My first trip to Israel during summer break from college, I volunteered on a program, doing physical work in place of the soldiers who were called up to protect the citizens of Israel. Despite falling in love with Israel, I returned to college. After two weeks at my remarkably gentile school, I left to come “home” to Israel, quickly enrolling at Hebrew University in Jerusalem as a student in the Junior Year Abroad program, to learn more about the country and Judaism and, primarily, to learn more about myself.
In the classroom I studied Hebrew, Jewish history and philosophy, Zionism and Tanach. The biggest and most lasting impressions were made, however, outside the classroom. Through a mutual friend I met Yehuda, the campus kiruv Rabbi from Aish HaTorah. With his guidance, I became observant during my next trip to Israel three years later. Though he gets the bulk of the credit, some belongs to my colleagues on campus who made an immediate impression, helping me to witness G-d’s infinite love of the Jewish people and proving an inspiration on my transition to observance.
When I was growing up in Brooklyn, everybody there was Ashkenazic and Conservative. Perhaps I knew a Sephardic Jew but I was unaware of it, and the only religious Jew I knew, besides the shul’s Rabbi, was my cousin Yaakov (formerly Jonathan), whose recent switch to Orthodoxy the family really couldn’t fathom. Therefore, it goes without saying that growing up I never knew a Jew of a skin color that didn’t burn in the sun. Though I was taught in Hebrew School that we Jews were scattered to the four corners of the earth, I assumed that we all looked pretty much like my family — white as sheets.
Besides my passion for baseball, I had another hobby, stamps. My collection was extensive — colorful, exotic stamp treasures from the farthest reaches of the globe. Places I hoped — but never expected — to come into contact with.
Jumping ahead to my junior year at Hebrew University, it was as if my long-neglected stamp collection took life before my very eyes. At the university, I had a Jewish friend or acquaintance from each page of my H.E. Harris stamp book, animating and personalizing my connection to the world both geographically and Jewishly. No longer was the concept of a Diaspora of Jews scattered to the winds and inhabiting the four corners of the globe theoretical; I experienced it to be true. And we all re-gathered together in Israel, the Jewish homeland, to pursue our lives as Jews. I knew Jews from well over 70 countries — from Aden to Zimbabwe. But, without question, the most exotic Jews of all were the dark and delicate Jews of Ethiopia who contributed a beautiful hue to the “rainbow” of Judaism.
Numerous substantiated claims of racism have been made against their treatment in the IDF — the supposed melting pot of Israeli society; in politics, and in academia — basically, Israel’s traditional bastions of secular-Ashkenazic control.
During a classroom discussion of the recent protests by the Ethiopian community, a professor yelled at an Ethiopian student, “Ethiopians are taking over this country. You forget where you came from — go back to Ethiopia!” Even after the student left class, the professor continued, “Those people [Ethiopian-Israelis] have some nerve. A few years ago they wouldn’t have dared to open their mouth. They don’t understand one thing — they’re different from us, and they need to accept that.” The teacher’s vulgarities, the well-known cant of anti-Semites everywhere, led, appropriately, to suspension, but the pollution had already poured out. Where I found Hashem’s magnificent palette at play, others found primitives worthy of prejudice.
What triggered this heated exchange and the justified protests in Israel which preceded it was a video gone viral of an Ethiopian-Israeli kippah-wearing soldier, who was viciously beaten by two Israeli cops for absolutely no reason. I am left dumbfounded by their actions. What could possess a Jew to beat another Jew? What did they hate most about this young man? Did they hate him as a Black? As a religious Jew? As a soldier? All of these descriptors? Or did they envy him for all/some of the above? While the nation of Israel speaks of itself as the “Homeland for all Jews” regardless of color or national origin, history would prove that ideally to some, it would be the home for secular Ashkenazic Jews. Those Jews not fitting this idealized model — chareidim, Jews in YESHA, Sephardim and Ethiopians — are maligned.
In our community lives an Ethiopian family; the father, Mabrato, a dear friend and neighbor, advises in the Knesset. I, to my honor, sit together with him on the board of a non-profit organization and, to my honor, share his last name, “Solomon.” We worship together, do chessed together, live together, and sign our last names together. In Hashem’s eyes, the most beautiful color is “Jews.”
“Hineh ma tov u’ma na’im, sheves achim gam yachad.”
Meir Solomon is a writer, analyst, and commentator living in Alon Shvut, Israel, with his amazing wife and two wonderful children. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.