The unique case of the African Hebrew Israelites presents multiple complex layers for the construction of African identity in the Middle East. In two short news clips presented by Dateline NBC, and an online website Journeyman.tv, there is a story about a group of African Americans living in Israel. Reporter Matt Brown narrates:
They are officially known as the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem. The way they tell the story, they were driven out of the Holy Land thousands of years ago by the Romans. Then they fled to Africa where they were enslaved and taken to America (Journey Man Pictures, “The African-Americans Who Made Israel Their Home”)
Ben Ammi, the spiritual leader of the African Hebrew Israelites, claims to have had a vision from the angel Gabriel to liberate African Americans. In 1969 he and a small group of African Americans from Chicago migrated to Israel and decided to make the country their home. They have since grown to a community of around 2,000. “Community leaders,” the video reports, “say it’s a utopia where a pure form of Judaism is practiced” (Journey Man Pictures, “Black Jews – Israel/Palestine”).
Unfortunately, however, the Black Hebrews have not been recognized or accepted as Jews by the Israeli government. Former Interior Minister of the government, Avraham Poraz comments in one of the clippings, “No they are not [Jewish] because they are not recognized by the rabbis as Jewish” (Journey Man Pictures, “Black Jews – Israel/Palestine”). In order to be seen as legitimately Jewish, the Israeli government requires them to have rabbi approval and the recognition of Jewish communities outside of Israel. “So far,” Dateline NBC continues reporting, “the Israeli government has rejected [the African Hebrew Israelites’] claims and denied them citizenship under the law of return which says one grandparent has to be Jewish” (Journey Man Pictures, “Black Jews – Israel/Palestine”). Instead, they were repeatedly threatened with deportation and generally shunned by Israeli society and authority.
In 2002, following a Palestinian attack, one of the members of the African Hebrew Israelites was killed along with five Israelis. His death allowed greater consideration from the Israeli government, facilitating new opportunities for the legal status of the Black Hebrews. In 2003, the Interior Minister granted the community permanent residency which ensures their right to Social Security but also stipulates that the Black Hebrew children must serve in the Israeli military.
The interesting aspect about the Black Hebrews consists in the dual threat their African identity posed in more than one place. The racialized violence that informed the socio-political climate of the United States in the 1960s incited their departure from America. As African Americans their diasporic identity already lies in the relentless searching for a more effective balance that resolves the conflictual double consciousness W.E.B DuBois described as the issue blackness poses in the US. Their search led to the adoption of a promised land, ironically in a country that also does not regard Africans or African-descended people positively.
In a video documenting the racism recent African refugees confront when they escape to Israel seeking asylum, independent Israeli reporter David Sheen compares their experiences to that of the African Hebrew Israelis. He insightfully concludes:
Although the reasons for African Hebrew Israelites immigration to Israel are different than those of most asylum seekers, the common thread that runs through both migration stories is the vilification of non-Jewish African peoples by populace politicians and the racial discrimination they are subjected to in Israel…Anti-African sentiment has deep roots in Israeli culture (“Racism vs. Africans in Israel”)
Similarly David Sheen presents another video in which an interview with a black Israeli, Ester Vorknach, reveals the adverse treatment experienced by the Ethiopian Jewish community. Vorknach explains how despite having lived in Israel since she was a year old, she still feels alienated in Israeli society. She describes a coldness and discomfort from her fellow kinsmen. One woman, she recounts, exclaims to her “Listen, is this your country? Go back to Africa!” (David Sheen, “Sick & tired”). Ironically, during the late 1970s to the early 1980s the Israeli government assisted the clandestine efforts of thousands of Ethiopians migrating to Israel to escape religious persecution. In 1975, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel officially recognized the Ethiopian Jews as Jewish, preempting the governmental decision to help bring them to their Israeli homeland (“Operation Moses – Aliyah of Ethiopian Jewry (1984)”).
Ester Vorknach also describes a developing political consciousness growing among the Ethiopian Israelis as they begin to employ the rhetoric from the American social justice movement “Black Lives Matter” to protest against the increased police brutality and harassment rampant in their community. In fact, a horrible incident of an Ethiopian Israeli soldier mercilessly beaten by police was captured on a video that received viral attention, inciting much of the protests.
“White folks,” Vorknach declares, “have some kind of stereotype about black folks – that they are criminals. This stereotype must be rejected […] Everywhere you go, you feel bad about yourself – just for being yourself because you know that because you’re black, you’re already prejudged” (David Sheen, “Sick & tired”). In this regard, articulating an African identity becomes constraining, plagued by an intense abhorrence for its presence in the host society. Being black as Vorknack aptly points out, thus seems to devalue the successful integration into Middle Eastern culture, at least in the particular case of Israel. This incongruent subjectivity serves to negatively inform how black people in this society self-identify. Instead of the binary terms Black Hebrew or Ethiopian Israeli serving to express the dual elements that make up one’s complete sense of self, they instead demarcate the aspect that makes these individuals different from the rest of society, provoking discrimination from the supposed authentic Israelis. Therefore, whether a native citizen, a permanent resident, an immigrant or descendants of immigrants, in Israel being of African descent automatically relegates one to outsider status.
This African and Middle Eastern cultural discord surfaces once more in two online news videos about the discrimination encountered by Afro-Iraqis. In the first clip, the reporter announces how Afro-Iraqis are still referred to as slaves, their former ancestral identities. Author, Ali Mamouri expounds in his online article, how “the word ‘slave’ is still attributed to black people in cases of conflict, mockery or even in their absence when someone wants to introduce them and distinguish them from white men” (“Black Iraqis Struggle to Shake Legacy of Racism”).
Consequently, although Afro-Iraqis “have lived for hundreds of years in the southern province of Basra” they still face severe discrimination as non-black Iraqis continue to view their African-descended counterparts as inferior as shown in the short video. Additionally, as Saleem Shaaban, a member of the Movement for Free Iraqis explains, there is a severe lack of parliament representation and limited job opportunities for black Iraqis in Basra. “We concluded,” he says, “that there is no place for the black in the Iraqi society or in the state” (Al Jazeera English, “Black Iraqis claim discrimination”)
In the second video, Jalal Diyab, Secretary of the Free Iraqi Movement, echoes Shaaban’s sentiments: “The blacks were, and still are marginalized and excluded from society and politics. A black person is viewed as someone of lesser value, of lesser importance…” (Asad1969, “Arab Racism Against Black People in Iraq”).
Nevertheless, Ali Mamouri discloses progressive improvement in the effects of black Iraqi resistive measures to their social exclusion. In “Black Iraqis Struggle to Shake Legacy of Racism” Mamouri writes:
Collective awareness about the identity challenges facing the black minority in Iraq rose after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. Black Iraqis started to form associations and organize social events to demand their rights to participate in political and social life…The Free Iraqi Movement is this minority’s first official entity.
Likewise in the second video news short, an Afro-Iraqi interviewee enthuses “When [President Barack] Obama won the elections, we [Afro-Iraqis] began to hope that one day we would have a black president, not necessarily of the country but a black official in any position” (Asad1969, “Arab Racism Against Black People in Iraq”). It is very interesting the symbolic impact the visibility an African American in a high political position poses for Afro-Iraqis simply due to the shared racial identity. It is also worth noting that the optimism embodied in their ideas to eventually emulate that same political power in their own country enables new methods for renegotiating an Afro-Iraqi identity that suits them in a more empowering way.
Colin A. Palmer in his academic article on the African Diaspora reminds scholars that “Africa, in all of its cultural richness and diversity, remained very much alive in the receiving societies as the various ethnic groups created new cultures and recreated their old ways as circumstances allowed” (30). This notion reiterates the opening quote presented by John Henrik Clarke emphasizing Africa’s zealous reach and tendency to endure as a vibrant cultural entity no matter how far her progeny have strayed from its borders. Examining the interaction between Middle Eastern/Arabic cultures and blackness, it is clear that the articulations for African identity are multiple and ever evolving. The visible physical distinction of skin color remains a tangible link to African identity. Despite or perhaps in part, because of racialized discrimination and persecution due to this visible marker, there still persists an intense attachment to African roots no matter the degree of integration and acceptance in the predominant society.
By Jasmin Singletary 2016
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