Facades of Conflict
The Ethiopian Jews’ predicament therefore is multilayered and complex. It consists of an internal divergence among the immigrants and an external conflict with the absorbing society. Indeed, the relationship between Beta Israel and Falash Mura is conflictual. Many of the Beta Israel opposed the Falash Mura immigration, claiming it was out of pure economic concern and not a desire to “return to Judaism” that motivated them. This internal opposition among the immigrants serves those within the Israeli government and bureaucracy who have been opposed traditionally to the immigration of black Jews to Israel. Indeed, it would be disingenuous to deny that the marginalization of the Ethiopian Jews from the collective white Israeli Jewry is associated with their skin color, which threatens the boundaries of the Jewish community, which sees itself as a collective characterized by a genealogical connection to its ancient forefathers (Anteby- Yemini, 2010; Kaplan, 2003; Salamon, 2003).
Consequently, the discourse regarding Ethiopian Jews in Israel represents a dialectic between “whiteness” and “blackness.” On the one hand there is a process of “whitening,” under which Ethiopian Jews are embraced by Israeli society by being recognized as Jews, yet on the other hand there is a process of “blackening,” emanating from their skin color, that ostracizes them. The lengthy decades-long decision-making and footdragging process regarding the fate of thousands residing in makeshift encampments awaiting decisions about their fate cannot be understood in any other way and has not happened to any other Jewish community in the “white” world. Indeed, as Anteby-Yemini (2003, 2010) asserts, race is the main factor contributing to the alienation of Ethiopian Jews.
Despite the whitening process on behalf of the white majority and the effort of the immigrants themselves to be part of the white Jewish collective, their acclimatization into Israeli society can be regarded as a total failure. As time went by the Ethiopian Jews were pushed to the bottom of the social ladder, and with time it became clear that this was not a temporary situation caused by the hardship of immigration as the second generation remained marginalized as well. While they were promised that the mistakes made with the absorption of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa in the 1950s would not be repeated (BenEliezer, 2004; Halper, 1985; Sever, 2001), just as in the 1950s, the state settled the new immigrants in separate communities in the social and geographical periphery of Israel, fencing them into these locales and placing bureaucratic “walls” and “guards” whose role was to limit their contact with the outside world. This process was well described by Herzog (1998) as one that strips the immigrants of their powers and creates total dependency on the immigration and absorption bureaucracy.