Africans in Israel join forces for improvement
By DIAA HADID Associated Press–Fri, Mar 16, 2012
DIMONA, Israel (AP) — For years, Israel's array of African communities had little interaction, divided by religious, linguistic and cultural differences. That is changing.
They are facing a common situation in Israel — relegated to bottom rungs, partly because of discrimination over their skin color. That has brought some members of a wide range of communities together, including Jewish Ethiopians, nomadic Muslim Arabs and migrants from Eritrea and Sudan.
"What is said against me is said against my brother," said Sheik Ayed al-Abed, referring to the derogatory names that he and other members of a newly formed advocacy group have been called. Al-Abed was among dozens of members of the various communities with African roots who met for three days last week in the southern Israeli desert town of Dimona.
They formed a group, the "Middle East African Diaspora Commission," but offered no specific plans.
Participants hope to launch economic projects that would provide employment to the most disadvantaged blacks in Israel — African asylum seekers and Bedouin Arabs. They also plan to lobby the government to improve the situation of blacks in Israel. Ultimately, they hope to be recognized by the 54-nation African Union as a diaspora community, though such an affirmation of their roots would be largely symbolic.
Al-Abed is part of a community that descended from African slaves who served lighter-skinned Arabs generations ago. His last name means "the slave" in Arabic. It's also Arabic slang for a black person. Some Hebrew-speaking Israelis refer to blacks as "kushim," a term derived from an ancient name for Ethiopia but today considered derogatory.
Jonathan Takele, an Ethiopian-Israeli participant in the initiative, said he was thrilled to find a place to discuss "the future of black people" in the Holy Land. "I can share my experience. It doesn't matter if you are Christian, Muslim, Jewish," he said.
While still in its infancy, the new group is the first known case in Israel of blacks crossing rocky religious and ethnic lines to champion a joint cause. "It's extremely unique and extremely exciting, but I don't know if it will hold," said Dafna Strauss, an Israeli academic who has followed developments of African communities in Israel.
The force behind the emerging alliance are the Black Hebrews, a 2,500-strong group who believe they are descendants of a lost tribe of Israelites.
The Black Hebrews, who first arrived in Israel from the U.S. in the 1970s, aren't considered Jews, but Israel has granted many of them residency rights. Khazriel Ben-Yehuda, a Black Hebrew, said he doesn't know how many members the group will have, because it is still collecting signatures.
Out of some 7.8 million people in Israel, some 200,000 people have African roots. In addition to the Black Hebrews, there are about 120,000 Ethiopian Jews, 50,000 African asylum seekers, an estimated 10,000 black Bedouins and at least 12,000 dark-skinned urban Arabs. There are no official statistics based on skin color.
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