Ethiopian-Israeli Jews, mistaken for African migrant workers, feel racism’s pain

When violent riots against African migrant workers erupted in south Tel Aviv recently, a mob attacked Hanania Wanda, a Jew of Ethiopian origin, mistaking him for a Sudanese migrant worker.

“Wanda is my friend,” says Elias Inbram, a social activist in the Ethiopian community and a former member of the Israeli diplomatic corps who served as spokesman for the embassy in South Africa. “I knew I had to react somehow.”

He suddenly realized, says Inbram, 38, “that since to white people, all blacks look the same—I, an Israeli Jew who is black, or anyone in my family, or anyone in my community, could be attacked, too.”

That moved him to stencil “CAUTION: I am not an infiltrator from Africa” onto a bright yellow T-shirt. He then drew in by hand, in the upper left corner, the unmistakable yellow “Jude” patch from the Nazi era.

Last week, he posted a picture of himself wearing the shirt—the only one he has printed—on Facebook. It already has gained thousands of “likes.”

“I want to force people here to think of the racism and hatred in Israeli society,” Inbram, who holds a master’s degree in law and is interning before applying for the bar, told JTA.

The wave of violence in Israel against African migrant workers and asylum seekers, in which nearly a dozen Jews of Ethiopian origin also have been attacked in the past few weeks, has forced many Ethiopian Jews to deal with race in a way they have until now mostly avoided. Some said it has forced upon them a new consciousness and political awareness.

“I have a law degree and a master’s degree. I served in the army,” Inbram said. “Another friend of mine who was beaten up is a Ph.D. candidate. We’re Israeli citizens. But none of that matters. Ever since we came, the state has treated us as if we should say thank you for anything we receive, as if we have no rights as Jews and Israelis. But now we are afraid because in the eyes of whites, we are first of all blacks.”

Aliza, 23, a sociology student at Hebrew University who would give only her first name, told JTA, “At the beginning, when white friends would ask me how I feel about the migrants from Africa, I would get pretty angry. Why should I feel anything special? Just because we’re both black? I thought it was racist and patronizing. I’m Jewish and Israeli. Jewish history is much more relevant to me than African history. I relate more to Jews from Eastern Europe than to African Muslims or Christians. I was a baby when I came here.”

But the violence—and in particular, she said, the torching of an apartment where Eritrean migrants were living in Jerusalem early this week—have changed her mind.

“Now I’m scared to live in my own country—because I’m black,” she said.

Shula Molla, 40, a Jerusalem educator who chairs the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jewry, a leading advocacy group, said Aliza’s feelings were common.

“The violence has forced the Ethiopian community to come to some difficult, but mature, realizations,” she said. “Until now, some community leaders have tried to avoid talking about systemic racism. They tried to explain away racist incidents; some even blamed the community—that we’re not progressive enough, that we haven’t adapted quickly enough.

“But now we all must deal with racism,” she added. “Of course I don’t feel particularly connected to Africans, but society is forcing us into a common fate. How I define myself doesn’t matter. Only my skin color is visible.”

Inbram was a member of the Foreign Ministry’s committee that deals with asylum seekers and said he feels no particular affinity or commonality with the migrant workers. He said he hesitated before adding Nazi badge to his shirt. But then he thought: “We Jews and Israelis are very quick to condemn anti-Semitic attacks – like the ones near Lyon in France just this week. But same thing is happening in our own country. Instead of being a ‘light unto the nations,’ we behave worse than many of the countries we criticize. Germany has much more humane policies toward migrants and asylum seekers than Israel has. We should be doing some serious soul-searching.”

He added, “At first, Hitler only called for the expulsion of the Jews.

“I don’t think of myself as African; I think of myself as Jewish and Israeli,” he said. “And the majority of these people are not asylum seekers. They are migrant workers who should be deported. But while they are here, they should be treated with kindness and compassion and provided with vocational training. I say that because I’m human, not because I’m black or African.”

Molla is particularly critical of Israeli leaders.

“I’m certainly not justifying the racism against migrant workers, but I believe that each of us has a kernel of racism in him or her,” she said. “In South Tel Aviv, society has pitted a poor, neglected community of veteran Israelis against the even weaker, more vulnerable community of migrants.

“So I don’t expect the residents of Tel Aviv to rise above themselves, but I do expect our leaders to rise above their own racism, and to lead,” she continued. “Instead, they are fanning the worst form of racism.”

She noted that Miri Regev, a Kadima member of Knesset, compared the Africans to “cancer” while Interior Minister Eli Yishai of Shas “accused them of spreading disease and raping women.”

Meanwhile, Knesset member Aryeh Eldad of the National Union said that “anyone who touches Israel’s border should be shot, and even the prime minister says that the infiltrators threaten the character of our state,” Molla said.

With political leaders granting legitimacy to the violence, she says she has felt a change in how some strangers treat her.

“On the bus, people turn to me and speak in English, because they assume that I am a migrant. The security checks at malls and movie theaters aren’t the same as they are for white Jews, because I’m considered suspicious. It’s getting harder to stop a cab,” Molla said.

Pointing to recent events in Israel, she said that the situation is likely to get worse.

“Last year, in Safed, the rabbis called on residents not to rent to Arabs,” she said. “Our political leaders were quiet—and soon after, in Kiryat Malachi, apartment owners signed an agreement not to rent or sell to Jews from Ethiopia.

“It’s bad enough that an uneducated, deprived mob has taken to racial violence, but what is really terrible is that political leaders have legitimized it,” she said. “And now that it’s been legitimized, the racial violence will spread against all blacks—and that includes me, my children—all Jews from the Ethiopian community.”

Television Jews: How Jewish Is Too Jewish?

The new television season is upon us. African American and Latino groups are making the expected protests about the lack of people who look like them before and aft of the camera, and the Jews are — as usual — adding up their TV IQ on the fingers of one hand.

If there aren’t many “brothers” out there, there are even fewer “Members of the Tribe,” and those that are there are not particularly Jewish Jews, if you know what I mean.

Take 40-something, newly divorced father “Danny,” played by Daniel Stern. In CBS’ new series, Danny looks like he’s Jewish, sounds like he’s Jewish, but his live-in father is played by Polish American Robert Prosky, and his kids Sally and Henry come across as just, well, kids.

Ah, but wait, Danny is described in the program notes as “adapting to his single life one neurotic step at a time.” Neurotic is television-speak for Jew — just like “New York” as an adjective means “Jew” in the Midwest.

The whole subject makes the producers of the show, which, by the way, is set in that hotbed of neuroses, Portland, Ore., a trifle nervous. “It’s implied,” one of the show’s producers told The Journal. “It’s not an overt kind of thing. You don’t get it rammed down your throat. It’s not about his Jewish life — it’s about his life.”

Actor Daniel Stern himself, however, seems more relaxed about the idea of playing a Jewish man with a thing about basketball. “I was happy to be Jewish on the show,” he said. “And I like sort of putting it out there. And I want to put it out there in a sort of funny way. I thought that might be something that I hadn’t seen.”

That’s because he hadn’t seen the pilot for “Inside Schwartz” (see below). Adam Schwartz is also Jewish and a basketball nut. It’s not implied — he tells you that right off the bat, even though he’s played by non-Jew Brekin Meyer.

“I want to be the first Jew to win the slam-dunk contest,” Schwartz declares in the pilot episode. His more realistic dream is to become a sports announcer. Even if he hadn’t told us, we’d know he was Jewish, because his sidekick is a perfectly marvelous young Jewish woman played by Miriam Shore, who is ready and waiting for him to make his move on her. (We know she’s Jewish because she’s smart-mouthed and quirky.)

Executive Producer Stephen Engel says he wasn’t sure how the network would react to a show built around a Jewish character. And he wasn’t the only one.

“My father called while I was doing the show,” Engel said. “He said, ‘You know I don’t interfere in your work, but this show you’re doing, are you sure about the title? You know Schwartz is a Jewish name. I don’t know how the rest of America [is] going to respond to this.'”

Of course the central joke only works if the character is Jewish. Jews and sports — an oxymoron, right? And that was the point, as far as Engel was concerned.

“I like to consider myself a fairly good athlete,” he said. “I’m not a professional yet, but I haven’t given up hope. But there are Jews across America in sports. One right here in right field in Los Angeles.” (For those not into sports, that would be Dodger Shawn Green.)

Jason Alexander, one of the Seinfeld crew — the most successful Jews-who-dare-not-speak-their-name in TV history — is playing a Tony Robbins-style guru in ABC’s “Bob Patterson.” Patterson may or may not be Jewish — but he is kind of a lovable jerk. If in a future episode we find out the name used to be Futterman, be prepared to cringe.

Mike Binder, however, former stand-up comic star and creator of HBO’s “Mind of the Married Man,” is undoubtedly Jewish, although it’s never stated, and he’s married in the show to a gorgeous blonde Englishwoman, played by Oxford-educated Sonya Walger.

Binder grew up in a Jewish community in Detroit, and made a 1993 movie about his summer experiences at the Jewish Camp Tamakwa in Ontario (“Indian Summer”). He even wears a Tamakwa sweatshirt in one scene in the new show. But the character is just another narcissistic, sports- and sex- obsessed American male. And you don’t have to be Jewish to be that.

On the other hand, Max Bickford, professor of history in CBS’ “The Education of Max Bickford,” doesn’t know from sports. His is the ivory-tower world of old European white males to whom scholarship and love of the past is life.

And while he’s staggering under the pressure of apathetic students and political correctness, he’s doing it (from the evidence of the pilot, at least) as a slightly over the hill, all-purpose ethnic. So — is he Jewish?

“I think so, yes,” says Bickford’s alter ego, Richard Dreyfuss. “He’s got an edge; he’s a curmudgeon. The way I keep describing him is Walter Matthau, but shorter.”

He’s also the most potentially interesting of the ‘Jewish’ characters on this season’s new shows, if only because Dreyfuss is noted as that rare Jewish actor who enjoys being Jewish on screen: think Moses Wine, ace detective in “The Big Fix,” Duddy Kravitz, and even Meyer Lansky.

But since this is essentially a serious show, well written and dealing with intelligent issues, just hold your breath that it will enjoy a long run. Even if it is, don’t expect Bickford to deal with his Jewishness. Having an overtly Jewish character as the lead on a drama is still seen in Hollywood as a surefire way to cut yourself off from the American mainstream viewer.

Serious shows with Jewish content have a history of wiping out before you can say, “Nielsen, Shmielsen.” Remember “Brooklyn Bridge,” Gary David Goldberg’s loving tribute to his Brooklyn bubbie? Or how about “The Trials of Rosie O’Neill,” in which Rosie (Sharon Gless) answered to a kippah-wearing, public-defender boss played by Ron Rifkin? Neither lasted long.

Comedies have a longer shelf life. Jewish humor on television is the one thing that has been accepted with open arms by the rest of America — witness “Seinfeld.” Because, whether they know it or not, just as Jewish music became Tin Pan Alley, Jewish humor, as filtered through the Catskills, Hollywood and Las Vegas, is now American humor.

Bob Hope once quipped, “Hollywood is the only town where they give up matzah balls for Lent” — a line written by one of his many Jewish writers. The point being that everyone in Hollywood is Jewish, whether they were born into it or not. Hollywood has been shaped by Jewish culture — by now that’s a sociological truism — but the only place you’d know it on television is in comedy.

From “Seinfeld” to “Mad About You” to “Dharma and Greg” to “The Larry Sanders Show,” Jewish humor has infiltrated popular culture. On television, Jewish humor is the Trojan horse sneaked into the living rooms of non-Jewish America to acquaint them with the fact that Jews are pretty much like them, only more so.

“Northern Exposure,” for example, worked because America identified with its hero — a nice Jewish doctor (Rob Morrow) plunked down in small-town Alaska, where he was the least weird of the bunch. “Picket Fences,” created by Irish American David E. Kelley, introduced the conniving Jewish defense attorney played by Fyvush Finkel. (Kelley’s in-joke was that Finkel’s character bore the WASP-ish name of Douglas Wambaugh.) In one episode, he was called before a beit din to answer charges that his sleazy behavior was damaging his people’s good name.

Ironically, Kelley wrote the episode after receiving letters complaining that Finkel’s character perpetuated the stereotype of the shyster lawyer.

HBO’s “Larry Sanders Show,” which told the truth about so many aspects of American television, also warned about the perils of being too Jewish. In one episode, Larry’s sidekick Hank (Jeffrey Tambor) became a born-again Jew, and insisted on wearing a kippah on the show. Larry’s creator, Garry Shandling, noted his favorite line in that episode was when a Jewish network executive said it was OK for him to be Jewish because, unlike Hank, “he was behind the camera where the audience couldn’t see him.”

Larry Gelbart, one of the funniest comedy writers today, says of Jewish humor, “I think it’s our cultural heritage to find some relief from intolerable situations with laughter. To use it as both a sword and a shield, as an offensive and defensive weapon against those who are being hostile to you.” It seems that in a more dangerous and difficult America, the rest of the country increasingly wants to borrow the weapon.

The good news this season — yes, there is some — is that with “The Nanny” and “Suddenly Susan” (the JAP stereotypical Vicki may have been married to a decent sort of rabbi, but she was definitely cringe material), having passed into the lucrative afterlife of syndication, parodies of spoiled shopaholic Jewish women on primetime television have given way to spoiled shop-a-holic Italian women on “The Sopranos.”

And despite rumors to the contrary, the girls on “Sex and the City” can’t possibly be Jewish: Carrie only shops retail, Samantha is a nymphomaniac, Miranda is too thin, Charlotte is married to the only Scottish doctor on Park Avenue, and they’re always picking at a salad and getting tanked on cosmopolitans at lunchtime.

In short, Jewish viewers are likely to find this season as unsatisfying as countless others. As in real life, Jews on television this year are still married to, or dating, non-Jews. It cuts down on interesting sources of conflict, according to the writers, if two characters both celebrate Chanukah and know the difference between a matzah ball and kreplach — as if the writers never noticed the surfeit of conflicts within the Jewish community.

And there are still many Jews who, while they have Jewish names and look Jewish, never identify themselves as such. But, of course, we’ve never heard of that in real life, have we?

Forging a New Vision

While visiting Ellis Island at the turn of the 20th century, Henry James wondered how the sweeping tide of immigrants would ultimately affect “the idea of” America. Comparing the incorporation of foreigners to sword- and fire-swallowing feats at a circus, James reflected on what it meant for America to share its patrimony with those “inconceivable aliens.”

Yet throughout American history, immigrants and minority groups, seeking to make room for themselves, have broadened the definition of America. Minority experiences have acted as a powerful force in the creation of America’s self-image.

For the first half of the 20th century, Jews were the paradigmatic American minority by which all other minority experiences were understood. In the second half, African Americans, the descendants of a forced migration, set the standard for a racial debate that altered the nation’s vision of itself. Now, with Hispanics poised to become the largest minority group, Mexican Americans — who make up two-thirds of all Latinos in the United States — could change how the nation sees itself in the 21st century.

Their unique perspectives on racial and cultural synthesis may fundamentally alter the nation’s attitudes, for they are the second largest immigrant group in American history — the largest when including illegal immigrants. Mexicans, themselves the product of the clash between the Old and New Worlds, could shift this country’s often divisive “us vs. them” racial dialogue.

A Census Bureau study released January found that about 10 percent of United States residents are foreign-born, midway between the high of 15 percent at the turn of the 20th century and the low of 5 percent in 1970. And Mexicans are by far today’s biggest immigrant group. As such, they are the most likely to leave a permanent imprint on the culture.

For instead of simply adding one more color to the multicultural rainbow, Mexican Americans may help forge a unifying vision. With a history that reveals an ability to accept racial and cultural ambiguity, Mexican Americans could broaden the definition of America unlike any earlier immigrants.

The early 20th-century debate about the &’9;”melting pot” evolved as Jewish writers envisioned an America that might better accommodate Jews. Their historic experience as a minority prompted them to take the lead in reimagining America for an entire wave of immigrants. The playwright Israel Zangwill, in a 1908 drama about a Jewish immigrant rejecting his faith’s prohibition against intermarriage, developed the optimistic American civic faith that a fusion of ethnicities will create a stronger nation. For Zangwill, the United States was both a safe harbor and a crucible that melted Old World ethnics into a distinctly new American culture.

But by the 1960s, America’s exclusion of African Americans from the mainstream forged a new vision based on multiculturalism. Though it encompassed other minority groups, including women and gays, blacks gave the multicultural movement its key moral impetus. The civil rights movement had begun by advocating racial integration, but by the late 1960s its message had fused with a reemergent black separatism that fueled the nascent multicultural movement.

Multiculturalism — the ideology that promotes the coexistence of separate but equal cultures — essentially rejects assimilation and considers the melting-pot concept an unwelcome imposition of the dominant culture. Race became the prism through which all social issues were perceived.

But because their past and present is characterized by a continual synthesis, a blending of the Spanish and indigenous cultures, Mexican Americans could project their own melting-pot vision onto America, one that includes mixing race as well as ethnicity. Rather than upholding the segregated notion of a country divided by mutually exclusive groups, Mexican Americans might use their experience to imagine an America in which racial, ethnic and cultural groups collide to create new ways of being American.

It was never clear where Mexican Americans belonged on the American racial scale. In 1896, two white politicians in Texas grew worried that more Mexican immigrants would naturalize and vote. They filed suit against a Mexican-born citizenship applicant, Ricardo Rodriguez, because he was not white, and so, like Asians and American Indians, not eligible to become a citizen. Citing the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, in which citizenship was granted to Mexicans in the conquered region of the Southwest after 1848, the court rejected the suit on the grounds that Rodriguez’s national origins qualified him for citizenship regardless of his racial background.

In the 1920 census, Mexicans were counted as whites. Ten years later, they were reassigned to a separate Mexican “racial” category, though in 1950 they were white again. Mexican Americans and Hispanics as a whole are commonly viewed as a mutually exclusive racial, linguistic and cultural category in a country of competing minorities. But Mexican Americans do not share the overarching ethnic narrative of Jews or the shared history of suffering that has united African Americans. For all the discrimination and segregation Mexican Americans suffered in the region, the Southwest was never the Deep South. In any case, as the memoirist John Phillip Santos wrote recently, “Mexicans are to forgetting what the Jews are to remembering.”

By the late 1990s, both the largely ethnic-Mexican Hispanic Congressional Caucus and the powerful California Latino Legislative Caucus had adopted “Latino issues are American issues” as their mantra. Mexican Americans are using their growing political power to enter the American mainstream, not to distance themselves from it. The new chairman of the Hispanic Congressional Caucus, Representative Silvestre Reyes, Democrat of Texas, was once a high- ranking Border Patrol official and the architect of Operation Hold the Line, the labor-intensive strategy to stem illegal immigration along the West Texas border.

Perhaps assuming that Mexicans would (or &’9;&’9;should) follow the organizational model of Jews or African Americans, East Coast-based foundations contributed to the founding of national ethnic-Mexican institutions. The New York-based Ford Foundation was instrumental in creating three of the most visible national Mexican American organizations — all modeled after similar black organizations.

But with the exception of some scattered homegrown social service organizations and political groups, Mexican Americans have developed little parallel ethnic infrastructure. One national survey has shown that Mexican Americans are far more likely to join a non-ethnic civic group than a Hispanic organization. There is no private Mexican American college similar to Yeshiva University or Morehouse College. In Los Angeles, which has the largest Mexican population in the country, there is no ethnic-Mexican hospital, cemetery or broad-based charity organization. Nor does Los Angeles have an English-language newspaper for Mexican Americans similar to the black Amsterdam News and the Jewish Forward in New York.

Though the Spanish-language media is often referred to as the “Hispanic media,” it generally serves first generation immigrants and not their English-dominant children and grandchildren.

In the late 1920s, Rep. John C. Box of Texas warned his colleagues on the House Immigration and Naturalization Committee that the continued influx of Mexican immigrants could lead to the “distressing process of mongrelization” in America. He argued that because Mexicans were the products of mixing among whites, Indians and sometimes blacks, they had a casual attitude toward interracial unions and were likely to mix freely with other races in the United States.

His vitriol notwithstanding, Box was right about Mexicans not keeping to themselves. Apart from the cultural isolation of immigrants, subsequent generations are oriented toward the American mainstream. But because Mexican identity has always been more fluid and comfortable with hybridity, assimilation has not been an either/or proposition. For example, Mexican Americans never had to overcome a cultural proscription against intermarriage. Just as widespread Mexican-Anglo intermarriage helped meld cultures in the 19th-century Southwest, so it does today. In fact, two-thirds of intermarriages in California involve a Latino partner.

According to James P. Smith, an economist and immigration scholar at the RAND Corporation, by 2050 more than 40 percent of United States Hispanics will be able to claim multiple ancestries. “Through this process of blending by marriage in the U.S.,” he says, “Latino identity becomes something even more nuanced.”

The fact that people of mixed ancestry came to form a greater proportion of the population of Latin America than that of Anglo America is the clearest sign of the difference between the two outlooks on race. Mexican Americans bring the New World notion encompassed by the word mestizaje (racial and cultural synthesis) to their American experience. In 1925, the romantic Mexican philosopher José Vasconcelos wrote that the Latin American mestizo heralds a new post-racialist era in human development. More recently, the preeminent Mexican American essayist Richard Rodriguez stated, “The essential beauty and mystery of the color brown is that it is a mixture of different colors.”

“Something big happens here at the border that sort of mushes everything together,” says Maria Eugenia Guerra, publisher of LareDos, an alternative monthly magazine in Laredo, Texas, a city that has been a majority Latino since its founding in 1755. As political and economic power continues to shift westward, Mexican Americans will increasingly inject this mestizo vision into American culture. “The Latinization of America is so profound that no one really sees it,” asserts Kevin Starr, the leading historian of California, who is writing a multivolume history of the state. The process of they becoming us will ultimately force us to reconsider the very definition of who we are.