Ethiopian Jews Protest Police Violence through Art

This article was first published at Religion Unplugged:

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.

Mamye’s Son by Tagist Yosef Ron

The show at Sderot is not the first time the family has been featured together. Their work has appeared alongside each others 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.

Zaudito, second left, and Ron, second right, with other featured artists at the show in Sderot, Sapir College 

Their artistic talents trace back to their mothers and grandmothers, all artists in Ethiopia. “It is probably genetic,” said Zaudito. 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,” said Zaudito, “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,” said Ron, “the whole
society, not just Ethiopian Israelis.”

She
focuses on “the boys,” young Ethiopian Jews, like Biadga and Yosef Salamsa, whose deaths protestors say links to
police violence and neglect.

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.

“days” Portraits of concerned Ethiopian mothers by Dana Yosef

The community makes up merely 2 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 hair, 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,” said Dana. 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,” said Ron. “We will always be different.”

Some quotes have been translated from Amharic.  

Top photo: “days” Portraits of concerned Ethiopian mothers by Dana Yosef

This article was republished here courtesy of Religion Unplugged.


Day #4, Part II : Shilo

The second part of our day began with a half hour drive through rocky green hills to Shilo, an isolated Israeli settlement 28 miles north of Jerusalem.

Flanked by Israeli flags, our bus moved slowly up a hill, turning right at a brown welcome sign that read, “Ancient Shilo,” a historical site believed to be the resting place of the tabernacle before the establishment of the Jewish temple.

Today, the settlement lies adjacent to the ancient city, and is home to approximately 400 hundred Israeli families. It’s also part of what’s known as “Area C,” a section of the West Bank under Israeli security and civilian control.

After entering the settlement, we followed the green Hebrew road signs filled with biblical echoes, strode past an empty children’s playground and an array of bright yellow sunflowers to meet Rabbi Dov Berkowitz, a resident of Shilo. The gray-bearded rabbi, who has spent time in Manhattan near Columbia University, now calls this settlement his home.

He led us across the brown tile floors of his house, and we joined him in a circle across the living room.

As he spoke, noises from the nearby kitchen filtered across the room. The rabbi’s wife, Tzippi, swiftly chopped white onions, preparing food - from toasted granola, chickpeas, to vegetable soup - for the upcoming Purim celebrations. During Purim, it’s custom to give food to family and friends, Tzippi said. It’s something she often does here in Shilo, and even in Jerusalem.

Downstairs, the rabbi spoke candidly about his journey to the settlement. Stroking his beard, he recollected memories of his first visit, a Shabbat experience in the town. “We loved the people,” he said. It was not ideological – at first. But then, the Palestinian uprising known as the first Intifada happened 1987-1993.

He remembered Molotov cocktails damaging settler cars during the uprising. “Nothing like that had ever happened,” he said. The period took him through a moment of “re-organizing” his mindset, “Zionism is many things, but the bottom line of Zionism is the Jewish people came to Israel not to be killed.”

But in Shilo, settler motivations are mainly religious. “This is ground zero of the promised land,” said Ophir Yarden, referring to the historical Judea and Samaria promised to the Israelites in the Torah, the Jewish sacred text. And according to the Rabbi, more and more Israelis are looking to rent space in Shilo.

The rabbi was quick to acknowledge the sensitivity of the settlement issue.  “Settlements do not help the dialogue. Settlements do not bring peace,” he said. But without the Palestinian acceptance of “the state of Israel as a legitimate Jewish state,” he sees an impasse.

(Image of Shilo, public domain)


The power of music at a Protestant service in Greenwich Village

NEW YORK — The clock struck 5:00 p.m. when the Rev. John C. Lin stepped up to the wide, sand-colored, theatre stage at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Greenwich Village.

He placed the cream program guide on a black music sheet stand and welcomed parishioners as they hurriedly filled the red seats. He opened the guide, and read a quote from J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”:

 As much money and life as you could want! The two things most human beings would choose above all – the trouble is, humans do have a knack of choosing precisely those things that are worst for them.”

He looked at the congregation and continued on with reflections. This time, with an ode to New York City.

“New York, you got money on your mind, and my words won’t make a dime’s worth a difference, so here’s to you New York.” 

He stopped reading, turning to an audience made-up of a racially-diverse set of young people huddled in winter coats. As they were settling in, Lin paused. Then, he started speaking on a subject all too familiar to New Yorkers: Success.

Success, he said, should not be the way people define themselves. Nor should one’s identity be based in his or her work.

They, he said, are defined by what Christ has done. He told the believers worship, through the singing of hymns, allows them to remember that truth.

Lin called on the congregation to stand. All stood, and flipped open their program guides to the hymnals.

Two women stepped up to the microphone. Four men on the back side of the stage began playing music. The bang of the drums became prominent, but soon enough, piano keys and guitar strums could be heard throughout the room.

The big-screen monitors hung on the right and left side of the stage flashed on. And as four lines of lyrics from the first song selection, Crown You with Praise by Natalie Grant, lit the screen, the congregation got ready to worship and act on the minister’s message.

As the drums thundered louder, the women began singing.

We crown you with glo-ry, we crown you with hon-or

Je-sus, we crown you with praise.

We crown you with song and dance,

We crown you with lift-ed hands,

Je-sus we crown you with praise!

Parishioners followed. Some reading the lyrics from their program guides, while others sung along looking at the screens.

The tempo picked up, and one word was repeatedly emphasized.

Singers: Wor-thy, wor-thy, wor-thy

Parishioners: Wor-thy, wor-thy, wor-thy

Singers: Je-sus, we crown you with praise

Parishioners: Je-sus, we crown you with praise!

The Protestant congregation praised Jesus. In the faith, he is the messiah, the savior for humanity where the believer’s identity is found.

The beat of the drums slowly died down. A transition was happening to a different song, and this one required a gentler touch. The piano keys picked up, and the lyrics on the screen changed.

The singer with the soprano voice began with the first line:

How lovel-ly is Your dwell-ing place, O Lord al-might-y,

For my soul longs and e-ven faints for you. For here

My heart is satisfied with your pres-ence.

With nearly half the congregation looking at their guides, and the other half looking at the screen, they sang the chorus for the song.

Singers & Parishioners: Bet-ter is one day in Your courts,

Bet-ter is one day in Your house, Bet-ter is one day in Your courts

Than thou-sands else-where.

Parishioners continued in unison, looking at the stage, the guides, the screen, and some, at others.

Those arriving late had to walk up the main aisle and approach an usher for program guides. The man smiled, briefly handing out pamphlets pre-made for the 5:00 pm service on February 3rd, 2019.

More people began filling in the seats, and the music once again transitioned to another song.

Rev. Lin looked on from the stage, also singing along.

(Top photo courtesy Redeemer Presbyterian Church of NYC)