Racism, Ethiopian Jewry, and the Red Sea Diving Resort
Netflix’s new movie The Red Sea Diving Resort about the covert Israeli mission to rescue thousands of Jewish Ethiopian refugees is predictable, generic, and all around much less inspirational than its potential given the historical events. The casting choices of American and British actors playing Israel agents and government officials humorously belies any sort of believability or authenticity. Perhaps worst of all, the movie is fully centered around the improbably undisciplined Israeli heroes and gives almost no space for exploring the emotions and heroism of the Ethiopian refugees as they miraculously march their way across the desert to safety.
Nor could the premier of this movie have come at a more interesting time. Just a few weeks ago protests erupted in Israel following an act of police brutality where an 18 year old Ethiopian named Solomon Tekah was shot dead by the Israeli police. For over a week tens of thousands of protesters marched through the country, shutting down roads, and rioting - prompting hundreds of arrests.
At the end of the movie (spoiler alert) all seems good and happy with the successful rescue of a plane-full of Ethiopian Jews who have now, after years of dreaming, finally made it to their homeland. All seems well as they literally kiss the ground of Israel - along with the Israeli government promising to return to Ethiopia to continue the mission and rescue more. Happily ever after…
But things were not happily ever after.
Not for the Ethipians or the many other Jewish communities of color that arrived in modern Israel - ultimately fulfilling their 2000 year old dream of returning to Zion. The Israeli government treated these newly immigrated communities much worse than their counterparts arriving from places in the Ashkenaz world. Racism in housing, school, the job market, even inside the government permeated the country contributing to much of the present inequality in Israel when it comes to many of the Jewish communities of color. In some extreme cases, there is even documentation that the Israeli government kidnapped Yemenite children upon their parent’s arrival to the country and then attempted to subsequently cover their tracks by issuing fake death certificates.
The Israeli government’s treatment of Mizrahi Jews from the outset of the state is one of the darkest moments of modern Zionism.
Sounds exactly like America, right?
This is what many, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, and a plethora of other publications and public figures would like you to think. And why not? There is a higher rate of police brutality when it comes to the black Jewish community in Israel, massive economic disparity, and displays of overt racism throughout the country.
However, like most things surrounding Israel, the truth is more complex. While it’s convenient for Israel haters and lazy thinkers to draw sloppy analogies - stories like that of The Red Sea Resort force us to reconsider.
There is no reasonable way to sugarcoat the legacy of America vis-a-vis the black community. White colonizers, arriving on the shores of Africa, coerced hundreds of thousands onto ships subsequently taking them to the Americas and forcing them into enslavement. Slavery, segregation, redlining, the war on drugs, the clear racism within our criminal justice system, the list goes on. The racist systems and policies ubiquitous throughout America are a direct outgrowth from slavery, the original sin of America, and until that sin is addressed equality will never prevail.
The origins of black Jews in Israel, as demonstrated through The Red Sea Diving Resort, is the exact opposite. There is no original sin, rather an original mitzvah. Risking the lives of Israeli soldiers, spending millions of dollars, and risking war with Sudan and others - Israel stuck to its values of protecting Jews wherever they may be, and rescued tens of thousands of Jews from war-torn Ethiopia.
So how can we relate to all of this? Where do we place the saga of Ethiopian Jews and their relationship with the state of Israel into our often neatly compartmentalized view of Israel and the world?
The obvious answer is that we can’t. We cannot view the history of Ethiopians Jews in Israel as a happily ever after fairytale ending where all goes perfect and the rest is history. But we also cannot fall into the trap of making the specious equation of race relations in America to those in Israel.
A general rule of thumb with Israel is that nothing is simple. Once you understand that, the rest is commentary.
Moshe Daniel Levine is a regular contributor of blog postings on Jewish Values Online. His blog entry, So You Have a Jewish Father, was selected as one of the three best for the third quarter of 5779. You can find it on the Jewish Values Online website at the top left.
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Can Jews of one ethnicity adopt holidays and customs of another? For example, some Ethiopian Jews celebrate “Chag HaSigd” around Sukkot, and Moroccan Jews celebrate “Mimouna” after Pesach. Is there anything wrong with an Ashkenazi Jew taking on these celebrations?
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