In South Africa, Israel’s Ethiopian Jewish students refute apartheid charge

In South Africa, Israel’s Ethiopian Jewish students refute apartheid charge

Ethiopian-Israeli Danny Ayanou (center) meets with students during a Confronting Apartheid event at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. (Photo by Danny Ayanou)
Ethiopian-Israeli Danny Ayanou (center) meets with students during a Confronting Apartheid event at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. (Photo by Danny Ayanou)

As anti-Israel rhetoric heats up on college campuses throughout the world, a cadre of young people at Israel’s Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya have dedicated themselves to countering this disturbing trend.

Participants in “Israel at Heart,” IDC’s leadership program for students from the Ethiopian-Israeli community, feel they are in a unique position to counter the charge that Israel is an apartheid state that officially practices a system of racial segregation and discrimination.

The Israeli students believe that by describing their everyday life in Israel and the diversity of Israeli society, as well as their families’ personal history, they can offset some of the misinformation pro-Palestinian students present. This year, IDC sent 20 delegations of Ethiopian students abroad. As in the past, some worked as interns in their chosen professions; some traveled the United States speaking at Jewish schools and campus Hillels. Every year, there is a delegation that works at the Holocaust Museum in Washington.

“Israel has 130,000 Ethiopian Jews,” said Jonathan Davis, IDC’s vice president for external relations. “We believe that by sending students of Ethiopian backgrounds to different locales, they are in the best position to explain to the public that Israel is not segregated; they can tell the story of the country and the university and dispel the myth of apartheid. We have seen that this effort has an impact.”  

For Shlomit Zinba and Danny Ayanou, two 20-something communications majors, the effort involved challenging the perceptions of students at South Africa’s University of Cape Town, where they spent Israeli Apartheid Week in a tent directly facing the pro-Palestinian tent supported by BDS, the global boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.

Until they travel overseas, most Israelis do not really understand the barrage of anti-Israel hostility and its many manifestations. Although they had received a comprehensive orientation before they left Israel, both Zinba and Ayanou used the word “shocked” to describe what they encountered. “We didn’t really know what Apartheid Week was until we went,”Ayanou said. “The reality was very emotional. People don’t realize how bad the situation is out there.”

“Our tent had an Israeli flag and a Palestinian flag,” said Zinba, “with a big sign stating ‘Let’s talk.’ Our motto was ‘What was is in the past –– let’s talk about the future.’ We tried to talk to as many people as we could.”  

“We met a lot of students,”Ayanou said. “They didn’t know anything about Ethiopian-Israelis. They thought Israel was an apartheid country like South Africa had been in the past. What they believe about Israel is nothing like what Israel is. Most of them get their information from Al-Jazeera English,” a division of the Arabic-language news network based in Qatar.  

Even students with Israeli connections couldn’t bring themselves to acknowledge the misinformation, Zinba said. “We met an Israeli Arab from Nazareth. Most of his family had served in the army, yet he told one story publicly and another privately. With only about 600 Jews on a campus of 27,000 students, there’s no one to defend Israel,” she pointed out.

“The first day I was shocked when I saw what their tent contained,”Ayanou said. “It was full of misinformation about Israel. We spoke with some girls from BDS who have family in Tel Aviv. After we talked, they wrote on Facebook: “Don’t talk to the Ethiopian Jews. Everything they say is Israeli propaganda.”  

“They speak about apartheid,” he said with a touch of bitterness, “but what they are saying is really racism. The Palestinians came to see what our tent was all about and we had a debate. They’re very aggressive.”

“We told them that Israel is not a perfect country, but they didn’t suggest a solution to the situation,” Zinba added.

Every year during Israeli Apartheid Week, BDS calls for a boycott of a different company, she noted. This year the target was G4S, a multinational British company that supplies security equipment and services to Israel and other countries throughout the world. “We told them that in boycotting Israel, they’re also boycotting Gaza, but they don’t care,” she said.

For Zinba and Ayanou, their 10 days in Cape Town left an indelible impression. “After Apartheid Week, I came back more of a Zionist than ever,”Ayanou said. “I realized that we don’t have any other place to go.”

Born in Ethiopia, he and his family were airlifted to Israel by Operation Solomon in 1991 when he was four years old. They settled in Ashkelon. After his military service, he was one of 50 young Ethiopian-Israelis chosen for IDC’s Ethiopian leadership program and is now about to graduate. “Before I went to South Africa I wanted to go into politics. Now I want to get an advanced degree in political science and really pursue it.”

The youngest of five children, Zinba was born and grew up in Or Yehuda, a small town north of Tel Aviv, where she now lives. Before being chosen for the IDC program, she served as a flight controller in the Israel Air Force. Currently completing her second year of study, Zinba said the South African experience reinforced her desire to be part of another overseas delegation, to continue to go out and spread the word about Israel.

“We feel that IDC is a Zionist institution,” Davis said, noting that IDC views the Ethiopian leadership program as an aspect of its Zionist mission. “We saw that Ethiopian kids were not studying at good universities so we set out to change the status quo. Some universities look at the psychometric exams [the equivalent of SATs] as if they are the standard. We feel the exams are culturally biased and that the chances of psychometric success for Ethiopians are negligible.”

Rather, the program’s 50 students are chosen on the basis of their high school grades, their military or national service performance and a personal interview. The program provides a full tuition scholarship, a stipend and a laptop computer. The students also receive social, personal and academic support and mentoring, with the accent on learning English. “We invest $1 million a year on the Ethiopian program,” Davis said. Now entering its 10th year, he noted that the program’s 95 percent graduation rate speaks for itself.

IDC applies the same accessible admissions criteria to combat soldiers and has a special scholarship program for students with academic potential from disadvantaged families.  

“Another part of our mission is to help make the case for Israel,” Davis said. “Sometimes people don’t want to be confused by facts. The Ethiopian program is part of making the case for Israel. People need to hear from these students.”

Jonathan Davis has a special connection to Israel’s Ethiopian community and the IDC program he administers. He was a member of the team that participated in Operation Solomon. “It is entirely possible that Ayanou was one of the toddlers I helped off the plane when we landed in Tel Aviv,” he said. “With students like Ayanou now studying at IDC, I feel I have come full circle.”

While they may not be able to completely push back the rising tide of student antagonism to Israel, IDC is making it possible for young Ethiopian-Israelis like Zinba and Ayanou to counteract myths with facts by telling Israel’s story from their own distinctive perspective.

Sarabeth Lukin is an American-Israeli journalist who lives in Jaffa.