One of the characteristics of ethnic politics is exclusion, a sound reason for rejecting its premises and its forms. But that rejection can only be academic. Any group of people under pressure reacts in precisely this fashion, constructing for itself a self-conscious identity that distinguishes its members from others.
In fact a double identity is evident in the process, one self-imposed, another imposed from the outside: and the two tend to reinforce each other. The imposition of a classification frequently carries with it negative connotations. These can either be internalized or countered with positive self-representation within the group so classified—but all the while the classification itself is implicitly accepted.
In the process of “racialization,” for example, people are constituted as a “race” and come to define themselves that way. A similar process of identity-making is evident in ethnic communities. (An invaluable paper on the notion of “identity” may be found here.)
The Jewish citizens of Israel are no exception. While there is always contestation at the margins, they are pretty sure who is Jewish and who is not. Unfortunately, however, a “racial” intersection has been apparent as well for some time. People are not restricted to only one identity.
Only by 1975 did the state of Israel recognize the Ethiopian Falashas, also called Beta Israel, as Jews. Once that essential (no pun intended) boundary had been crossed, Falashas were airlifted to Israel to save them from persecution by the regime of Haile Mariam Mengistu.
But reports began to surface several years ago that all was not well. Claims were made (and stoutly resisted) that Falasha women were being injected with the long-term contraceptive drug Depo-Provera by Israeli health services. Now, after an investigation by journalist Gal Gabbay and a chorus of outrage from human rights groups, the government has admitted it has been doing just that all along, and it ordered (reluctantly?) that the practice stop immediately.
Ethiopian women have experienced a staggering 50% drop in their birthrate over the past ten years, and now we know why. Meanwhile, Israel’s ultra-orthodox Haredi population has increased by leaps and bounds. Some Jews, it seems, are more equal than others in the demographic sweepstakes.
The frankly genocidal impulse inherent in what has undeniably been state policy indicates the powerful downside of ethnic socio-politics—suffering under oppression can be transformed into its oppressive mirror-image in the twinkling of an eye. Race riots in Tel Aviv are relatively new: a withering popular hatred of Israeli Arabs is not. Neither is the on-going ethnic cleansing of Bedouins from desirable parts of the South Negev. And neither, as we now have had confirmed, was the deliberate attempt to phase out Jews who happen to be Black.
The surprise is not that such things go on in the “only democracy in the Middle East,” a country suffused with pathological ethnic tensions. It’s that governments like our own insist on turning a blind eye to it all. It’s that those of us held to be overly critical of this sort of thing are accused of “holding Israel to a higher standard”—when the truth is that we are insisting it not be held to a lower one. Especially one as low as this.