SEATTLE — The Jewish Agency for Israel’s chairman, Natan Sharansky, tapped Martin Luther King III to present the Unsung Hero award to three culture and media activists known for their support for Ethiopian-Israelis earlier this month.
The awardees were journalist Anat Saragusti, former Knesset member Pnina Tamano-Shata, and popular world music icon Idan Raichel. On the face of it, this seems like a welcome gesture meant to raise awareness of the plight of the country’s 130,000 citizens of Ethiopian origin.
In the 1980s and 90s, 22,000 Ethiopian Jews were airlifted to Israel in Operations Moses and Solomon. The airlifts were launched after after a campaign by world Jewry and Jewish Ethiopian activists brought Ethiopian communities, known as Falashas (or alternatively, Beta Israel), recognition by Orthodox rabbis as Jews. Their arrival also came on the heels of a massive famine that killed hundreds of thousands and a civil war under the tyrannical regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam.
The Jewish Agency coordinated the efforts to airlift Ethiopians to Israel, but its efforts toward integrating the new arrivals into Israeli society weren’t as laudable. After the initial euphoria wore off, the new immigrants met institutional racism, poverty and intolerance from the Israeli mainstream and via official government policy. There were documented efforts by staff working on behalf of the Jewish Agency who provided contraceptives like Depo-Provera to Ethiopian women, often without their informed consent. In a 2010, Hedva Eyal, Women and Medical Technologies Project Coordinator at Isha L’Isha – Haifa Feminist Center, explained in a report:
“The paternalistic attitude towards women of Ethiopian origin and the state’s concern over high rates of birth among poor and black populations drove Israeli official bodies, such as The Jewish Agency and the medical establishment, to act, allegedly for the benefit of women’s health, but in fact according to the concepts and wishes of the establishment regarding the desirable way to conduct family life. As a result, and as this paper shows, women did not get crucial medical information and their right of choice regarding their bodies, families and lives was severely curtailed.”
The majority of Ethiopian immigrants have been settled in some of Israel’s poorest communities and backwater towns, known in Israeli parlance as “the periphery.” There, they live in conditions similar to those faced by poor Mizrahi and Israeli Palestinians.
The history of immigration in Israel shows that each new group of immigrants is viewed as “undesirable.” They are sent to settle the hinterlands, where they are forced to fend for themselves with little or no help from the central government. In the 1950s, the newcomers were Mizrahim from North Africa and Yemen. In the 1980s, they were Ethiopian. Today, they are the 60,000 African refugees who have entered Israel since 2005, fleeing famine and civil war to cross the Sinai in search of refuge.
Anger by Israel’s Ethiopian community against the Jewish Agency and the Israeli government is intense. They’ve held a series of national protests against racism and police brutality directed at their members.
Facing such hostility, the Jewish Agency devised a method of defusing it while simultaneously scoring points with the American civil rights movement represented by King. It piggybacked on a convenient junket that brought King and his entourage to Israel.
Meshulam Riklis: Billionaire wheeler-dealer, Arab-hater
The son of the U.S. civil rights icon had been invited by the Meshulam Riklis to celebrate his 93rd birthday in Tel Aviv. The Israeli-American billionaire is a major donor to the Jewish Agency and other Israel-related charities.
In the 1960s and 70s, Riklis, a harbinger of Donald Trump, was an infamous corporate raider who made his mark buying and selling companies through leveraged financing. He rarely invested much of his own money in such transactions.
The Turkish-born immigrant to Israel is one in a long line of super-rich Diaspora Jews who’ve “adopted” Israeli prime ministers going all the way back to Ben Gurion. These mega donors have funded everything from Israel’s nuclear program (Abraham Feinberg) to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s overseas travel (Arnaud Mimran). In the 1970s, Riklis lent $200,000 to Ariel Sharon so the future Israeli prime minister could buy his prized Sycamore ranch. Many of their sleazier activities have landed prime ministers in hot water and forced them to defend themselves against accusations of corruption and bribery.
Riklis may support King, but he has little use for “Arabs.” This Haaretz article from 2012 notes his frank and racist views on the subject:
“He considers Arabs ‘murderers from birth’ and says this a genetic trait shared by all Arabs, whereas Jews who come from Arab countries are not murderers … rather, they are ‘thieves and liars.’ At his age, he claims, he is exempt from political correctness and therefore can tell others what he calls ‘the truth.’”
It may be more than a tad ironic that Riklis seems to have forgotten that he and his parents hail from Turkey. Though perhaps he somehow distinguishes between that Muslim nation and the rest of the Arab Middle East.
Even more awkward is the fact that after the Jewish Agency ceremony and Riklis’ birthday party, the next stop on King’s itinerary was the Mossawa Center, an NGO that promotes equality for Israel’s Arab minority. How could the son of the American civil rights leader reconcile celebrating the birthday of an Israeli who hates “Arabs,” then honoring “Arabs” in a speech at the Mossawa Center?
On the surface, the awardees are glowing representatives of the Ethiopian community and activists who’ve advanced Ethiopian culture within Israel. One might wonder how an attempt to praise those working on behalf of the Ethiopian community in Israel could be anything but laudable. Yet closer inspection of King’s own ethical challenges and the backgrounds and beliefs of the awardees, reveals something far less praiseworthy.
Idan Raichel and cultural theft
The most well-known among the awardees is Idan Raichel. He single-handedly promoted the music of Ethiopia, adopted it as part of his own world-music sound, and toured it around the world to astonishing success. Israel embraced Raichel as its ambassador to the world, a role he enthusiastically adopted. He’s not just as a cultural impresario; he’s a tool of pro-Israel cultural propaganda.
Though much of Israel and the world thrilled to the exotic sounds of Ethiopian-infused hit songs like “Bo’i,” a number of Ethiopian activists criticize him for appropriating their culture without doing anything to advance their political or social welfare. Foremost among these critics has been Efrat Yerday, an Ethiopian community activist and former spokesperson of the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews. In an article she published at Cafe Gibraltar (Hebrew) in 2012, she castigated Raichel, arguing that he cared little for authentic Ethiopian culture or traditions; the music of this African nation was merely an exotic sound that he felt would be appealing to the Israeli ear. As such, Raichel could leverage this into a pop entertainment juggernaut that benefited him and his career, while doing little for Ethiopians.
In a phone interview, Yerday told me that she felt that Raichel’s exploitation of her community’s heritage was “pathetic” and “cynical.” She said that one of the most hurtful aspects of Raichel’s popularity is that he, rather than Ethiopians themselves, is seen as the voice of Ethiopians in Israel.
The pop star is an Ashkenazi from the most Ashkenazi of places, Kfar Saba, and his audience is largely the Israeli Ashkenazi middle class. They yearn for a sense of connection to something authentic while feeling little genuine connection with any Israeli minority, let alone Ethiopians.
But Raichel doesn’t offer Ethiopian authenticity. With his dreadlocks and pleasant, catchy, exotic tunes, he offers a semblance of Ethiopia. He affects a style without absorbing the values of the culture he appropriates. Imagine Bob Dylan as Mississippi Delta bluesman denouncing Black Lives Matter in song, or writing “Masters of War” in praise of U.S. militarism. Unlike Idan Raichel’s strident ultra-nationalism, Rastafarian culture does not endorse military might or national triumphalism.
In Cafe Gibraltar, Yerday noted that a documentary film, “Black Over White,” showed arguments between Raichel and his Ethiopian musical collaborators in which one of them berates the Ashkenazi star for not understanding how impossible musical success would be for her without the imprimatur of being a member of his ensemble. In another scene in the film, Raichel and his entourage travel to Ethiopia and visit poor villages in the countryside. In her Cafe Gibraltar article, Yerday castigates him for refusing to disembark from the bus at one stop because he is overwhelmed by the poverty, odor and ramshackle nature of the village they’re visiting. In the film, he actually expresses disdain for local musicians because they “smell bad.”
She told me that Raichel’s attitude toward the Ethiopian school children he tried to teach was imperious. She described him as growing impatient with them when they could not absorb the Israeli or Hebrew styles he was attempting to teach.
Yerday levelled a final judgement against Raichel’s attitude toward his Ethiopian interlocutors, charging that he shows himself to be “distant.”
Raichel is a devout Israeli nationalist. He even supports torture of security suspects, a practice outlawed by the Israeli Supreme Court (in most cases). In 2010, when an Israeli Defense Forces interrogator, Doron Zahavi, whose identity I first exposed, was accused of raping a Lebanese prisoner in order to extract intelligence information, Raichel applauded his work and defended the use of torture.
Pnina Tamano-Shata: Perilous transition from threatened minority to Israeli mainstream
After a career in journalism, Pnina Tamano-Shata became one of the first Ethiopians elected to the Knesset. She represents the center-right Yesh Atid Party, which was founded by slick media personality Yair Lapid. But her politics are much more in synch with the far-right Likud Party.
As often happens with celebrities or media personalities from minority ethnic communities, they perceive that the path to success involves toning down their “Other-ness,” seeking the deracinated mainstream. They have to “out-Israeli” the Israelis. Similarly, Tamano-Shata has affected an extreme nationalism that places her to the right of Yesh Atid. Though born in Ethiopia, she has adopted the platform of Greater Israel and champions the settler movement.
Israel’s leading political blogger, Tal Schneider, criticized her (Hebrew) in 2014 for situating herself ideologically within the Knesset among the “Nazi faction of the Likud,” among which she names Yariv Levin and Miri Regev, who called Israel’s 60,000 African refugees “a cancer.”
As part of the pro-settler faction in the Knesset, Tamano-Shata participated in a stormy meeting with U.S. Ambassador Dan Shapiro, in which one of the MKs complained that U.S. pressure on Israel to resolve the Palestinian conflict was a form of “rape” (Hebrew).
Anat Saragusti: Liberal Zionist window-dressing
The third awardee, Anat Saragusti, is a TV and print journalist who has made forays into political activism as the former U.S. director of B’Tselem, an Israeli NGO which documents human rights violations in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. She also pioneered the training of women and Ethiopian journalists and integrating them into mainstream media.
On Facebook, she described being presented the award by King as “stirring” and praised her Tamano-Shata as “remarkable” and Raichel as “supremely talented.”
Her record is also tainted by an op-ed she recently published in Haaretz (Hebrew), which deals with Israeli activists of Taayush who’d been arrested by Israeli police and accused of inciting murder.
The background for this story is that the Uvdah TV news magazine sent right-wing activists to infiltrate Taayush and recorded members seeking to report to Palestinian police a land dealer illegally selling Palestinian land. In reality, the supposed land dealer was a fraud and there was no land deal. But Uvdah trumpeted its news report and the three landed in prison, facing serious criminal charges for a crime that never existed.
Though Saragusti’s piece was titled, “No Dispute on the Facts,” there certainly is much in dispute. It is shameful that Saragusti, a supposed human rights activist, follows in lock-step with this fraudulent narrative manufactured by the Israeli settler lobby.
Martin Luther King III whitewashes Israeli racism
Martin Luther King III is as compromised as the Israelis to whom he offered awards. A figure who has little current impact on the civil rights movement, he contributed in a significant way to the dysfunction and litigation which has stalked the Martin Luther King Center, his father’s official legacy.
The Drum Major Institute, founded in 1999, appears to be his new vehicle for promoting himself as the scion of his father. It has what seems like a formidable domestic reform agenda around issues of gun violence and civil rights, but its voice isn’t known or heard.
King exploits his father’s legacy without putting much of anything on the line on its behalf.
He’s criticized the Black Lives Matter movement for deviating from the non-violent struggle of his father. He also said that it’s “important” for America’s black community “to be engaged with the tea party.” Both stances show how out of touch King is with contemporary conditions in the criminal justice system and among young black Americans.
King lives the good life as a client of the top of the line national speaker’s bureau, the Harry Walker Agency, where he earns handsome fees to wax nostalgic about the glories of his father’s day. Among its other clients are Israeli generals and former prime ministers like Ehud Barak and Shimon Peres; leading Likud think tank scholar and director general of the Israeli foreign ministry Dore Gold; American Jewish neocon Dennis Prager; lawyer and Black Lives Matter movement critic Alan Dershowitz; and Sheldon Adelson’s favorite rabbi, Shmuley Boteach.
After doing a favor for Natan Sharansky and his allies at the Jewish Agency, the Mossawa Center invited King to address their activists. Needless to say, it’s highly unusual for Palestinian groups to break bread with visitors who’ve promoted the Jewish Agency. That Israeli group is responsible for much of the settlement activity in the West Bank — quite a sore spot when it comes to the Palestinian community.
I interviewed Jafar Farah, the director of the organization, about how King’s visit came about. He said he was first approached by a member of King’s entourage, Johnny Mack. Farah said that when he later heard about the Jewish Agency event he called Mack, who told him that neither he nor King had known about the award ceremony before they left for Israel; that the idea for the event came from their Israeli host, Meshulam Riklis, and was a last-minute arrangement; and that King didn’t know what the Jewish Agency is or what it represents.
This explanation is belied by the fact that Saragusti says in an interview about the prize that she was notified about it two weeks before the ceremony. Meaning the Americans knew about it well before they left the States. This indicates they were at least being deceptive regarding what they told Mossawa, if not using the Palestinian NGO explicitly.
It is hard to believe that King or Mack would agree to be involved with organizations (like the Jewish Agency) of whose mission they appear to be ignorant. It’s much easier for me to believe that Mack was trying to save face for Mossawa by pretending to know much less about the award than he really did.
This raises another question: Why would foreign individuals claiming to be civil rights activists interpose themselves in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and attempt to offer advice to Palestinians when they know so little about the internal dynamics? What happens, more often than not, is that such people, through their naivete, cause more harm than good. In this case, Mossawa must explain to its own Palestinian constituency how it ended up hosting Americans who promoted the interests of the Jewish Agency.
Despite repeated attempts to reach King, Mack and the Drum Major Institute about these matters, they have not responded to phone calls, emails, tweets or Facebook personal messages. I also sent a private Facebook message and placed a phone call to Avi Mayer, the Jewish Agency’s foreign spokesperson, but he had not responded by the time this article was published.
Another awkward element of this story for Mossawa is one of its key patrons, Knesset member Ayman Odeh, who refused to address the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations in New York in December when he discovered that its office also housed the Jewish Agency. The Times of Israel reported:
“‘I came here to represent the Arab public in Israel to American audiences,’ Odeh later recounted in a statement. ‘As their representative, I cannot in good conscience participate in meetings in the offices of organizations whose work displaces Arab citizens, just as in the Knesset, we do not participate in the Ministry of Defense, the Foreign Ministry, and the Ministry of Aliyah and Immigrant Absorption.’”
The Palestinian group celebrated King’s speech with this account on its website:
“Mr. King stated in his speech that he witnessed many family members being killed and that ‘It would have been easy to embrace the hatred but I embraced love. Forgiving is sometimes difficult to do but I would have been a very hateful person if I gave in to that.’
Mossawa Director Jafar Farah said that ‘The most important thing is the fact that we believe that there can be solidarity between the communities.’ and that ‘We hope to build this solidarity.’
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his son who continues his father’s legacy are role models for many Palestinian and foreign activist. We hope to increase the cooperation with the African American community in the U.S. and learn from their struggle for civil rights, as well as explain the uniqueness of the Palestinian Arab community in Israel. Mr. Martin Luther King III’s visit was an important opportunity to present the state of the Palestinian minority in Israel and build relations for future cooperation.”
What exactly did King offer the Palestinians? Love? Forgiveness? Of what use are such emotions considering the current state of affairs in Israel-Palestine? Can anyone think of a message that is less relevant, more beside the point than this one?
Of course, there is nothing wrong with love or forgiveness. But if they don’t embrace justice and dignity and the human worth of the Palestinian community as well, then what are they worth? The Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas said, in a wise statement the Talmudic rabbis would’ve approved, that “mercy without justice was the mother of chaos.” King, himself, the son of a prominent Christian theologian, would do well to remember that.
Interestingly, in his remarks to Mossawa, King mentioned that he’d traveled widely on his trip and met people from diverse backgrounds. But he never mentioned that he offered an award under Jewish Agency auspices to an Israeli who believes in the dispossession of Palestinians and another who endorses the torture of Arabs.