Israel may be having difficulty absorbing Ethiopian immigrants. But that doesn't mean the country is inherently racist.
That's what a number of local Jewish leaders are insisting following this week's violent rioting by Ethiopian Jews in Israel.
"I think there are real challenges to be solved in terms of the absorption," said Rabbi Steven Kaplan of Fremont's Temple Beth Torah, who worked extensively to secure the rescue of the Ethiopians. "But that's not to be confused with racism. I'm adamantly committed to the fact that Israel is not a racist society."
Sunday, a crowd of up to 10,000 Ethiopian Jewish demonstrators gathered outside the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem to protest the revelation that their donated blood is being discarded by blood banks. The Ethiopian blood is more likely than other Israeli blood to carry the HIV virus, according to Israeli officials.
But the riots also emerged as a forum on race, with many protesters insisting that discrimination against black Jews permeates Israeli society. Some told stories of being called `kushi mashriach,' (stinking nigger) and being harassed for their skin color. Such cries raised the hackles of some local leaders who have advocated for Ethiopian Jews.
"I don't doubt that there have been individual incidents of discrimination," against Ethiopian Jews in Israel, said Rabbi Doug Kahn, executive director of the San Francisco-based Jewish Community Relations Council, "but I think one has to look at the context."
The bigger picture, he said, "is the extending of arms and the welcoming in of thousands of black Jews by the only country in the world that has ever, to my knowledge, rescued black African people."
Kahn said that on trips to Israel, he has visited a number of institutions and programs that are doing "outstanding work with Ethiopian Jews."
Programs such as youth absorption villages, Kahn said, "find the balance between helping [the immigrants] retain a strong pride in their unique culture while also integrating them into Israeli society."
This week's riot, however, highlighted the fact that many Ethiopians do not feel integrated, and in fact have felt extreme pain and frustration as they've adjusted to life in Israel.
Those frustrations date back to the 1980s and the beginning of the Ethiopian immigrations, said Cindy Rogoway, chair of the Ethiopian Jewry Committee of Northern California, an information clearinghouse for issues related to Ethiopian Jews.
Before Ethiopian Jews came to Israel, Rogoway said, religious leaders in the Jewish state questioned whether or not the new immigrants were truly Jewish. "They wanted them to have conversions and circumcision ceremonies," she said. "It was very difficult for the [Ethiopian] Jews who had always practiced a very observant Jewish life."
In the end, the Ethiopians were not asked to convert. But the pain caused by the questioning of their status as Jews has not altogether disappeared, Rogoway said.
In addition, "they've felt they have been treated in Israel less fairly than the Soviet Jews, that they haven't been given as many rights and privileges," she added.
Kaplan acknowledges that the groups have experienced contrasting absorptions. But he attributes that to basic differences between the Soviets — many of whom are highly educated urbanites — and Ethiopians, many of whom come from rural areas and are unaccustomed to Western culture.
"Their adjustment to the society is much more traumatic," he said of the Ethiopians.
The difficulties of adjustment –together with employment and housing shortages that immigrants of all origins face — has left the Ethiopians frustrated, he said, and born out of that frustration, many are pointing to racism.
But "they have no concept of what that means in the West," he said.
As for the blood issue that sparked the rioting in the first place, all agree it needs to be confronted.
"There's a concern that obviously had to be brought up publicly," Kaplan said. "You don't take blood samples and then dispose of them behind the back. They need an investigation…but it's not because of racism."