About Me

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Ethiopian Israelis, The Right of Return, & the Issue of Race

While spending the day volunteering in Beer Sheva with the Jewish Agency last week, we visited children at an Ethiopian Absorption center/school. While there we interacted with the children (actually helped them make small kites), and learned about the the unique challenges facing Ethiopian Olim through the years - a community that is now over 100,000 strong here, but whose integration into Israeli society has been hampered both by the vast differences between Ethiopian and and Israeli culture, as well as by lingering discrimination.

While there we heard from Micah Feldman, who gave us an overview of the efforts undertaken by Israel to rescue the Jews of Ethiopia. Feldman, quite the hero in the Ethiopian Aliyah movement, known as Abba Micha among his many Ethiopian friends, worked to facilitate Operation Moses, which brought 8,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel, and was actually one of the chief engineers of Operation Soloman, which brought over an additional 14,000 Ethiopian Jews from Addis Ababa to Tel- Aviv.

Operation Moses was the mission which rescued Ethiopian Jews from Sudan during a famine in 1984 - an effort of the IDF, the CIA, the U.S. embassy in Khartoum, mercenaries, and Sudanese security forces. Begun November 21, 1984, it involved the air transport of some 8,000 Ethiopian Jews from Sudan directly to Israel, ending January 5, 1985.

Thousands of these Jews had fled Ethiopia on foot for temporary refugee camps in Sudan (who secretly agreed to take them in) but, once the story broke in the media, however, Arab countries pressured Sudan to stop the airlift and about 1,000 Ethiopian Jews were left behind. Most of them were evacuated later in the U.S.-led Operation Joshua. More than 1,000 so-called "orphans of circumstance" existed in Israel, children separated from their families still in Africa, until Operation Solomon took 14,000 more Jews to Israel in 1991.

In Operation Solomon, several Jewish organizations, including the state of Israel, concerned about the well-being of the sizable population of the remaining Ethiopian Jews (as the Ethiopian government was close to being topple), launched what would be the largest emigration of Ethiopian Jews to date. In only 36 hours, non-stop flights of 34 Israeli aircraft transported these 14,325 Ethiopian Jews to Israel.

While Israel, of course, has its flaws - and, indeed there are many Israeli NGOs, and individuals, working hard to increase opportunities for Israelis of Ethiopian background, and working to end the lingering discrimination which continues to hamper such progress - Israel's willingness to take immense political, economic, and military risks to rescue black Africans from poverty and war in one of the poorest and least politically stable regions in the world, and grant them immediate citizenship, is hard to reconcile with the facile narratives of Israel as a racist state.

In fact, Ethiopians weren't the only Jews of color who were rescued from harm in their 61 year history. Operation Magic Carpet was an operation between June 1949 and September1950 that brought 49,000 Yemenite Jews - as well as 500 Djiboutian and Eritrean Jews - to the nascent state. Today, Jews of color (Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews from Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America) actually account for over 50% of all Israeli Jews.

The fact is, you'd be hard-pressed to find any other ''progressive'' Western nation that has done anything even approaching what the Jewish state has done in rescuing black Africans from danger and granting them immediate citizenship - an eternal open-invitation, or sorts, for Jews all over the world, of any race, ethnicity, or economic status, to come and join our national family.

However, many people - even those who don't make the mistake of accusing Israel of racism as such - still have problems with the nature of Israel as a Jewish state, and ask, often quite innocently, why Israel must give immigration preference to those of Jewish descent, rather than to all, irrespective of their ethnic or religious background. To this, it is important to point out two things - first, that the historic mission of Israel (that is, one of its primary reason for being, is to be a refuge for Jews all over the world - as Herzl said, a state that would serve as the ''Guardian of the Jews'').

While we'll never know the precise number of Jews who would have been saved during the Holocaust if Israel had become an independent state a decade or so prior to 1948, one other thing is for sure. As even the more progressive and tolerant nations at the time only allowed a trickle of Jews to immigrate, sealing the fate of millions attempting to escape the Nazi onslaught, the existence of a sovereign Jewish polity - with the means: economically, militarily, and diplomatically to protect Jews at home and abroad - is no mere religious, abstract, or ideologically driven desire. Rather, it is a rational and pragmatic approach to ensuring the safety and well-being of a small minority who has understandably tired of relying on the good-will of the enlightened nations of the world to ensure its well-being, and indeed its very (individual and collective) survival.

The second point that needs to be made is the common misconception that Israel is at all unique in granting citizenship preference to certain groups - whether based on differences in religion, ethnicity, or some sense of shared history and/or people-hood - over others. For instance, there are 53 nations who belong to an international group known as the Organization of Islamic Conference - that is, nations who self-identify as Muslim states, most of whose citizenship laws codify preference towards Muslims over non-Muslims.

However, even in the democratic West, nations have citizenship laws that give preference to those can claim some historic, ethnic, or linguistic connection with their nation. Many countries provide immigration privileges to individuals with ethnic/familial ties to these countries (so-called ''leges sanguinis''). As examples: Bulgaria, Belgium, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Japan, Poland, Romania, S. Korea, Spain, Turkey, and Ukraine, all have citizenship laws based partly or largely on this principle - that is, a Right of Return of sorts for people determined to share a preferred common national trait. Apart from France, ''jus sanguinis'' still is the
preferred means of passing on citizenship in many continental
European countries, with benefits of maintaining national unity (while not in any way necessarily denying equal civil rights for minorities within the country who have citizenship, but who don't share such traits).

So, in fact, Israel is not at all unique in seeking to maintain a nation unified by a citizenry who share a similar historical memory and a common sense of political & moral destiny. Moreover, it important to remember that Israel undertook such extraordinary efforts to grant citizenship to over 100,000 Ethiopian Jews due in part to the rulings, by Israeli authorities, that they are indeed Jewish despite the fact that, genetically, they are more similar to other non-Jewish Ethiopians than to Israeli Jews, giving credence to theories that such Ethiopians converted to Judaism somewhere in the past, and are not, indeed, descendants from the original Jewish tribes - that is, they don't share a ''leges sanguinis'' with other Jews.

The immigration of Ethiopian Jews - and other ''Jews of Color'' - over its 61 year history, is a lasting testament to the fact that race, as such, is not a consideration in determining who can become a citizen and contribute to the national enterprise of the Jewish people.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

My essay in today's Jewish Exponent

Opinion: His Aliyah Motivated by Need to Be a Partner With Israel

October 08, 2009

Adam Levick
Adam Levick
On May 20, at 9:30 a.m., I became a citizen of Israel, the first sovereign Jewish state in more than 2,000 years. And, as I walked around Jerusalem on that first day, what struck me most was the feeling of responsibility -- that I wasn't just a supporter anymore. This was now my country, and the responsibilities of citizenship weighed heavily upon me.

Though I have only been here for several months, what I've experienced in this short time has amazed me.

I've lamented our peoples' suffering at the Western Wall on Tisha B'Av; begun learning Hebrew, our people's ancient tongue that Eliezer Ben-Yehuda miraculously revived; attended state ceremonies on Yom Yerushalayim; bargained with vendors at the shuk; walked aimlessly through the winding alleyways of the Old City; toured the religious neighborhood of Mea Shearim; and, for the first time, observed the High Holidays -- here, in the birthplace of the Jewish people.

I have, often through mere happenstance, met some extraordinary Israelis. While roaming aimlessly through the artists' colony of Yemin Moshe, I came upon an open house at the home of Bridgitta Yavari-Ilan, artist, writer and intellectual. Bridgitta, quite an anomaly, is a passionate Zionist, but also happens to be a Protestant from Sweden who spent her first years here caring for Palestinian orphans. Yes, she said, I could take her picture. Yes, I said, I'll buy her book, costing 195 shekels, "but, for you," she said, "I give a special price -- 100 shekels."

I also had the good fortune of meeting a woman at the Herzl Museum named Francis Greenberg. When Greenberg, last year, at age 88 left the Pittsburgh home where she'd lived for 60 years, walked off an El Al plane and became a citizen of Israel, it was her second time trying to make aliyah -- the first being 61 years ago, in 1947, on a ship called the Exodus.

My interest in meeting as many real actors as possible in this drama known as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict inspired me to tour the Dheisheh refugee camp, just outside Bethlehem. The people we met there reflected the kindness, complexity and pathos of the Palestinian people. While we were treated with warmth by our hosts, the art in the community center, which is used by the children of Dheisheh, contained works depicting messages of peace side by side with murals glorifying bomb-throwing terrorists.

It's also not every day that two middle-aged drunk Israeli Arabs sit down on the bench you're occupying on Ben-Yehuda, share their bottle of wine with you and discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as well as the ideas of Spinoza and Camus. This impromptu, and quite spirited, tete-â-tete with Nadi and Razy seemed like the stuff of fiction but it was very real.

I toured the settlement of Eli, a few miles from Ariel, stretching over a vast mountainous area and encompassing a cluster of neighborhoods with nearly 3,000 residents. Kobi Eliraz, head of Eli's local council, spoke with immense pride about his community, and also wanted to make clear that he recognizes the authority of the state. If it decides to evacuate him from Eli, he'll fight the decision politically, but peacefully go along with the wishes of the democratic majority.

I also recently visited the military cemetery at Mount Herzl to attend a memorial (the third yahrtzeit) for Michael Levin, an American oleh from the Philadelphia area killed during the Second Lebanon War. Though I didn't personally know Michael, there is something about his life -- and death -- that has always touched me. This connection was heightened by my aliyah and my presence at the ceremony, witnessing the profound grief of his family, friends and fellow soldiers on a warm July afternoon.

It was extremely moving when Kaddish was recited, when Michael's father spoke, when his closest friend spoke -- seeing and hearing their pain as they tried to hold back tears and carry on as they all must. Later, we all sang "Hatikvah" with Michael's family, as one family.

My move was motivated by a wish to do more than just experience Israel; I wanted to become an Israeli. It was inspired by the righteousness of the Zionist cause and an increasing sense of the weight of Jewish history on my shoulders. And so, my Zionist journey continues.

Adam Levick worked for the Anti-Defamation League before he made aliyah.

See more articles in: Editorial & Opinion

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Attempting to explain the world's oldest hatred, to my new friends

I was sitting in Cafe Aroma with my new French friends - two people I met while on a tour in Jerusalem - having a really enjoyable conversation...the kind you often have on vacation, especially long vacations where you're more likely to throw your usual social caution to the wind..when, the liberation you feel by being so far from everything and everyone you've ever known allows a greater daring, a willingness to take more risks. Though I'm not technically on vacation, being nearly 6000 miles away from home for, at the very least, a very extended period of time, has definitely put me in a mood similar to what I felt when I was backpacking across Europe in my 20s - the sense of limitless possibilities.

I think the three of us ended up talking for like 2 hours, a conversation which revolved around many things, but politics and religion took up most of our time - which seemed quite natural given their obvious erudition and genuine curiousness (I, believe it or not, do try to avoid politics if I sense folks are not interested). My new friends genuinely seemed to have more questions - about Judaism, Israel, the U.S. - than answers, assumptions, or specific opinions, which made for an unusual encounter.

They, after all, were not Jewish, not evangelical Christians or religious in any sense, not in any way connected to the Jewish state in the usual way and only visiting Israel out of curiousness...the kind of visitors most countries take for granted but for Israel is at least a bit unusual, and which made me think through my answers a bit longer than I normally would have. I felt that - especially when the conversation touched on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Zionism, and, American Jewry - I was, simultaneously representing my strong national identity as an American, my new Israeli identity, as well as my identity as a (American) Jew more broadly.

I must admit, my answer to the question, ''why did you move to Israel'' is a bit different when posed by a non-Jew, both in the discourse I use, broadly speaking, as well as in terms of the language I use. How many non-Jews, for instance, know what the word ''Aliyah'' means? To what degree do I need to defend/explain the Israeli Right of Return? Even the word, ''Zionist'', for instance, tragically, often has negative connotations for many in the non-Jewish progressive community - which caused me to wonder if much of what I was going to say would be lost in (political) translation.

Further, while conversing with my new friends I was trying hard to take them and their questions at face value, and not put them in the pre-assigned category of progressive Europeans viscerally hostile towards Israel - and, indeed, there was nothing even remotely indicating they held this view. And, in fact, I found their erudition quite refreshing -that even though they may not be overly informed on the topic of modern Zionism, their education and open-mindedness allowed them absorb what I was saying with a broad understanding of the political, cultural, and religious themes I was exploring. They were truly European in the very best sense of the word. However, though their English was excellent, and I don't think they missed much of what I was saying, there is, when discussing complex matters with non-native English speakers, always the fear that some of the nuance of the words and phrases you use may get lost or even slightly misinterpreted.

The most interesting part of our conversation was when my new friend asked me - during the course of the talk which touched on issues of perceived Jewish power in the U.S. - to provide any insight I had over the broad phenomena of anti-Semitism. ''Why do you think it occurs'', was what he was wondering.

Boy, there's a topic!!! (And, sure, I realize that some of my friends may be asking "G-d, why couldn't you have kept the conversation a bit lighter? There's so much to discuss that isn't so controversial and emotional...art, music, sports, or Croissants! But, what can I say, these conversations seem to follow me. As someone once said, "I is what I is''.)

Anti-Semitism is an issue which has shaped much of my professional and intellectual life, and one which I have spent a lot of time contemplating, as well as reading and writing about. There were so many angles I could have tackled the subject from, as anti-Semitism has gone through different stages over the years, and varies widely depending on the part of the world where this phenomena takes place. For instance, early Christian anti-Judaic polemics - predicated largely by Jews' rejection of Christ, and the related charge that Jews were responsible, as a group, for the death of Christ (deicide) - dates back to the first or second century CE, and certainly is/was quite a different creature than 20th century secular incarnations, such as the racially-based anti-Semitism of the Nazis.

However, there were two themes which I thought worth commenting on, having decided to speak broadly on what I believe to be at the root of much (but, obviously not all) of the modern manifestation of anti-Semitism. The first one pertains to the reaction of many non-Jews to a very particularistic Jewish identity in a world increasingly under the influence of post-identity politics (which, for the sake of brevity, I didn't explore), and the other, which I chose to elaborate on, was the reaction to the perception of Jewish power in the world.

Put simply, I explained - and as I touched on in my blog post about Tisha B'Av and Jewish power - classic anti-Semitism (such as the Jewish conspiracy posited in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion) was predicated upon the fear of Jews (Judeophobia, as such) as aliens, different, the other who can't be trusted and who, it was supposed, meets in secret with other Jews with some malicious intent, so that anything undersirable, economic or political could be projected upon the them. In the Middle Ages, Jews, to use but one example, were accused of being behind the Black Plague.

Today, however, while such wildly conspiratorial narratives pertaining to the Jews, sadly, still have currency in many parts of the world, by and large, such views have lost credibility in most of the West, and has instead morphed into a general fear of Jews insofar as they - who have achieved a good deal of economic and educational success - are perceived to posses power which is, in this view, disproportionate to their numbers. Indeed, a poll taken during the height of our current economic downturn in the U.S. indicated that 25% of Americans believed that Jews were primarily responsible for the downturn. Jews were no longer accused in polite circles of ''poisoning the wells'', but, as representing in the eyes of many, the ruling class and perceived to to be the group who has benefitted most by our system, they could be associated with other modern social and economic miseries which, even for the well-educated, often defy simple explanations.

This perception of Jews as wielding a disproportionate degree of power and influence in the world can also be found in critiques suggesting that Jews wield too much power over the course of our nation's foreign policy. The book by Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, which argues that many of our nation's foreign policy decisions (such our support for Israel, as well as the recent decision to go to war with Iraq) was only made possible as a result of the disproportionate influence of the organized Jewish community, is the intellectual ground zero of such a narrative.

This is obviously a much longer discussion, but, I think that our modern political culture has come to almost fetishize powerlessness, and, indeed, much of our discourse seems to almost lionize those perceived to be victims. Its as if the status of being perceived to be an ''underdog'' is assumed, a priori, to carry with it a positive moral dimension - a position which (though when applied to, say, sports is understandable and quite innocent) often allows political actors in the world arena perceived to be weak to get a sort of moral get-out-of-jail-free card. After all, they're so weak...how could we possibly ask as much from them as we do their stronger competitor? (Hamas may have an openly anti-Semitic founding charter, and be at its core, a a totally reactionary political movement, but, it is often argued, at least implicitly, ''who are we to condemn their use of civilians as human shields in their war with Israel''? ''What can we expect from them''? ''Look how much stronger the Israeli military is than those ''rag-tag'' fighters in Gaza''.)

And, as Jews in the West have shown that an historically oppressed minority can indeed overcome their oppression and succeed and prosper, they are, tragically, now often on the wrong side of this political paradigm. For, taking this politics of victimhood to its natural end, if the weakest members of society are weak for no reason other than the arbitrary machinations of a system which oppresses them, then the inverse would naturally be true - those who benefit most from this same society must invariably reap these benefits by some nefarious undertakings or at least owing to some inherent systemic injustice. Much of modern anti-Semitism, I argued, is only one component within a broader Western political current which, at its core, is about our perception of the relationship between power, personal (and group) responsibility, and success.

I don't know if I necessarily converted my new friends to my view, but they did genuinely seem interested in what I said, and, as they departed, we exchanged contact information (and even became Facebook friends). I don't normally ''hold court'' like this, and really hope I didn't come across to them as defensive, accusatory, or haughty, (this wasn't my attempt at some sort of ''Jáccuse'' moment). But, what can I say? They asked!