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Not Black And White

Not Black And White

Some African-Israelis who came to the United States recently as teachers said they learned an important lesson from some African-Americans.

Israel at Heart, an independent advocacy group that works to improve Israel’s image abroad, brought a group of nine Ethiopian olim –– all lawyers or law students –– to the United States for two weeks of meetings with students, public officials and civil-rights leaders. The visitors have all served in the Israeli Army or completed national service. Their encounters in New York, Washington and Atlanta included time with white and black Americans.

The whites, the Israelis noticed, asked about the Ethiopians’ religious practices and their immigration stories. The blacks were interested in interracial relations: Did Ethiopians in Israel experience the type of discrimination that many African-Americans face here?

“That is natural –– that is their experience,” said Aviva Bahata Cohen, a 24-year-old law student who made aliyah with her family at the age of 2.

“Whites will not ask you about racism. Whites ask you about Judaism,” about Ethiopians’ unique customs, said Brahanu Tegene, a 26-year-old law student who left Ethiopia at 12.

The members of the Israel at Heart group, whose mission was to tell about day-to-day life in Israel, said they realized how polarized life is here –– much more than in Israel.

“Here you are judged more by your color,” one Ethiopian-Israeli said during a meeting with New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer.

“It made me proud” of Israel, said Rina Ayelin, a 24-year-old attorney who works in Tel Aviv. “Because here in America you have a long way to go before you become Israel.”

The Ethiopians told black Americans, including district attorneys and judges, college students, members of the congressional Black Caucus, and veterans of the civil-rights movement, that they face little social discrimination in Israel, and they identify themselves primarily as Jewish, not black.

Such expressions, coming from black people, have more credence than defenses of Israel made by white Israelis, said Joey Low, the diamond broker turned stock trader who formed Israel at Heart three years ago. The organization has brought a few hundred young Israelis to North America, South America and Europe on similar public relations missions.

He chose Ethiopians this time, he says, because “people don’t know there are black Jews living in Israel.”

Statements of equality by the Ethiopian olim, countering Israel’s image as a land that discriminates against Palestinians, can “shake the very foundations” of Israel’s negative image, Low said.

At the end of many sessions, he said, American blacks told the Israeli visitors, “We wish we felt about America the way you feel about Israel.”

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