A Road Map for the Jewish People

Jews across the globe worry whether the road map to peace with Palestinians is dead, or can be salvaged. To me it is critical that Jews and Arabs find a path to peace. But as an Israeli Jew with roots in Iraq, I'm disturbed when the Jewish world continuously emphasizes building relationships between Jews and non-Jews while it ignores a deep diversity issue among our own.

We Mizrahim, 900,000 Middle Eastern and North African Jewish refugees, were forced to flee from our homes about 50 years ago. Arab states confiscated and nationalized billions of dollars worth of our property, yet Jewish leaders have made barely a peep of protest. We are hardly invisible: We are half Israel's population.

When Mizrahim came to Israel, everything we offered -- thousands of years of Jewish history, culture, religious traditions, an intellectual class, and daily experience -- was devalued. Viewed as primitive and barbaric, we were marginalized and treated as if destined to fail -- an attitude that proved to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Today, Mizrahim make up the overwhelming majority of Jews in Israeli slums and prisons.

When that which is disdained in us is exactly the Middle Eastern and North African culture we share with our Arab neighbors, and when Jew-on-Jew racism against Mizrahim has gone unaddressed for five decades, how can Jewish-Arab bridge building have any integrity or expectations of success?

The only way out of the Mizrahi spiral downward was to run as fast and as far as possible from our native Middle Eastern and North African ways. There are many successful Mizrahim in Israel, but the price has been dissociation from our roots and shame about our heritage.

Today, Ethiopian Israelis are going through the same bleaching process, but worse. Their very Jewish identity was officially denied upon entry into Israel, and scores were forced to convert to Judaism (as if they were not already Jews), including the kes -- the equivalent of rabbis in the community. More humiliation came through the separation of families -- some family members accepted as Jews, others not; some brought to Israel, others left to rot in Addis Ababa.

Recently I went to a Jerusalem demonstration where thousands protesting treatment of Ethiopian Jews had gathered in front of the Office of the Government. I found myself facing a long fence separating me from the crowd, a fence that proved to be symbolic: On one side, demonstrators were all black. On the other side, we reporters were not.

I climbed through a hole in the fence.

Around me protesters shouted, "Mother! Father! Sister! Brother!" A young man named Amalu Alamoe, who had completed his three-year military service and was going to college, said, "My parents are in Ethiopia. I can't concentrate, because I'm so worried about them." Amaloe's mother and father are among the thousands of Falash Mura trapped in Addis Ababa, many suffering from hunger and disease.

Falash Mura, Ethiopian Jews who converted to Christianity under economic pressure from Christian missionaries and death threats from Christian neighbors, secretly remained Jews. During a 1991 Israeli airlift, Jews came from remote villages across Ethiopia to return to Zion -- a dream for 3,000 years. Falash Mura, however, were not allowed to board the planes. Israel's rationale: they were not practicing Jews.

Over the years, Falash Mura continued congregating in Addis Ababa, in increasingly worse conditions. Israel airlifted several thousand for humanitarian reasons, but not because it recognized them as Jews. About 18,000 Falash Mura are now in Addis Ababa; most have family in Israel.

On May 23, Israel's Chief Rabbi declared that Falash Mura are "one hundred percent Jews, without a doubt" and should "immediately be brought to Israel ... to rescue them from the jaws of death."

A Ministry of the Interior spokesman, Tipi Rabinovitch, said the government is concerned that the list of Falash Mura will be neverending. This past decade, however, Israel actively scouted out and absorbed one million Jewish immigrants from Russia. According to the group Jewish Agency for Israel, almost 250,000 were in fact non-Jews.

Another official argument is economics: "Falash Mura come from another kind of culture, another kind of country and society," said Aric Puder, spokesman for the Ministry of Immigration and Absorption. "We need to give a lot of special programs in order to absorb them into the Israeli society."

"They look at us with closed eyes," says Alamu Mondevro, a demonstrator who says he's frustrated by the assumption that the Ethiopian-Israeli cultural, spiritual, and intellectual exchange is a one-way street.

Rather than humbly learning what our Ethiopian sisters and brothers have to teach, Israel is once again treating a community as primitive, barbaric and destined to fail. The government, in turn, is paying the financial price.

So as Jews everywhere clamor desperately to build bridges between Jews and Arabs, I challenge us to look at our own people and build bridges within. As our great sage Hillel said, "If I am not for myself, who is for me?"

Loolwa Khazzoom is editor of "The Flying Camel: Essays on Identity by Women of North African and Middle Eastern Jewish Heritage" (Seal Press, Fall 2003) and director of the Jewish MultiCultural Project.

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