Thursday, April 17, 2008

The allegedly Jewish safe haven

In combination, the pieces below, forcefully illustrate what I have described elsewhere as the priority assigned by Israel to "maintaining a majority able to go on perceiving and imagining itself as Jewish" and, accordingly, "the permeable Jewishness practiced by the state" (in my article: "Ethnically constructed guns and feminist anti-militarism in Israel" published in 2007 in: Interventions: International Journal of Postcolonial Studies, 9:2, pages 289-308). To clarify, in my view, there is nothing wrong with permeable groupings or ethnicities and I believe that in fact all groupings are. It is obscuring such permeability while enforcing its institutional manipulation and control—in the name of "unity", "nation", "security", "pure" ethnicity, etc.—that are dangerous and destructive.

Two recent items from Haaretz spotlight some of what actually takes place in Israel behind its claim to existence in order to provide a harbor, supposedly simply, for Jews. Both demonstrate forms of the systemic racism practiced by the Israeli state and society.

A fulcrum of institutional racism in Israel is what Israeli leaders have named "the demographic problem", unashamedly fingering as "a problem" an entire group of people based on their Palestinian, Arab lineage. Gauging and monitoring "the problem" in terms of headcounts, the Israeli state consistently and openly aims at maximizing the number of citizens counted as "Jews" as opposed to the number of citizens counted as "Arabs". A maximized, ostensibly Jewish "us", is simplistically assumed to ensure and maintain its own safety, for "safety lies in numbers", in face of the threat automatically ascribed to those it defines as "them". One of the results is the enormous chunk of state resources allocated to locating, persuading and bringing in more of "us" through immigration.

As it turns out, though, "the right kind" of immigrants don't need to consider themselves Jewish. They do however need to look and act both 'westernized' and "white". The first item below reflects a manifestation of the long time discrimination against people of color entrenched in Israel's Amer/Euro-centric institutions and culture. It reports on a large segment of the Falashmura group from Ethiopia—which perceives itself as descended from Jews—denied entry into Israel after years of struggle waged by their relatives (many recognized as Jewish) who already live in the country. Meanwhile, implicit in the second item, is a reality of hundreds of thousands of non-Jewish émigrés from the former USSR who have been (at least initially) welcomed into Israel under the law of return, as descendants of Jews.

Together, these two news items indicate the fluidity and indeterminacy of the state administration of identity working to construct and maintain the supposed Israeli "us". Institutions such as the immigration authorities, the state religious offices that control marriage, divorce, child custody, burial in Israel, along with other related personal processes, and also – notably – the army, continually manipulate, negotiate and redefine the boundary lines of belonging and of what they classify or treat as Jewishness.

All this flies in the face of the simplified and apparently comforting image embraced fondly and passionately by many Jews throughout the world—that of Israel as a haven of and for Jews' safety. This image is problematic and at least implicitly racist in its erasure of the indigenous people forcibly excluded from the "haven". However, problematic or not, it is definitely not the reality. (On another aspect of the image vs. the reality of the "Jewish haven", see a report on Israel's disgraceful treatment of holocaust survivors, as recently described by the state appointed Dorner commission: Adi Schwartz, "Before its too late", Haaretz, April 3 2008,

Though somewhat inadvertently, the second item offers insight into some of the machinations constructing identities in Israel, through its report on pockets of resistance to the pressuring of young Russian-speaking Christians serving terms of mandatory duty in Israel's army, to enter a fast-track conversion program offered only in the army. Testifying to the pervasive militarization of Israeli society and state, many of these young people view and perform military service as their means of entering the "right" collective. To a large extent, belonging, membership and in fact, Jewishness, have been formulated in militarized terms in Israeli society. That the military performs religious conversion is just additional, though striking, evidence of this.

Rela Mazali


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Last update - 10:20 11/04/2008

Falashmura dream of aliyah fades as deadline approaches

By Anshel Pfeffer

GONDAR - Walelah Alemo last saw her granddaughter four years ago. She knows the child now has an Israeli name, but she doesn't know what it is. Alemo also doesn't know where in Israel her son lives with his family, or what he does for a living, but says she just wants to join him and her brother and sisters who also live in Israel.

Alemo is a widow raising five more unmarried children. For the past five years, the Alemo family has lived in uncertainty in this northern Ethiopian city, where they came hoping to immigrate to Israel on a permit for Falashmura. But now, two months before Israel plans to stop the Falashmura immigration, the family's chances seem smaller than ever, along with another 12,000 Falashmura waiting in Gondar. Many say they don't understand why they are not being allowed to move to Israel. They seem to have made peace with their situation, although they believe they will eventually get to Israel.

The money from selling Alemo's home in her village - which she left because she was sure she was about to move to Israel - ran out a long time ago and now she scrapes by doing odd jobs. Unlike other Falashmura families, her relatives in Israel don't send her money. Only when she speaks of the dream of aliya does she smile and her face lights up.

"God promised us we would live in Israel," she says, "now is the time to join our relatives there." It seems Alemo is not too worried by the stop in immigration. "I am sure the proper time will arrive," she reiterates.

Alemo said she doesn't know why she hasn't received an aliyah permit yet, in contrast to her brothers and sisters. She doesn't think the fact she had no connection to Judaism before she came to the Falashmura compound in Gondar should interfere.

"In the village, I was like everyone," she says simply. "I acted like a Christian. When I came here, I returned to Judaism."

Stories like Alemo's are typical of the Falashmura who live in three Gondar compounds established by the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry.

"I will not go back to my village," says Awanto Bala'ee, a 50-year-old father of eight. He is sure he hasn't gotten to immigrate because he stayed in the village to sell his family's belongings. All his relatives arrived in Gondar before him, including some of his children, and made aliyah some time ago. "I came here seven years ago and got stuck," he recounts.

Despite the situation, Bala'ee said he has not lost hope. The possibility that he will not immigrate to Israel is inconceivable.

"It will change one day, when God is willing," he says. "It is impossible that the parents are here and the children there. It is true that a few generations back our ancestors converted to Christianity because of problems where they lived, but there were those among us who remained religiously observant."

Twenty-year-old Falecka Gaberro has lived half his life in Gondar. His parents immigrated to Israel years ago - his father 10 years ago and his mother seven years ago. But Gaberro did not receive an aliyah permit and continues to wait with his pregnant wife. He has many plans for his future life in Israel - he wants to serve in the army, study and work as a journalist.

A few hundred meters away, at another compound, Jewish Agency representatives are preparing a group of sixty Falashmura who have received aliyah permits, for the two-day trip to the capital, Addis Ababa. From there they will fly to Israel. Among the imminent immigrants there was no mood of celebration, but of making peace with their fate, just like at the compound of those Israel refuses to accept.

Two of the group, Smemo and Ayanshahu Abagar, stand patiently in line for photographs for travel documents and medical interviews. According to them, they have no idea why they won the cherished permit after nine years waiting in Gondar. "It took four years until we were summoned for an interview," says Smemo. "My brother got a permit much faster."

End of immigration

In 2003, after pressure from the Ethiopian community in Israel and U.S. Jewish groups, the state determined that 300 Falashmura would immigrate every month. The Falashmura are descendants of Ethiopian Jews who converted to Christianity. Those who could prove their Jewish roots and have family in Israel, could come under the Law of Entry and not the Law of Return. Since then, 26,000 Falashmura have immigrated. But in 2005, Israel decided to end the immigration, arguing that all those who were entitled already had permits.The state was also concerned that thousands of non-Jewish Ethiopians would claim rights to immigrate. The last 500 Falashmura still in Ethiopia who hold immigration permits will be flown to Israel in early June.

The Jewish Agency has already begun dismantling the Gondar compound. Unlike in other places, the Jewish Agency did not deal in Jewish education or strengthening the local community. In addition, it is at the center of the controversy between the state and Falashmura representatives and Jewish organizations demanding the immigration continue.

Israeli and American pro-Falashmura organizations describe the Gondar camps as a humanitarian disaster, including malnourished children and beggars. But in a visit this week, none of that was evident. Dr. Rick Hodes of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee said he saw no evidence of a humanitarian disaster. "There is no hunger and no infectious disease.

In fact, more than 1,000 Falashmura children receive two meals a day at an NACOEJ food station. Each family received a kilogram of corn flour a day and once a month, five kilos of the special flour for local bread known as injera.

In addition, many Falashmura work in the city or for the NACOEJ and some receive money from their family in Israel. "This is the only place in Africa where healthy people are being fed," says the head of one international aid organization active in Ethiopia.

There is no humanitarian crisis, but there is a human crisis. Of the 12,000 Falashmura in the compounds, 4,000 applications have been rejected by Israel's Interior Ministry, and the state refused to even examine the others. The government and the Jewish Agency are convinced these people have no connection to Judaism. Israeli authorities say everyone left in the Gondar camps came there because NACOEJ activists pushed them, selling them false hopes.

However, Falashmura and NACOEJ representatives claim that the Israeli government was guilty of smoke and mirrors in deciding to bring the Falashmura to Israel and then limiting their numbers. They demand Israel examine the applications of the remaining 8,700 Falashmura in Gondar. But the state fears that each additional immigrant will demand to bring his relatives in an endless cycle. This is echoed in a comment from Bala'ee. "We have relatives in the villages who stay there because they hear how we suffer here."


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Last update - 03:03 08/04/2008

Conversion - or genocide?
By Lily Galili

Meet Rabbi Naftali Schreiber, an activist from Rabbis Against Conversion. He is a fairly familiar figure among the Russian-speaking public; to veteran Israelis, he is a foreigner.

Forget everything you knew about rabbis and conversion: He is not Rabbi Druckman, lenient when it comes to conversion for nationalist reasons; he is not one of those rabbis who makes things difficult in the name of stringent halakha. He is simply opposed to the conversion system for immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

As for his motives, it depends who you ask. Some suspect he is serving foreign interests; Schreiber himself is convinced he is preserving Israel while representing a liberal agenda of freedom of choice.

This combination did not really impress MK Marina Solodkin. Ten days ago, she organized a conference, "Conversion in Israel: Religion, politics and society," in the Knesset. Some 40 people attended the discussion, which was in Russian. Solodkin was assured that an Orthodox rabbi also would show up. She certainly did not expect Schreiber. Truth be told, she also was not expecting Anatoly Garasimov, the chairman of the Association of Ethnic Russians (Pravoslavic Russians) in Israel.

For years, Garasimov has been fighting for his community, and now is waging a relentless battle against the campaign to convert immigrants. This transforms him into an ally and true friend of Schreiber. Garasimov was not a welcome guest at the gathering, and when they refused to give him the floor, he took it anyway. Among other things, he accused Israel of conducting a "spiritual genocide" against the ethnic Russians who came here legally (he himself is married to a Jewish woman - L.G.).

Even if this statement seems natural to you, try to find a good definition for Rabbi Schreiber's positions. Schreiber, 30, immigrated to Israel 16 years ago and studied at Chabad yeshivas here. He no longer is a Chabad member, nor is he employed by the rabbinic establishment. A lot of his time is devoted to missionary activity - saving souls from conversion. Among other efforts, his organization distributed a sticker with the Russian flag and the caption: "Conversion is spitting in the face of Mother."

"This sticker is an intentional provocation," says Schreiber, who has not only a set ideology, but also an open fondness for provocation. Following are a few selections from his conversation with Haaretz:

"Mass conversion programs for immigrants are a form of collective rape. True, there is no inquisition here, but there is brainwashing. It's like resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by converting the Arabs; instead of transfer, conversion. The Russians see the whole thing as a serious affront, and the affront they endure here makes it to Russia, too. There have been calls there to use the same criteria accepted here, and to make Jews' advancement conditional on conversion to Catholicism.

"They say I serve foreign interests? That only flatters me. In this case, our national interest coincides with the spirit of the halakha and the liberal approach. Yes, I really think the IDF should have a Pravoslavic priest appointed alongside the chief military chaplain; every army in the world has diverse religious services. Let me tell you a story: Three months ago, the first military rabbi was appointed in Russia. As a result, the church in Moscow sent an emissary to Israel to look into the parallel position in the IDF. Of course, they turned him down. But I think the time really has come to formalize this position and stop the conversion of IDF soldiers. After all, it's clear that the groups of young neo-Nazis are a result of the conversion system ... but the big problem is, of course, the girls, who are the primary target audience. We appeal to them in ads on our site or in the Russian media, but also approach them in person in order to prevent the mistake ... in personal
conversations, there is almost a 100-percent success rate.

"This entire conversion system is one giant fraud ... to the victims, they stress primarily that this will strengthen their ties to the state, and they don't always realize that when converting, they are also abandoning Jesus ... in our assessment, we prevented hundreds of conversions. We came to the Knesset session in order to balance the voices of Solodkin and [MK Avigdor] Lieberman and to counter the argument that the Russians want to convert and only the rabbis are preventing them. It's exactly the opposite: The rabbis are collaborators, and the Russians are not coming to convert because they simply don't want to."

Following the Knesset session, Solodkin drafted a letter to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, asking Olmert to approve the decisions made in the session. In the end of the letter, the MK told the prime minister about what happened behind closed doors during the Russian-language gathering.

"The meeting was attended by a group of people who serve the interests of certain circles in Russia, that are hostile to the State of Israel," she wrote. "I approached the Knesset guard and asked that they be barred entry to the Knesset building."

Schreiber is very amused by the whole thing.

Jewish Peace News editors:
Joel Beinin
Racheli Gai
Rela Mazali
Sarah Anne Minkin
Judith Norman
Lincoln Shlensky
Alistair Welchman
Jewish Peace News blog:
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