In Israel, a family of Ethiopian Jews protest police violence through art
SDEROT, Israel — From the walls of an art gallery of a public college here, the portrait of a young black man soberly gazes down as onlookers pass through the gray halls. He is known simply by his Ethiopian mother’s name, as Mamye’s son.
His real name is Yehuda Biadga, a 24-year-old Ethiopian Jew who died earlier this year in a confrontation with Israeli police. His shooting is the latest case to spark demonstrations in Tel Aviv against the discrimination Ethiopians face in Israel.
But the portrait here is another kind of protest, this one in art rather than on the streets. It is part of a new show, “The Color Line,” created and curated by a group of Ethiopian Jewish women artists. Their work is on view until April 24th in the gallery at Sapir College near Sderot, a city a mile east of the Gaza border.
“If there is no racism, I would not be making this art,” said Zaudito Yosef, a 35-year old artist from Ashdod, who alongside her cousin, Tagist Yosef Ron, and Dana Yosef, Tagist’s sister-in-law, are curators and artists for the show. Police officers in the Biadga shooting have been cleared of wrongdoing, but Ethiopian Jews, including the Yosefs, see it as yet another case of police brutality in the country.
The show at Sderot is not the first time the family has been featured together. Their work has appeared alongside each other’s in books exploring issues of Ethiopian Jewish identity in contemporary art. But this time, things are different. An Ethiopian would have full control of the gallery, and pick artists to showcase the police issue through the eyes of Ethiopian Jews themselves. After Zaudito was given the go-ahead from Sapir College, she immediately called Ron, who threw her hat in the ring.
Their artistic talents stem back to their mothers and grandmothers, all artists in Ethiopia. “It is probably genetic,” Zaudito said. Like most of the 144,000 Ethiopian Jews in the country, the family’s story is one of displacement, aimless wandering as refugees in Sudan, and finally, a union with the land of their dreams.
But life in Israel has come with its own set of difficulties. Although they are now part of the Jewish religious majority, the family continues to contend with their reality as ethnic minorities in an Ashkenazi and Sephardic dominated Jewish society. “We didn’t know our color there,” Zaudito said. “It’s only when we came here we realized we were black.”
According to Pew Research Center, roughly a third of Israeli Jews say Ethiopian Jews face “a lot” of discrimination in society. It’s something that’s even felt by Rabbi Sharon Shalom, an Israeli of Ethiopian descent who leads a partly Ashkenazi congregation at Kdoshei Yisrael Synagogue in Kiryat Gat, a city about eighteen miles north of Sderot. As a religious leader who deals with repeated questions on the authenticity of his Jewishness from congregants, he says race triumphs religion in Israel.
The Yosefs themselves can list a litany of incidents when they have personally encountered discrimination, from being physically assaulted as children near immigrant absorption centers to companies turning them away at job interviews. There are lots of things that worry them in Israeli society, but the main problem is always the police.
“There is a lot of pain that should be everybody’s pain,” Ron said. “—the whole society, not just Ethiopian Israelis.”
She focuses on “the boys,” young Ethiopian Jews, like Biadga and Yosef Salamsa, whose deaths protestors say link to police violence and neglect.
It was just four years ago a video showing two police officers beating Damas Pakada, an Ethiopian Israeli soldier, brought the issue to the forefront of Israeli society. After the video was circulated, mass protests erupted at Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square, and several people were arrested.
“Many Ethiopians feel insecure in their neighborhoods or out of their neighborhoods when they see policemen,” said Shoshana Ben-Dor, the former Israel Director for the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry, in Jerusalem.
The community makes up merely two percent of the country’s population, but they account for 40 percent of the public discrimination complaints filed to the Ministry of Justice’s government unit against racism. And according to police data, they are also twice as likely to be arrested.
Some of the family members are a part of closed Facebook groups where young Ethiopian Jews talk about their personal experiences away from the gaze of the wider Israeli society. “They compare it to the African-American experience in the United States,” said Ofir Abu, a researcher into Israeli policing in minority communities at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.
In fact, some of the inspiration for the art, and protests, comes from the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States. “A lot of young people saw that, and felt a connection,” said Batya Sisay, a 35-year-old Ethiopian artist also featured for the gallery. There are many pro-black themes at the show: women flaunting their natural kinky hairs, little girls holding black dolls, and older women in traditional Ethiopian clothes are prominent throughout the paintings.
The name of the art show itself, “the Color Line”, borrows a concept coined by the African-American writer W.E.B. Du Bois, and worries on the policing of their young men sound similar to fears often raised in the United States. “I’m concerned for my children,” Dana said. She follows police issues closely, and when reports of incidents flood in, she lays her three children to sleep and channels her anxiety through watercolors.
Their hearts ache for the mothers of “the boys.” In a perfect world, they say their art would not exist. But for now, it’s their sole way of fighting back.
“We’re different because of the color of the skin,” Ron said. “We will always be different.”
Some quotes have been translated from Amharic.