Saturday, May 11, 2013

The supposed "whiteness" of Israel ... and the current Miss Israel

In February 2013 Yityish Aynaw, a 21-year-old Ethiopian Jewish immigrant who arrived in Israel at the age of 12, became the first Miss Israel of Ethiopian heritage.

In 2003 a very great man, Nelson Mandela, made a very inaccurate and unfortunate statement:
Why should there be one standard for one country, especially because it is black, and another one for another country, Israel, that is white.
That remark was was especially bizarre because the country Mandela referred to as "black" was Iraq. I very much doubt that this was the way Saddam Hussein would have described himself.

As I pointed out in 2008, Mandela's statement reflected a misconception about Israel that is all too prevalent. His description of Israel as a "white" country was no doubt based on a taken-for-granted assumption that Israeli Jews are of European origin. In fact, about half of Israeli Jews are Middle Eastern Jews, or Mizrahim (sometimes also called Sephardim, though strictly speaking that term covers only Jews who can trace their ancestry back to pre-1492 Spain)—and for most of the history of Israel, until the arrival of the Russian Jews in the 1990s, a solid majority of Israeli Jews were Mizrahim. These people are not Europeans or ex-Europeans, but refugees from the Arab world & Iran (and their descendants), and the now-vanished Jewish communities they represent had roots in the Middle East, including what is now Iraq, that long pre-dated the coming of Islam.

(For some details, see A historic optical illusion - Israel & the invisible Middle Eastern Jews and Irwin Cotler on the Middle Eastern Jews & the Arab-Israeli conflict, as well as the very useful website Point of No Return.)

If they are "white," then so are Iraqis ... not to mention Syrians, Algerians, Egyptians, Saudis, and so on.

=>  But if Middle Eastern Jews are not "black" enough to pass muster, there are also Israeli Jews who can meet more demanding criteria of blackness.  Since the mid-1980s Israel has taken in over 100,000 Jews from Ethiopia (starting with Operation Moses, a clandestine airlift to rescue about 8,000 of them from refugee camps in Sudan).  For many of them it has been a difficult and disorienting transition; they have faced various forms of bias, exclusion, and discrimination; and their successful integration into Israeli society is far from complete.  But it is a safe bet that very few of them would prefer to be back in Ethiopia, and now they are living in a country of their own.

Furthermore, they have already had their immigrant success stories.  As early as 1996 Addisu Messele became the first Ethiopian-Israeli immigrant to be elected to the Knesset (on the Labor Party list); in February 2008 Shlomo Mula became the second (with Kadima); and a few months later another Ethiopian-Israeli, Rabbi Mazor Bayana, was appointed to fill a vacant seat (for Shas). Mula likes to recall that he "walked 800 kilometers from Ethiopia to Sudan" as part of the journey that brought him from his village in Ethiopia to Israel 30 years ago.  (There is a video clip with some of his recollections of that journey here).  In this year's Israeli election Pnina Tamano-Shata, a lawyer and news correspondent who left Ethiopia at the age of 3, became the first Ethiopian-Israeli woman to be elected to the Knesset.  For a community of very recent immigrants, most of whom arrived as destitute refugees and who number less than 2% of the population, that's not bad.

And in February of this year Yityish Aynaw, who was born in Ethiopia 21 years ago, lost her father as a child, and immigrated to Israel with her mother when she was 12, was named the winner of the Miss Israel beauty pageant.  Some people, seeing her photograph, might say that she "doesn't look Jewish".  But in fact Jews, including Israeli Jews, come in a lot of shapes, sizes, and races.

Yours for reality-based discourse,
Jeff Weintraub