Israel is a country accused of many things by many people. Personally, I find it most painful when the accusation is that of racism and when the accusers are fellow Jews. Sadly, this is what is happening in the course of a PR campaign that started with the best of intentions.
In 2015, the government of Israel passed a cabinet decision to facilitate the immigration of a number of Ethiopian citizens with family relations in Israel and with claims of Jewish lineage. Many of these Ethiopians had attended educational institutions run by the Jewish Agency or by American NGOs and, as a result, developed a strong attachment to Israel and to Judaism.
These Ethiopians were found not to be eligible for aliyah under the Law of Return, which requires that one be born to at least one Jewish grandparent, but in view of their family ties to Israelis and their humanitarian plight – stuck in limbo between the lives they had left behind in Ethiopia and the lives they aspired to live in Israel – it was decided to bring them to Israel and grant them full rights as olim.
When months went by and the decision remained unimplemented, a petition began to circulate calling on the prime minister to make good on his government’s pledge (something the Israeli government has since begun to do). The petition, circulated by Dr. David Elcott, was a model example of the compassion and concern for the suffering of others that embodies the best of Jewish tradition. The distress and frustration of these Ethiopians and their sincere desire to join their relatives in the Jewish state are very real and deserving of our urgent attention.
But then things took an ugly turn. Some of the campaign’s advocates began insinuating that the campaign for the Ethiopians in question was a campaign against racism and that the racists were Israeli officials. These advocates compared their campaign to the civil rights movement against Jim Crow laws in the U.S. and to the Black Lives Matter movement. In particular, they targeted young American Jews with these messages – meeting with Birthright groups before their first trip to Israel and leading them to believe that the only difference between the Ethiopians in question and Russian olim (even those who are not Jewish according to halacha) was the color of their skin.
In order to create the false impression of racism, these advocates concealed the fact that this last group of Ethiopians, unlike the Ethiopians who made aliyah in the heroic operations of the 1990s, did not meet the criteria of the Law of Return. They stated that their campaign was necessary to prevent Israel from discriminating against people on the basis of their skin color. Many leaders they spoke to came to believe the delay in the implementation of the decision from 2015 was indeed informed by racism.
As is so often the case, an initiative launched to promote a just and worthy end was before long compromised by wrongful means. In this case, the end of hastening the government decision from 2015 is just and worthy. The means of wielding the accusation of racism to intimidate the state of Israel and American Jewish leadership is unforgivable.
I must confess a personal reason for finding this tactic so objectionable. As I told The Jewish Press in an interview earlier this year (“At The End of the Day, We Only Have Each Other,” June 24), in the 1960s my father came from Africa to Israel, making it his one and only home. He converted to Judaism and served in the army.
My African heritage is an important part of who I am and I have always been very proud of it. I have not often encountered racism, but when I have, it has made me angry beyond words.
Because I care a great deal about genuine manifestations of racism, I am revolted by the use of the language of the struggle for racial justice as a casual rhetorical flourish or as a PR foil.
As a Jew, I would bristle if I were to see someone using false accusations of anti-Semitism as a means to promote their end. It discredits and undermines our struggle against true appearances of that age-old hatred. Equally, as an African I am furious to see false insinuations of racism exploited in what could otherwise be a noble campaign for a deserving cause.
But there are two more important reasons why this move is so deplorable.
First, painting Israel as tarnished by racism alienates young American Jews who care strongly about racial justice. There are enough groups out there trying to drive a wedge between Jews in America and Jews in Israel without Jewish leaders acting to the same effect.
Second, this tactic plays right into the hands of those haters who regularly accuse Israel, and by extension all Jews who identify with Israel, of being racists.
The infamous UN resolution equating Zionism with racism has long been repealed, but that perverse calumny is still alive and well.
When a Jewish leader gives an interview to an international news agency and implicitly attributes systemic racial bias to the Jewish state, it can only be a matter of time before his words will be hurled back at Jewish students on campus, exhorting them to renounce any attachment to the Jewish state.
Playing this game may yield some results in the short term for the campaign, but its harm is tenfold and will come back to haunt us all.