When Israel announced this week that it intended to deport almost 100 “Black Israelites” who had emigrated to Israel from Chicago in the 1970s, it raised a persistent problem in Israel — how “Jews of color” are treated, especially the so-called “Beta Israel” Jews from Ethiopia who are still openly discriminated against:
While racial tensions in the US are at an all-time high, Israel’s Jews of color are struggling against discrimination in their own way. Since their first mass immigration to Israel in 1984, Jewish Ethiopian-Israelis have suffered from limited job opportunities, and substandard schools and housing. In the 1990s, they were victims of police bias. Now, the Ethiopian-Israeli community is facing a form of discrimination that gets to the heart of their history and identity: religious rejectionism.
Last week, ITIM, the Jewish life advocacy organization I direct, filed a lawsuit in an Israeli regional labor court on behalf of an Ethiopian-Israeli mikveh (ritual bath) attendant discriminated against by a municipal rabbi. The rabbi, who is responsible for supervision of Jewish law in the municipality and is a state employee, directly challenged the mikveh attendant’s Jewish identity, and urged women not to use her services because of her Ethiopian ethnicity.
The case follows other recent examples of racism within Israel’s State religious establishment. In 2019, ITIM successfully represented a group of Ethiopian-Israeli Barkan Winery employees who had been demoted and prevented from coming into contact with kosher wine, because the winery’s ultra-Orthodox kosher supervisor did not consider them Jewish.
The rejection of Ethiopian-Israelis’ Jewish identities is antithetical to Israeli thinking of the past 40 years, including that of Israel’s leading rabbis. In the early 1970s, both the chief Sephardi and Ashkenazi rabbis ruled that members of the Ethiopian Beta Israel communities were full-fledged Jews.
Rabbi Ovadia Yosef ruled unequivocally that Ethiopians’ Jewish identities were not in question. Yet, here we are, in 2021, filing a lawsuit against a state rabbi as a last resort, following a four-year struggle to get the state religious establishment to take responsibility for the institutionalized racism that exists in some of its corridors.
The facts of the case are clear. In November 2016, the municipal rabbi called the plaintiff and asked if she had assisted women in the mikveh that evening. Yes, she said, she had. Next, he asked if she was Ethiopian. Yes, she said, she was. And had she converted to Judaism? No, she said, she had not converted to Judaism.
She had no reason to convert, because she was Jewish when she immigrated to Israel. A letter from Rabbi Yosef Hadane, the chief rabbi of Israel’s Ethiopian Jewish community, testifies to her Jewish identity. The Israeli Chief Rabbinate certified that she was Jewish when it sanctioned her marriage in 1993.
Nonetheless, following their conversation, the municipal rabbi sent a text message to a WhatsApp group saying that “anyone who immersed in the mikveh with the Ethiopian attendant” must ask a rabbi if her immersion was valid. He also took out advertisements in a local newspaper stating that the mikveh in which the attendant worked was no longer under his auspices.
Jewish tradition teaches that character defamation or the ruining of an individual’s reputation is tantamount to murder. Yet this is exactly what resulted from the rabbi’s words and actions. For the next three years, the rabbi’s supporters ridiculed and publicly humiliated the mikveh attendant and her children. Last week, when news of the lawsuit became public, members of the religious establishment accused her of desecrating God’s name. They blamed the victim, because they were blind to their own racism.
I am hopeful ITIM will win this case. But the time for Israel to treat immigrants from Ethiopia as equal members of society is long overdue. And the necessity of Israel’s religious establishment to embrace the diversity of the Jewish people in all its variety is urgent.
Israel originally allowed these black “Jews” — whether from Chicago or Ethiopia — for the same reason — as a P.R. stunt to prove to the world that Israel is not a racist “apartheid” state.
And on a practical level, Israel needed these blacks to come to Israel to provide the manual labor to farm the fields — a job that is clearly beneath most Jews.
The problem is that Jewish identity — and the identity of the State of Israel — are both based on a demonstrable fiction — that Jews are legitimate descendants of the Israelite tribe of Judah.
The Israelites of the Old and New Testaments were clearly a patriarchical people whose identity is passed down to the children through the Israelite father — after their patriarch Jacob — on condition that the wife was either an Israelite herself or she came from an unmixed Adamic people of the Genesis 10 nations, as we demonstrated in our essay, A Closer Look At Deuteronomy 23.
However, today’s so-called “Jews” are strictly matriarchical — Jewish identity is passed down through the mother, not the father as the Hebrews of the Bible did.
And Jewish rabbis and historians aren’t even sure when this change in Jewish tradition first took place, but they believe it happened — according to their records — sometime around 200 AD, or about 130 years after the Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem.
If only the mother needs to be “Jewish” — and the father can be any race or ethnicity — it means that somewhere back in time Jews failed to have a legitimate Israelite father, but the rabbis claimed it was “kosher” or “hallachic” anyway — because that’s what rabbis do — break the Law of Moses — Deuteronomy 23:2 — and come up with a thousand justifications for breaking the law — that’s what the Talmud is all about.
And we know that the Israelites were White, as King David is described as “ruddy”, and Lamentations 4:7 tells us, “Her Nazarites were purer than snow, they were whiter than milk, they were more ruddy in body than rubies, their polishing was of sapphire.”
But today’s “Jews” look “white”, you say?
Of all non-whites, Jews certainly are the whitest looking — and can certainly “pass” as White to the common observer most of the time — but by their own admission, they are not White.
The result of rejecting the law of the Bible against mixing is that Jews in the world today look like the United Nations — from blonde-haired, blue-eyed Jews like actor Paul Newman to black afro-Jews like Lenny Kravitz — or the Ethiopian “Beta Jews.”
As far as these “Ethiopian Jews” are concerned, their identity as Israelites is based on a few verses from the Old Testament — such as Zephaniah 3:10, Psalm 87:4, and Isaiah 11:11 — that show that some Israelites were dispersed to the Land of Cush, which was a land of White people originally, but overtime was given over to the Africans.
That remnant of dispersed white Israelites in Cush persisted for many centuries — as Acts 8:27 attests — but eventually they were absorbed into the larger black population — which has caused much confusion over the issue of whether “Ethiopians” in the Bible are racially black or white.
But there probably are Ethiopians today who may have Israealite ancestry somewhere back in the mists of time — but that does not make them legitimate Israelites, which would be a violation of inheritance of Deuteronomy 23:2.
Not only that, these Ethiopian Jews claim to be descendants of Kush — whereas the legitimate Israelites were descendants of Shem through their patriarch Jacob.
Israelites had strict marriage laws against marrying non-Adamics like black Ethiopians — the result is confusion.
And because of this racial confusion, Israelis — and Jews in general — cannot even agree on who is a Jew.