Know Your “Enemy”

Ethiopian Israeli organizer Avi Yalou discusses the usefulness of the occupation to maintaining oppressive systems within Israel.

Libby Lenkinski
August 19, 2019
Photo courtesy of Avi Yalou.

Over the last couple of months, Israeli society has been in the throes of a protest movement against police violence led by Ethiopian Israeli youth, who refer to it as their Black Lives Matter moment. In July, an Ethiopian Israeli teenager named Solomon Tekah was shot to death by a police officer in a town near Haifa, and thousands of young Ethiopian Israelis took to the streets demanding equal treatment and an end to police violence. Israel’s right wing very quickly began attempting to discredit the protests on social media by claiming they were being organized by left-wing organizations like the New Israel Fund (where I work as Vice President for Public Engagement)–a tactic that will be familiar to American activists dismissed as “paid protesters.” In the wake of this unrest, I sat down with my friend, Ethiopian Israeli activist, thinker, and community organizer Avi Yalou. 

Avi and I met last year, when we were invited by a mutual friend to join a learning group of left-wing Israeli leaders trying to get beyond existing paradigms in our analysis and action. Over our years of organizing, we have both come to the understanding that progressives will win when we can work from a place that sees and acknowledges the interconnectedness of all our struggles—an approach present in Avi’s organizing work to close socioeconomic gaps in Israel and to combat police violence.

I met up with Avi on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv on a sweltering day in late July. He showed up looking spiffy in a blue button down—it turned out he had just come from a meeting with a centrist political party asking him to join their candidate list, which he casually told me he refused. In the weeks since this interview, Avi has started a political party of his own that plans to run in the upcoming Israeli elections. The party, Tsedek (Hebrew for “justice”), is based on the idea that for too long, politics has been controlled by the elite—that it’s time to bring political power to the poor and marginalized people who are most impacted by government policy. Avi feels that this vision can manifest new alliances between people than currently seem possible in the political imagination. 

Libby Lenkinski: I saw you speak for the first time a few years ago, at a demonstration to mark 50 years of the occupation in Rabin Square, long before these protests. Why were you there? 

Avi Yalou: My political transformation started years ago, when I was much younger. I was in my hometown of Kiriyat Malachi, and a group of people in my town said they would not rent homes to Ethiopians. One of them said that even if an Ethiopian became the IDF chief of staff, they wouldn’t rent to him. Another said, “A good Ethiopian is a dead Ethiopian.” This reminded me of a saying I’d heard before: “A good Arab is a dead Arab.” I started asking myself, if they say the same thing about me as they say about the Arabs, are the Arabs really my enemy? I’m living with this conception that we have these enemies to blame for everything, but it’s not those “enemies” that are actually screwing us. In fact, the same things that screw those enemies also screw me. I thought: Wait a minute, the occupation is what enables my oppression here. Because it allows for oppressed groups [within Israel] to align with their oppressors against a common external enemy. Sure, we get slapped around a bit, our salary is subpar, our education system isn’t great, we face police brutality from time to time, but we cannot allow this enemy to come in and destroy us. So we go to work for the entity that discriminates against us. In my opinion, the government preserves the occupation because a genuine internal examination of what is happening here will lead [the government] to collapse.

It’s true that right now we are the ones hurt by police violence, but it’s not just us. Tomorrow it can be a Mizrahi Jew, the next day a Palestinian citizen, and a Haredi protester after that. This is what we need to talk about when we talk about the struggle against racism and police brutality. We are fighting for freedom and security for all of us. When the media and the politicians make it all about the Ethiopians, or on another day about another identity group, it is more easily dismissed—they can find reasons not to support it. But if you ask a values question, a principled question like, “Do you support or oppose excessive police violence against people?”, what can they say?

LL: Yesterday I was in the territories with two Americans who are connected to Black Lives Matter and other social and political movements in the US. We passed through a checkpoint, and the soldier who checked us was Ethiopian. One of the Americans turned to me and said, “Wow, that is so weird. How do you explain that?”

AY: Historically, in every oppressed group—whether it’s Jews during the Holocaust or black people during slavery—there were always victimized and victimizers within. The Ethiopian community is not monolithic. 

On the one hand, this is supposed to be our country; we have to participate in protecting it. It’s about being part of the collective, part of the mainstream. You do hear those today who want to stop doing reserve duty, who are torn inside. But for many Ethiopians, the IDF is holy. When it comes to the police, 1,000 out of 32,000 police officers are Ethiopian. That is a lot. And it creates a kind of dissonance as it relates to our everyday harassment by the police. 

People are starting to ask themselves: When was the last time you heard about an Ethiopian killed in a terror attack? And when was the last time you heard about an Ethiopian killed by their own Israeli police forces? You ask yourself, why should I go and invest my energies in fighting outside enemies when I have this war so close to home? This breaking from the collective ethos is a very big deal.

LL: Your parents’ generation—the ones who made the choice to come to Israel—what do they think about this?

AY: My mother sees the reality as it is. She basically tells me, “We are lucky that there are Arabs here. Otherwise we wouldn’t manage to survive.” The racism is so ingrained. When my parents go to their health clinics, to the national insurance offices, the banks, they experience it all the time—the patronizing, the disrespect, the condescension. They know it, but they rationalize— “Maybe it’s because we don’t speak the language,” things like that. They think, “Our children will grow up here and get educated and they will succeed.” But now they see that even though they invested everything in their children, it’s not happening. 

In Ethiopia, a child of seven or eight is already a shepherd, a landlord, a master. He is already in a state of mind of having a lot of responsibility. Here, parents understand that letting their kids go out is like sending them into an enemy state. They have to think about, “How will I get them through the summer without being assaulted by police?”

LL: What’s your family like? Why did they come to Israel?

AY: They came to Israel to realize a dream—thousands of years of longing. They were motivated by Zionism, but not in the form of a modern colonialist regime. They wanted to go home to Jerusalem. Simple. Almost naïve. 

We were not brought to Israel as slaves from Africa. There were no pogroms in Ethiopia. We were not fleeing poverty there. People should visit Ethiopia to see what I mean. The quality of life is really high. We had our own space, a home sitting on a huge piece of land. People lived peacefully. But we dreamt of Jerusalem all the time. On Sigd [an Ethiopian Jewish holiday that historically marks the acceptance of the Torah] we’d go up to the mountain, turn toward the North, and pray for the next year in Jerusalem. That’s why it was worth sacrificing a lot to immigrate. Now many ask themselves whether they made the right decision. Coping with abuse here is not like it was in Ethiopia. Even for those who were born there, they considered themselves to be living in exile. There’s a difference between being in exile and suffering from discrimination there, and finally coming home only to find abuse. It’s like abuse from a stranger as opposed to abuse within the home—the most intimate place.

LL: I saw that the protests in Israel against police brutality use the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. What is the connection?

AY: The connection to the movement in the US is a symbolic connection. To say Black Lives Matter is to say that Ethiopian Lives Matter. I don’t think that everyone who uses it really understands all of its meanings, or the history and evolution of the term. But they understand that police shoot us here because we are black, too. 

For many Ethiopian Israelis, just being able to say, “I am black” is part of a process. At earlier moments, you would hear them saying, “No, we are not black, we are Jews. We are Israelis.” But people now understand that being black determines everything everywhere—in Israel and in America. You can live in a place with a black president and still get shot because you are black. You can become a doctor, a CEO—and still, you are perceived according to your blackness. 

LL: Over this last decade, I have often felt that we on the left consistently provide answers to illegitimate questions, instead of upending the questions themselves. I really loved how you handled it when people asked you about the New Israel Fund and other entities “funding” and “activating” the recent Ethiopian protests against police brutality. You just said, that’s a racist question.

AY: This protest is an interesting political awakening for Ethiopian Israelis. I’m making a sweeping generalization, but there has been a pretty clear voting pattern in our community for right-wing parties, especially Likud. But now, when the community is protesting for our lives, politicians are coming out against us from those same parties. People feel betrayed. The right is out there spreading stories about how we are “being mobilized by the New Israel Fund,” by “the left,” the “Israel-haters.” Suddenly our people understand: oh yeah, as far as these politicians are concerned, we have never had any agency. Even the story of our immigration to Israel is told through this racist lens: they did us a big favor. They rescued helpless Ethiopians and brought us here, absorbed us. And consistent with this frame is their belief that we are so unsophisticated and simple-minded that we couldn’t organize ourselves on our own, that we are toys to be played with by others.

LL: Yesterday I talked to some guys from Lod who are collecting video footage from the protests taken by Ethiopian youth, trying to edit it and broadcast it on mainstream news outlets. I wanted to know how NIF could help—with money, or a space. But one of them said to me, “Thanks, but no thanks. This has to come from the community. It has to be ours.” 

AY: People are really starting to understand that they have to get organized. They have to lead. That’s the nature of this political awakening—a better understanding of the rules of the game, that in order to start to change things, you have to be the one leading the carriage, not sitting in it.

LL: I left Israel seven years ago for all sorts of reasons, as you know. I understood that even the left-wing movement that I was a part of was stuck in a paradigm of left-right elitism. I couldn’t see how I could come back to that. And then I heard you speak at Rabin Square. I’ve told you before that if someone with your politics became prime minister, that would be a country I could return to. I do wonder what it would take for that to happen, on the personal level and on the societal level. How do we get there? 

AY: People are still talking about the fact that there hasn’t been a Yemenite IDF chief of staff, they’ve been saying this for 70 years. Israeli society is so tainted by so many prejudices. There is a fixed profile of the kind of people that should lead here—and the rest of us have not managed to break through that barrier, to play the political game to our own advantage. Netanyahu plays the game very well, but it’s also very natural for him, to enter politics from an elite background like his. People like me come to the political process from a place of distress and difficulty—from the streets—and to come into national politics from that place is its own conceptual revolution. 

It’s clear to me that to have an impact, you have to be on the inside and wield significant power. I’m not talking about just being a member of Knesset. You can be a member of Knesset and serve as the “useful Ethiopian.” That’s not very interesting. At the end of the day, I want to really change the world order—no less—and there are a lot of people who will not want that change, a lot of people for whom changing the world order means losing some of their privileges. 

The question is how to get people to think differently—to think not about “what’s good for me,” but what’s good for all of us who share this space. In other words, what is the connection between Arabs’ aspiration for justice and equality and the Ethiopian struggle? What is the connection to the ultra-Orthodox struggle, or to women’s struggles? I don’t want to change the reality just for the Ethiopian community; I wouldn’t want to live in a reality where the Ethiopian community no longer suffers from racism but other groups do. What would we have achieved then? Politics is a tool—not an end in itself, but a tool. 

Libby Lenkinski is vice president of public engagement at the New Israel Fund and has been working at the intersection of progressive Israeli and American social change for more than 15 years.