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What’s the Difference Between Being Black in Israel and America?

The different degrees of racism, as experienced by Ethiopian-Israelis

Aliza Tichon
August 31, 2015
Lior Mizrahi / Getty Images
Israelis of Ethiopian origin and their supporters protest against racism and excessive aggression by Israeli police on June 22, 2015 in Tel Aviv, Israel. Lior Mizrahi / Getty Images
Lior Mizrahi / Getty Images
Israelis of Ethiopian origin and their supporters protest against racism and excessive aggression by Israeli police on June 22, 2015 in Tel Aviv, Israel. Lior Mizrahi / Getty Images

We were out on a fun date on that summer night a few weeks ago, laughing hysterically, when my Ethiopian-Israeli boyfriend–in the typical Israeli way–nonchalantly slipped in some bad news with the good times.

“You know,” he said. “My brother almost got killed last week.”

My heart immediately dropped.

I studied his face and could see he wasn’t joking.

“What do you mean he almost got killed?”

“My brother is stupid,” he explained. “He flicked a cigarette out of his car window and the cops got mad.”

My boyfriend proceeded to describe first how the police claimed his brother didn’t pull over fast enough when they put on their lights, then the subsequent arrival of seven squad cars, and finally how his brother was verbally assaulted, physically roughed up, and placed in handcuffs.

The experience was so horrifying that it left my boyfriend’s brother–a normally sweet and unassuming guy–terrified to drive alone ever again.

After he told me the story, my boyfriend looked at me with the most solemn eyes.

“He is so stupid,” he continued fuming at his brother. “You cannot make any mistakes in America. I got so mad at him, I yelled at him, ‘You idiot! You know they are killing black people in this country for anything! Why did you flick your cigarette out the window?’ He is so stupid. He could have lost his life last week over a cigarette. A cigarette!”

“No,” I shook my head. “No! Seven cop cars in response to throwing a cigarette out of the window is an extreme, unnecessary use of force and abuse of power. Your brother is not stupid. The American police system is.”

My Ethiopian-Israeli boyfriend moved here for the same reason many other Israelis do: to make money and chase that elusive American dream they have seen broadcasted on their televisions since they were children. They see America as a great land of great opportunities.

In my boyfriend’s case, he came from an Israeli ghetto where many Ethiopians live on top of each other. He was determined to never have such a life and to “make it big.”

However, when he arrived in America, he received a massive culture shock.

This man fought in wars and saved lives, yet in my country he is made to feel like a criminal while driving or going shopping. He soon realized that black people in America are not on the same level as non-blacks in America.

This grim reality made him nervous about what could happen to Ethiopians in Israel, which is why there is no question in his mind over whether to support Ethiopian protests there whenever they happen–to prevent Israel from becoming America. Because despite the racism Ethiopians face in Israel, it is not nearly as deadly as the racism blacks face in America.

Right now, sure, there is racism in Israel. There are issues of police brutality. There is extreme poverty in Ethiopian-Israeli communities. Ethiopian religious leaders have yet to be recognized as legitimate rabbis by the state. And then there is the issue of non-Jewish African refugees who some Israelis want deported, resulting in violent attacks and racist slurs directed at refugees and Jewish Ethiopians alike.

But ask the average Ethiopian why they are protesting in the Jewish state and the usual answer you will get is that they don’t want Israel to turn into America.

Get that?

They don’t want it to turn into America. In the experience of people like my boyfriend, Israel is nowhere near that level today. And Ethiopian-Israelis want to keep it that way, ensuring their country does not adopt any of America’s attitudes or systemic policies regarding race.

As my boyfriend once darkly pointed out, “At least in Israel if the police beat you, they will not kill you.”

That may seem like a low bar, but in today’s American society it would be a blessing if death-by-arrest were not a depressingly common outcome. Our situation as blacks in America is so dire that we aren’t protesting police brutality–as is the case in Israel–we are protesting the deaths resulting from police brutality. That is a shame. And it makes me ashamed to be an American.

It’s over a month later, and my boyfriend’s brother still does not drive anywhere alone.

Aliza Tichon is a pseudonym for a writer in New York.