Israeli institutions and society at large.
In the 1990s, for example, Israel’s national blood bank was found to be destroying blood donations from Ethiopians out of fear that as Africans, they carried HIV. In the 2000s and early 2010s, the Israeli authorities were injecting Jewish Ethiopian women with contraceptives without their knowledge or full consent. Some in transit camps were even threatened with a denial of entry to Israel if they did not accept the injection. Others were led to believe it was a disease-preventing drug.
Today, Ethiopian Jews continue to be discriminated against in education, employment, and housing and suffer high levels of poverty.
As a marginalized community, Ethiopian Jews and other people of African descent in Israel regularly face police brutality. In recent years, the killing of two young Jewish Ethiopian men, 19-year-old Solomon Tekah and 24-year-old Yehuda Biadga, prompted Black Lives Matter protests in Israel.
So much for the “safe home” given to Ethiopian Jews upon entering Israeli borders. But is it really any surprise that Israel, a state founded on the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people, their systematic dispossession and oppression, deploys such racist practices against Black Jews?
What Araro’s identarian discourse, which elevates her individual experience over evidence of the subjugation of others, fails to recognize is that no form of oppression exists in isolation.
Different structures of exclusion are connected and reinforce one another. Ethiopian Jews find themselves at the bottom of the pecking order within Israeli society but are afforded the right to participate in the occupation and dispossession of Palestinians. Israel’s settler-colonial state is responsible for both of these realities.
While Israel supporters like Araro try to deny the existence of systems of oppression affecting people of colour within the same society and across the world, many have been making these connections. That is why solidarity with the Palestinian cause has been growing in recent years.
For example, when the Black Lives Matter demonstrations swept the globe last summer, raising awareness of the oppression Black people face, activists in the US and Europe actively worked to show the links between the racist treatment of Black people in the West and the colonial occupation of Palestinians in the Middle East. This period of collective action injected people with the confidence that they required to speak out in the face of smear campaigns and institutional silencing.
Similarly, the resilience and heroic struggle of the Palestinian people have served as a catapult to action and moved countless activists to reclaim the public space and demand an end to institutional complicity with Israel’s colonial project.
That is why the recent Israeli attacks on Muslim and Christian worshippers in Jerusalem, the intensification of the campaign to forcefully expel Palestinian Jerusalemites from their homes, and the latest bombardment of civilians in besieged Gaza elicited such an overwhelming international response.
Governments failed to act but people across the world expressed their outrage and rallied in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for liberation, as hundreds of thousands took to the streets.
Dockers refused to handle Israeli shipments in Italy, South Africa, and the US, while countless BDS motions were passed in workplaces. Even public figures and celebrities who were considered unlikely to weigh in on such a topic expressed solidarity with the Palestinian people.
Confronted by an ever-growing wave of resistance and solidarity, Israel is scrambling for legitimacy within “woke” platforms that it has likely identified as a threat. As it is losing even the most mainstream, liberal middle ground, it is desperately attempting a facelift.
Israel’s problem, however, is that it understands the issue primarily as a battle to control public narratives – through either repression of free speech on Palestine or a carefully curated public image as a saviour state. What it fails to understand – and perhaps cannot deal with – is that across the world the political order that Israel’s legitimacy and support rely on is profoundly under strain.
As the empty language of representation, experience, and diversity is being swept aside by the mass mobilization of the oppressed and exploited, the Zionist project is attempting to mobilize these very tools to justify its ongoing oppression of the Palestinian people.
Slick videos, carefully crafted scripts, and massive historical omissions will not turn back the tide. Token Black, Arab, or LGBTQ faces will not make apartheid more acceptable to the world. They will only serve to expose the Israeli state’s hypocrisy further and embolden those fighting back.
Malia Bouattia is an activist, the former President of the National Union of Students, and a co-founder of the Students not Suspects/Educators not Informants Network.