African Israelis: The Challenges of Absorption

By Willa Frej: 

While I was spending a few extra days in Tel Aviv after Birthright ended, an anti-immigration riot in the Hatikva Quarter broke out on May 23. Mobs of people flooded the streets, setting trashcans on fire and smashing shops of windows owned by Eritreans and Sudanese immigrants. Nationalist protestors marched with signs displaying slogans like “Blacks out!”

I had actually been curious, during the entire trip, about all of the Africans I was seeing, and I decided to inquire. The Israeli soldiers traveling with us informed me that most of these Africans were in fact Ethiopian Jews who immigrated to Israel assisted by the government, just like had been the case with Jews from Russia and other parts of the world. Still, I wondered why the Africans I saw seemed to always be performing the most menial of tasks – sweeping streets, manning chairs on the beach, bussing tables in inexpensive restaurants.

Ethiopian Jews, descendants of the Beta Israel communities, currently reside in Israel as a result of immigration operations by the Israeli government. The soldiers explained that most Ethiopians had never lived in a city or accessed running water before arriving in Israel. Their transition into society was rocky, but second-generation Ethiopians now read and write Hebrew, making it easier to obtain employment. I still got the impression that despite enhanced integration in recent years (for example Ethiopians now participate in military service), Israelis haven’t yet managed to totally shake their xenophobia.

Immigrants from Africa, accompanied by other Israelis, protest suggested measures to jail or deport illegal African immigrants. Sending these people back to Africa, given the dire human rights circumstances in countries such as Sudan, would likely mean death. (Flickr Creative Commons/LisaG)

Unfortunately, this xenophobia is even more pronounced in relation to the illegal African immigrants living in Israel. According to Israel’s Ministry of Public Security, groups of Eritreans and Sudanese migrated over a decade ago through the Egyptian border. Due to the dire humanitarian situations in both of these countries, Israel will not deport any illegal immigrants, even back to Egypt. Most of these immigrants have instead taken up residence in Tel Aviv or Eilat.

The Israeli government engages in many efforts, such as this model Seder, to integrate immigrants from Ethiopia and other African countries. Still, it can often be a process that takes a generation or more. (Flickr Creative Commons/The Jewish Agency for Israel)

I asked the soldiers why they seemed to scorn these immigrants. They claim that Africans are to blame for a spike in crime and for placing a burden on social infrastructure, such as welfare and social security. I would also speculate that Israelis have developed a natural tendency to distrust non-Jews in general.

I am ashamed that I knew nothing of Ethiopian Jews or of the plight of the illegal immigrant in Israel. But perhaps my ignorance is a reflection of Israel’s deliberate evasion of the African topic in international spheres. Hailing from a country of immigrants, it surprises me that immigration is not a topic commonly referred to in the national discourse. I can only hope that the Israeli government engages and assists its immigrant population more going forward.

Willa Frej ’13 is in Pierson College. Contact her at