Interview: 21 Years in Israel (4)

[-Tell me your impressions of where you live now. Can you tell me something about the ethnic situation there?]

As for the North African and former kibbutz member population, it seems to me that there are only vestiges left. When I moved here eight years ago, it was often said that many veteran residents had left. So the Russian influence is very strong,especially in neighborhood and specialty food stores.

There is a community of Ethiopian immigrants, but not very big. As far as I know, there are two groups, Amharic and Geez. From personal experience, I know that they don't like to be confused with each other. But, have to admit that I've never been able to discern what the difference is. In general, the Ethiopian community here in this small Negev town seems very different from people I knew in Jerusalem. The Jerusalem Ethiopian community was a lot more varied - educated, professional as well as village people. Here the Ethiopian community seems older and less absorbed.

-As a person of African descent yourself, how has this affected your experience?

My African descent is a very interesting point. And that's where attitudes and prejudices diverge from American ones. On the surface, Ethiopians would often expect me to identify with them. As a Black American, I naturally felt obliged. But as expected, we had little in common and had to struggle to find a common ground. Israelis, on the other hand, after picking up my American accent, immediately related to us differently - the color was more a 'cosmetic' issue for Israelis. That goes for any Israeli perceptions of me and any persons of African descent. Here's a great example:

When I first came to Israel, I was a permanent resident for several years. Just as I'd decided to change my status to new immigrant, my father passed away in the USA so I went right away to the States. As fate would have it, my residency papers expired while there, but of course I still had an American passport. When I returned to Israel, found myself going through immigration at the same time as a young Nigerian man. Immigration could see from my passport that I'd been here several years and of course I showed them the expired residency papers & explained the situation in grammatically correct Hebrew. The immigration official then moved on to the Nigerian man, who spoke no Hebrew, followed his request in English to enter on a tourist visa as best he could, then called a supervisor. I explained my story again in Hebrew, the supervisor gave the officer a strange look, and asked in Hebrew, 'What's the problem? Let her in.' The Nigerian man was sent away. Never did find out what the issue was with him, probably fear of an illegal worker.

A personal note on the ethnic thing. Since coming to Israel, I've often been in work situations with immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Since we both grew up during and have memories of the Cold War years, we often start to compare notes. I've come to the conclusion that this 'neurosis' about being taken over or outdone has given us a lot in common regarding work ethic and a systemic approach to work and problem solving. More often than not, I've felt that we focus on achieving a particular goal, logical thinking and consistency. Israelis, at least from my point of view, focus more on the 'hevrey', the esprit de corp. Have to admit that I've never mastered the art of following Israeli logic. But can usually follow the logic Russian immigrants. Maybe we were two sides of the same coin after all.