Is Black Death A Footnote?

One of the reasons I like living in Israel versus living in America is the greater degree of anonymity I am afforded, due to the much larger number of Jews of African descent who are part of Israeli society. While it’s true that I don’t look in any way Ethiopian–the ethnic group that comprises the majority of our Black Jewry–I am close enough that people don’t feel the need to examine my life choices or question why I am a convert (or even bring it up much at all…when it comes up it is almost always from a fellow Westerner).

Unfortunately, while anonymity has certain benefits in terms of individual comfort level and privacy, it can definitely have a downside. I have watched, with growing concern, the limited progress being made by Ethiopian Israelis, in terms of earning power. It pains me to visit stores and restaurants which a de facto “field hand” policy of having Ethiopian employees relegated to the kitchen or stock room.

Most of the Ethiopians who are getting ready for their military service were born here in Israel or came while extremely young, and gaps in achievement test scores have narrowed considerably. So why are there so few Ethiopians in high tech or academia, which is practically the only way to make a decent living in this country?

No less unsettling is the future of the African refugees located in Israel, who are being disposed of in a manner that will, in all likelihood, lead to emotional and economic ruin. Some 50,000 African refugees fled from Eritrea and Sudan, in response to horrible living conditions pervasive in those countries.

While there is a disagreement about whether the Africans should be considered political or economic refugees, which would make for different guidelines in how the refugees should be treated according to international law, no one is contradicting the assertions that an extremely low number of cases have been reviewed.

Instead of determining on an individual basis whether a refugee should be given asylum, the Israeli government has decided to treat the entire group as undeserving of residency. African refugees has been kept in virtual imprisonment, with most unable to work. Thousands have been kept in an isolated holding facility in the Negev, which cost almost $100 million to build, and $29 million to run per year.

Critics of the refugee policy point to powerful cartels lobbying to deport African nationals, not primarily because of their questionable legal status, but because the influx of a pool of potential migrant labor brings unwelcome competition for the businesses who bring over caretakers from the Philippines. And so the Israeli public loses out, not once, not twice, but three times: higher prices to employ caregivers; hundreds of millions in unnecessary costs to house refugees; and finally, from being deprived of the opportunity to serve their fellow man.

Israel is attempting to wash their hands of the problems inherent in policing a large population of largely unwanted people by trying to reach deals with other African countries, such as Rwanda and Uganda. In return for accepting deported African refugees, Israel would agree to provide destination countries with millions of dollars in grants. Whether these grants are in any way tied to positive outcomes for the refugees remains to be seen.

Of course, the Ethiopians and African refugees may feel themselves to be the lucky ones, having escaped, if in some cases only temporarily, from a continent where poverty, disease, and genocide are just viewed as another part of daily life. Denuded of its original natural resources, devoid of desirable forms of energy such as oil or gas, and devalued by the rest of the world, Africa and its people are left alone to sink or swim, mostly the former.

In a case which brings into stark relief the limited knowledge or consideration for the peoples of Africa, over 100 students were murdered at a Kenyan university on April 2, 2015, as a group of Islamic militants from Somalia systematically shot down anyone who was not Muslim. Aside from the obligatory graphic photos showing bodies strewn across the campus, the reaction has been a collective shrug.

What can one do, really?

Compare and contrast this reaction to the deaths of the staff at Charlie Hebdo magazine, where 12 people were murdered in reaction to the irreverent tone of the paper towards Islam in general, and the Prophet Mohammed in particular. There were marches, and emphatic declarations of “Je suis Charlie!”

I have yet to hear a call saying “I am a Kenyan Christian!”

The attention paid to victims of poverty and tragedy when it occurs to those whose ancestors hailed from Europe, as opposed to the quiet suffering of the Ethiopians, or African Refugees, or Kenyan Christians is sobering. Not that outrage should be a function of the number of lives lost or mere census tallies; but it does make me wonder if the old quote needs an update:

The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic… the death of an African man is a footnote.


Malynnda Littky moved to Israel from the Detroit area in 2007, and lives with her family in Hadera, halfway between Tel Aviv and Haifa. She currently works as a Content Manager for a software company.

Header image courtesy of Creative Commons.

2 thoughts on “Is Black Death A Footnote?”

  1. I think replacing other foreign workers with African migrants might be politically difficult. Foreign worker quotas are often made with political considerations in mind (like trading work permits for some country – maybe Bulgaria? I forget – for UN support).

    I think the hotel industry is employing a lot of migrants now, or maybe that’s just in Eilat.

    I agree that Israel’s approach (or non-approach, really) to handling African migrants has been a disaster for everyone involved.

    I agree that in general the “western” world’s approach to Africa as a whole is awful. It’s a weird mix of denial, blame, apathy, exploitation, and a false sympathy that just makes things worse.


  2. There’s also a socio-economic aspect to the refugee issue.

    Lower prices for labor is a good thing – for the middle-class and wealthy, who are the ones who hire manual laborers. For the poor, who are competing for those jobs, it’s a terrible thing.

    Also, middle class and rich communities would be in a position to help absorb migrants – but instead, they were left to inevitably go live in the poorest neighborhoods, which were least equipped to handle an influx of people even more poor and desperate.

    Most of the resistance to migrants staying here is from poor communities, which are the ones competing with them for jobs and resources.

    And – it might be in the best interests of the rich to keep African migrants here, but it’s also in their best interests (in purely economic terms, not moral) to keep them poor.


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