Ethiopian-born Israeli researcher and activist to speak at Pitt
By addressing Black identities in Israel, Shula Mola hopes to raise awareness and correct misunderstandings
Activist and scholar Shula Mola hopes to clear up misconceptions and help Pittsburghers better understand life in Israel.
With an address titled “Ethiopian Jews and the Formation of Black Identity in Israel,” Mola will deliver the annual Israel Nationality Room lecture on April 16 at the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning.
Her talk will highlight the emergence of Black identities in Israel and the “difference between Mizrahi Blackness and Ethiopian Blackness,” she told the Chronicle.
Mola earned her doctorate from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, is a post-doctoral fellow at the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies, Near Eastern & Judaic Studies Department at Brandeis University and serves as a scholar-in-residence at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute. Along with working on an oral history of the Ethiopian Jewish community, Mola researches social stratification, oppression and structural racism. She served as chairperson for the Association of Ethiopian Jews for more than a decade and has used her research as a tool to counter police brutality against Ethiopian Jews, she said.
Mola was named one of Israel’s 50 most influential women in 2022 by Globes, a Hebrew-language daily newspaper.
Mola, 50, said her Pittsburgh address will reflect both her research and personal experience.
“I didn’t know I’m Black before I got to Israel,” she said. Once that realization dawned, Mola wanted to address the “social impact.”
As opposed to European Jews, who quickly gained access to the Jewish state, Ethiopian Jews, or “Beta Israel,” faced greater difficulties entering Israel during the 1970s and 1980s, Mola said.
“I will argue that the reason it took so long, and the reason that we paid a high price of death during our journey through Sudan, is because of our Blackness,” she said. “If we were not Black people, if we would come from other white countries — even not European, even Asian — the whole dynamic could be different.”
Mola, who came to Israel in 1984, said she hopes listeners can develop a fuller understanding of Blackness in Israel.
“The term Black in Israel didn’t start with us,” she said. “It started with the Mizrachi people who came from Africa and Islamic countries.”
What’s important to know, Mola continued, is that “Mizrahi Blackness is more symbolic.”
Often, Mizrahi people can “pass,” she explained. “It’s not the case of Ethiopian Israelis, they cannot really pass.”
Mola said her talk will focus “on how this dynamic, this racial dynamic, impacts on our integration process.”
While shedding light on discrimination and racism in Israel, Mola said she hopes to address the source of racist ideology and correct many Americans’ misunderstandings.
“Sometimes people get confused because racism is racism,” she said.
Racist practices in Israel can appear similar to racist practices in the States because the root is similar, she continued: “The source of racism is European — the European idea that came with the whole idea of colonization, that they took everywhere out of Europe and told themselves a story that they are the best.”
There is a difference, though, between racism in the U.S. and racism in Israel, Mola continued.
“We Ethiopian Jews, we returned to Jerusalem. This is how we see ourselves. This is a really different foundation of this encounter. We returned to our home, and we demand belonging,” she said. “From that point of view, this is different from really the ugly history of America regarding Black people, how we got here, how they live or die here.”
Mola said she’s excited to visit Pittsburgh and share insights about her life and research. The goal, she noted, is greater than mere academics.
When people begin realizing new things and gain understanding about other groups, “maybe we'll have the opportunity to build up,” she said. “If we don’t get lost, we can build a better democracy.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at [email protected].