Thursday, February 2, 2012

Black and White in Israel

I saw their angry painted half white/natural half black faces on the tv news.  These are the children of the  newly-arrived Ethiopian teenage boys I took care of as a housemother in a boarding school in Maalot, Israel,back in 1984.  Those boys, now fathers, were traumatized by walking out of Ethiopia, living as hungry refugees in Sudan, being whisked to Israel in the belly of cargo planes in the dark of night, and plopped into boarding schools with Israeli kids who didn't want them there.boarding schools with Israeli kids who didn't  want them there.
I remember their beautifully sculpted faces, their melodious chanting as they walked around the boarding school, their frustration at trying to learn Hebrew and fit into what the boarding school administration wanted them to be.  Their thin bodies shook in the cold of a Maalot winter where each would hide even his head under his one allotted blanket at night.  They were so grateful for the lotion I put on their dry skin, cracked from the cold.  No one knew why so many broke out in boils.  Without warning, the cycle of malaria would turn some suddenly into a shaking mass of feverish sweat.  And they endured the painful frequent combing of their lice-infested kinky hair.
Believing that all Jews were their brothers, and that Israel was the paradise they yearned for, they wanted to be Israeli.  But, coming from Ethiopia that had never been dominated by a white country, they were not prepared for being black in a white society.  Nor had they expected being looked down upon as primitive in a technologically advanced society.  Grieving for the family members who never made it to Israel, struggling with a strange language that they were expected to learn instantly, being unwanted and unliked, they defended themselves by throwing stones at their attackers.  Even in the more harmonious boarding schools,  these proud, dignified Ethiopians began to understand that Jewish or not, there was a difference between black and white.  And black wasn't as good.  They eventually confided in me that they wanted to be white too.  It was heartbreaking.
I have followed their immigration in Israel over the years enough to know that theirs has not been a happy story.  Although the government tried to provide what the Ethiopian families needed for a healthy transition, the Ethiopians sank to the bottom of Israeli society.  The only place where Ethiopians have excelled in Israel is in the army where their natural physical attributes make them outstanding.  A few are crawling into law and politics, but the number of success stories is still low.  One movie I saw of an Ethiopian child struggling with the emotional conflicts of being Ethiopian in Israel was agonizing to watch.  A few painful books have been written by older Ethiopian survivors of coming to Israel.
The teenagers I took care of lost the innocence of having no color line when they came to Israel.  They could "see" black and white, but they didn't "feel" it.  Now their children are chanting too, but these are angry slogans in demonstrations against what they are calling Apartheid in Israel.  The  racism that turns couples away from buying homes, segregates Ethiopian children in schools and neighborhoods, and keeps Ethiopians in low paying jobs is being challenged as never before.
I weep for them now, as I did then.
Suellen Zima
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