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Israel’s Shifting Color Lines

A new film, 400 Miles to Freedom, follows Ethiopian immigrants who long to move to the Jewish state but find unexpected barriers upon arriving there

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An Israeli Jew of Ethiopian origin has her face painted white during a protest against racism and discrimination, in front of the Knesset in Jerusalem, on Jan. 18, 2012. (Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images)

They thought they were the only Jews left in the world, and then they made it to the promised land—and found some surprises.

“Here in the country of Israel, everyone is white?” Avishai Mekonen’s mother asked upon arriving in Israel from Ethiopia with Operation Moses, a memory she recounts in her son’s new documentary 400 Miles to Freedom. Yes, she was told. “The elders as well as the children?” Yes, she was told.

“Will we soon be white like them?” she asked.

In January, 5,000 protesters took to the Jerusalem streets to argue that a generation after Operation Moses, Israel had failed to live up to its promise to nonwhite Israelis, Ethiopians in particular. Hours after the protest, which was spurred by an allegation of widespread housing discrimination in Kiryat Malachi, Immigrant Absorption Minister Sofa Landver—a Russian immigrant—suggested activists should “say thank you for what you got.” (Other officials were more measured.)

Mekonen’s film details the Ethiopian community’s longing for the state of Israel without addressing the ongoing struggles it has faced since arrival, and it demonstrates what happens when a people long for Zion—and find mixed results when they arrive. In an interview, Mekonen was reluctant to dwell on issues like racism or discrimination. “This movie is about the people who love the land, who love their country, who love their people,” he said. “It’s about people really wanting to live the life and the dream of 2,500 years. And no matter what the racism does, that doesn’t take it away from them.”

Still, much of the film hinges on Mekonen’s frustration that the world, including many Jews, remains fairly ignorant about the existence of black Jews. He visits Israel’s chief Ashkenazic rabbi, Yonah Metzger, and relitigates an old but long-simmering dispute, asking if he needs to convert to Judaism. “You undergo a lighter conversion,” Metzger says. “You get immersed, draw a drop of blood, half an hour and you’re done.”

“What do I do with my past, 3,000 years of Judaism, what do I do with that?” Mekonen demands. Eventually, Metzger says, “I didn’t say you’re not a Jew … you just need a little push.” (That’s the subtitle, though a more literal translation would be “a little strengthening.”)

The journey itself was treacherous, and Mekonen almost didn’t make it. In what forms the true emotional core of the film, if a jagged one, he explores for the first time his kidnapping at age 9 from a refugee camp in Sudan en route to Israel. He was taken to a camp of trafficked children, he remembers, where they gave them drugs to make them forget where they came from. Mekonen says he got through thinking of the land of milk and honey as one he still hoped to reach: “I always said, I don’t belong here,” he says in the film. “I would pray and think of a place I was supposed to arrive called Jerusalem.” Eventually, he meets and thanks the man who saved him three weeks into his captivity, an Ethiopian said to be working for the Mossad.

But the film is too sprawling—or unfocused—to go much deeper into this trauma, though it clearly still haunts him, and the most affecting scenes are between Mekonen and his parents. Instead, much time is spent on the existence of black and multiracial Jews, including Ugandan Jews (one of whom says of visiting an Orthodox synagogue in Nairobi: “We felt like a green snake in the grass, we don’t know where we belong”) and a half-Korean rabbi with kimchee on the seder plate. And Rabbi Capers Funnye—Michelle Obama’s first cousin—talks of an African-American “return” to Judaism. “We do not believe we are converting to a religion that was not our religion before the middle passage in slavery,” he tells Mekonen. “What we believe is that we’re returning to the faith of our foremothers and forefathers. … My return to Judaism was a return to my Africanness, not a return to try to emulate my brothers and sisters, or Jews from any other part of the world, but returning to a sense of self-awareness.”

By the time the conversation has pivoted from a millennia-long history to a claim to Judaism as a contemporary self-awareness, uncomfortable questions start to arise: Is this about tribal DNA or voluntary self-identification, and is an instinct toward the former just a form of obsessive gatekeeping for a very small club? And if persecution gets you into it, where does that leave the Ugandan Jews (some of whom did undergo a form of conversion), who the film notes were persecuted by Idi Amin?

The film does not linger on these questions. Mekonen says part of his mission is to show Jewish diversity to a world that sees the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is never explicitly mentioned in the film, as a matter of racist white Jews against dark-skinned Arabs. Of course, it is simultaneously possible for that to be an incomplete narrative that erases Middle Eastern and African Jews, and for there to be largely unchecked racism within Jewish Israeli society.

In any case, Mekonen has for several years lived in a different Jewish promised land—New York City—with his American Jewish wife and co-director, Shari Rothfarb Mekonen, and their two children, a decision he quickly characterized as personal and not as a political rejection of the country. He has yet to show the film to his parents, despite the highly personal content of the film. “When I see it I don’t see myself,” he said. “I see the whole community, what they went through to be free.”

400 Miles to Freedom will be screened in Manhattan at B’nai Jeshurun on April 30 at 7 p.m., with a discussion with the directors to follow.

400 Miles to Freedom from Tablet Magazine on Vimeo.

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truly sad that centuries of unique histories are manipulated (or systematically destroyed in case of kessoch) to push this agenda of blandness, hijacked by cheerleaders of the victim syndrome. oh Israel, a melting pot is not, just a claustrophobic, generic entity founded on fear, and living in fear. 

    Israel is not a melting pot but a remelting pot and there is plenty of  reasons based on reality for the fears.  anyone willing to carry our heavy burden is welcome to join. as a cheerleader, I decided to live in Israel so that I would be able to fight back those wishing to destroy me and not go helplessly to the furnaces like my grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and other kin. If you don’t like this agenda – I really don’t care. I protected my children till they were old enough to protect me.

      inubiyamarsha says:

      There is no Israel, the land belongs to Palestine. Israel is a man-made conception, a farce powered by military might.

Christopher Reiger says:

Sounds very interesting; I look forward to seeing it.

Let’s be very clear on a few things: the Ethiopians are genetically identical to the majority Christian Ethiopian population. They are, historically speaking, fairly recent converts to their own distinct form of ‘Judaism.’ As for Obama’s cousin Funnye, she belongs to that segment of black Americans who, finding their own racial history and culture empty of anything to be proud of when compared to the great ancient civilizations of Europe and Asia, attempt to graft some feeling of value by claiming the history of others as their own. Jesus was most certainly not a black African but a genotype of the kind still seen today throughout the Middle East.

     If you can count the stars in heaven, or sand on the seashores.  You have no idea of your error or ignorance. 

      Halakhically and historically speaking, the Ethiopian Jewish community’s claim of Jewishness is problematic and not universally accepted. Though racism and color prejudice undoubtedly exists in segments of Israel and the broader Jewish society, saying that that EJs/Beta Israel might not fit the halakhic criteria of Jewishness and/or may be primarily descended from fairly recent “Judaizing” Ethiopian Christians does not necessarily mean one is racist.

      Orthodox rabbis who accept the Ethiopian Jews unreservedly as Jewish defer to a psak  (halakhic decree) of Ovadia Yosef from the earliy 1970s, which in turn relies on an earlier responsum  from RaDBaZ–Rabbi David ibn Zimra, a Sephardic rabbi of the 15th century who decreed that the Ethiopian Jews are descendants of the Biblical Tribe of Dan.  There are halakhic problems with that decree, however, no one is sure exactly that the RaDBaZ was referring to the same community that today’s  Ethiopian Jews belong to, although he seems to be referring to a group of people  from Habash–Abyssinia–that observe a form of Judaism similar to Karaite Judaism. Before the RaDBaZ’s decision, the Ethiopian Jews did not apparently refer to themselves as of Danite lineage. Their own tradition ascribes descent to the union of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, which is the same tradition as the Ethiopian royal family. Other theories that have been proposed for their origins is that they are descended from Jewish traders from Yemen who intermarried with locals (there was a modern Yemenite Jewish community in Ethiopia up to the 20th century) or descendants of the Jewish garrison that existed on Elephantine island in Upper Egypt and migrated southwards.  The modern scholarly consensu among specialists in Ethiopian history (e.g., Steven Kaplan, James Quirin)  is that they descend from a group of dissidents from the main Ethiopian Orthodox Christian church a few centuries ago who rejected most Christian beliefs and relied strictly on the Hebrew Scriptures (in Ge’ez) and formed their own version of biblical Judaism, and came to see themselves as Jews. In turn they were regarded as “ay’hud (Jews) by other Ethiopians. Whatever the case, alone among all historical Diaspora Jewish communities, they seem not have possessed the Torah in Hebrew prior to modern times, and the form of Judaism they observed differs fundamentally in practice and ritual from nearly every other Diaspora Jewish community–they had no Talmud, and no knowledge of Jewish holidays such as Hanukka, common to Jews from Yemen to Poland.  So even if they do have genuine jewish descent, since they don’t have the same requirements for conversion, marriage and divorce, as other Jews who follow Talmudic laws keep, from a halakhic perspective, some prefer they undergo a pro forma conversion.  far as I’m concerned, they’ve lived as Jews for centuries, and regarded themselevs as such and have been regarded by their Christian neighbors as such, and I appreciate their identification with Jews worldwide and their devotion to Israel, so I am ready to accept them as fellow Jews, nevertheless, there are Orthodox Jews who are not ready to accept them as fellow Jews for purposes of counting them in a minyan, etc.  without them undergoing at least a formal abbreviated pro forma conversion (giyyur le humra), for all the reasons I enumerated above; and they can have such principled objections without being racist.. Ethiopian Jews can either choose (A) to not affiliate themselves with such communities that have such requirements; or (B) do so, it’s their choice.

    inubiyamarsha says:

    YOU ARE REALLY STUPİD! How DARE YOU… Do you know the first university was in Timbuctu, that African astrologers discovered the planetary system when Europe was still living in the Dark Ages. Greeks & Romans stole Africa’s history.

Victor is right about the DNA – clearly, if Ethiopian Jews were descended from the tribe of Dan, their DNA would back it up.  It doesn’t.  Dip in the mikvah, ritually circumcise.  But demanding you be accepted, well, that’s not gonna work.

Jojo Lolo says:

Ethiopian Jews arrived from the Middle Ages or even Prehistory directly into a modern society. Even if Israel was paradise on Earth, they would have problems integrating.
The situation is as good as it could realistically be.

“The film does not linger on these questions.
Mekonen says part of his mission is to show Jewish diversity to a world
that sees the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is never explicitly
mentioned in the film, as a matter of racist white Jews against
dark-skinned Arabs. Of course, it is simultaneously possible for that to
be an incomplete narrative that erases Middle Eastern and African Jews,
and for there to be largely unchecked racism within Jewish Israeli
society.”

That’s why the term ‘Israeli-Palestinian’ conflict is a misnomer; it should be ‘Zionist-native’ conflict.  The question is, if you are Jewish and face racism from the Israeli establishment, do you want to be accepted by that establishment so you can join them against the group absolutely excluded from the Zionist project, or would you like to abolish racism altogether?

That unchecked racism within Jewish Israeli society is a byproduct of Zionism itself.  Once you open the gate on racial exclusion, no one is immune except those who appropriated the resources to enforce it.

    Jojo Lolo says:

    Please you have no idea what you speak about. This is really ridiculous and almost funny. Just go to see by yourself and stop living in your own fantasy world.

The necessitate to prove Judaic roots is truly over-simplified, and truly over-generalized.  

From my experience I would say that the religious -Zionists (yes, that includes the horrible, sub-human, devil’s spawn, root-of-all-evil settlers) are the group most ideologically devoted to welcoming Ethiopian Jews into Israeli society.

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Israel’s Shifting Color Lines

A new film, 400 Miles to Freedom, follows Ethiopian immigrants who long to move to the Jewish state but find unexpected barriers upon arriving there

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