Rarely do I wince at my mother’s expert travel advisories, but her latest made me wonder. Each trip, mom gives me the cautionary, “I don’t think they like us over there” bit. When I mentioned possibly visiting Israel, mom said, “ESPECIALLY not there!” I got to thinkin’. What do we mean to Israelis? Are Palestinians treated the same as Black folks in America? Would I feel some moral conflict? Should I? Prince recommended Israel for the soul, so I basically have to go, right?
So many questions. I connected with Uri Steinberg, Consul of Israel.
Jeta: Describe the ethnic composition in Israel.
Uri: Israel is a melting pot of 70 Jewish diasporas, then a melting pot of Christians and Muslims. About 80% of Israelis are Jews. There are also people who came from Eastern and Western Europe, Yemen, Morocco, Tunisia and more. They all met and came together. My brother is married to a Moroccan woman. She comes from Arabic-speaking descent and from a whole different culture, in terms of appearance and such. My wife’s family is from Turkey. They speak ancient Spanish. My family is from Russia originally. Everyone came to Israel and started to mix up. After the foundation of Israel (in 1948), a lot of people began to marry people of other diasporas. Now we have Ethiopian Jews who kept their Judaism for thousands of years, came to Israel and many continue to come. They’ve had huge challenges adapting but you can see them starting to blend in. Unfortunately, racism is a global phenomenon. But there’s something to be said about the fact that in Israel, people migrated from all over. Jews came 200 years ago. There’s tension between Jews and non-Jews but it’s progressing. It’s an ongoing process.
Jeta: Is there any such thing as a typical look of an Israeli?
Uri: Israelis are very good looking first of all! It wasn’t only said by Israelis that Israeli women are the most beautiful women on earth. Gal Gadot is the new Wonder Woman. She has a classic Israeli look, which is similar to people from the Mediterranean. We (Israelis) are big here but there’s definitely a heavy Mediterranean influence. People that came 25 years ago, after the Russian block, were from
Morocco, Yemen and other countries in that area. In terms of style, Israeli style of dress is just like New York City. The world is small. If you have Rihanna or Beyoncé, who are setting trends, they’ll translate worldwide, especially in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Those two cities are very mainstream. And of course, orthodox Jews have a more traditional look. Israel is a country that’s extremely diverse, successful and western.
Jeta: That’s an interesting choice of words. Is to be Western to be accepted?
Uri: Great question. I use “western” because that’s what people relate to. But there’s incredible discord in Israel about who we are in music, fashion, politics, etc.. It’s been a very charged subject. For many years, much has been represented through a dominant lens of eastern European Israelis, which are referred to as white Israelis. But in the last 20 years we’ve had successful politicians from North Africa of Jewish descent. And Iraqi Jews are speaking up and saying Israeli culture is more than just what’s been portrayed. It’s a mixture of many different diasporas.
Jeta: Speaking of belonging, I saw a video recently of a woman saying, ‘to all Black people, you don’t have to feel displaced. Israel is your real home.’ Do you agree?
Uri: Somewhat. You see a lot of pictures in churches and see Jesus as a blonde guy. No way. Most people in Israel are dark-skinned. And Israel is the only country in history where Black people immigrated without being in shackles. There were hundreds of thousands of Ethiopian Jews that lived in Israel for thousands of years since King Solomon. Even in Israel today, there is a place for people of color living there. There are some Black Israelis that came from Africa and are part of society; they’re doctors and lawyers.
Jeta: What other Black American culture permeates Israel?
Uri: Growing up in the 90s, Michael Jordan was the most important person in the world for my generation. On the music side, Jay Z is huge in Israel. And Black movie stars are always huge in Israel. Everyone loves Will Smith and Morgan Freeman.
In Galilee we have a forest that was dedicated to Mrs. Coretta Scott King a few years ago. It’s to commemorate the fact that he (MLK) thought Israel was an important place. So many of his big supporters were Jews during good and bad times.
Jeta: And what are some Israeli influences in America?
Uri: One of the things we’re proud of is our high-tech, innovation. NASDAQ ranks the US as #1 and Israel as #2. Whether it’s Whatsapp, Waze or navigation software. There are so many things a part of your life today that are all a part of Israel. Not necessarily people, but innovation.
Jeta: Racial tension in America is pretty thick right now. What are similar experiences throughout your life in Israel? And what were some steps you’d recommend towards peace and healing?
Uri: The Middle East isn’t the best for solutions these days, unfortunately. Our first struggle has been less about us as Jews more about our neighbors and Muslims. We have to do some soul searching. We’ve had numerous wars since Israel was founded and two peace agreements. Things with Egypt and Jordan are going well but then things deteriorate with other nearby countries. Our focus is less of a racial issue and more of whether our existence as Jews is accepted by our neighbors before we have the privilege to discuss racial tension. We don’t have the luxury to say we don’t have other issues to deal with. There’s plenty of other discourse, like how do we deal with social gaps? How do we make sure the schools Ethiopians attend are equivalent to the rest? How do we make others (that immigrate here) feel comfortable? There are issues that are lingering with our neighbors that are prohibiting us from immersing ourselves into internal issues.
Jeta: What do you say to those that suggest boycotting Israel because of its conflict with Palestine?
Uri: When people come to Israel, they find out it’s a country that, regrettably, has to protect its borders. They know how to guard the country. Things we had to deal with in the past prepared us for now. And now other countries are purchasing Israeli technology. We’re working hard to protect the environment.
In general, I don’t deal with politics and that’s exactly why I think people should come to Israel. Meet all sides of it. The reality is a complex one. Are Palestinians living in Israel? Yes. Do they have hard times? Sure do. A lot of people take the opportunity to portray the situation as black or white. I don’t want to take sides. You go define it for yourself. Something people don’t talk about much is what Israel does for the world. Factories in Israel supply work for thousands Palestinians every year. The picture is so rich and complex. Israel takes care of dozens of wounded civilians from the Syrian war. We’re not looking to get any ovation because we feel it’s part of our DNA and it’s what we need to do. We’re not taking sides, just taking them to our medical institutions. Once they’re done, they go back to Syria. We believe it’s the right thing to do. These types of things are not what you would hear from people. But that’s what we do and have been doing for years.
Jeta: The phrase, “Black Lives Matter” has become a bit of a hallmark. Are there many supporters or people that identify with it in Israel?
Uri: Yes, in an environment of global communication, everything that happens, everyone knows about.
Jeta: Would you say many Black Americans visit Israel?
Uri: At the moment, we don’t have the ability to zoom in on specific statistics, but I can tell you that not enough do.
*We do not own the rights to featured images. Cover photo from AJ+.