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At long last, Israelis are starting to talk about color

Pnina Gaday-Agenyahu, center, with former president Shimon Peres and former interior minister Gideon Sa'ar, March 14, 2012. Photo by Moshe Milner / GPO
Pnina Gaday-Agenyahu, center, with former president Shimon Peres and former interior minister Gideon Sa’ar, March 14, 2012. Photo by Moshe Milner / GPO

Before setting off for her new posting in Washington, D.C., two years ago, Pnina Gaday-Agenyahu posted an ad online to unload some of her household possessions. The first prospective buyer to come check out the merchandise did a double take when the young Ethiopian-born Israeliopened the door for her.

“She was obviously not expecting to see a black woman,” recalls 33-year-old Gaday-Agenyahu, who serves as senior envoy for the Jewish Agency to the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, the first Ethiopian-born woman to hold such a high-level post in the Jewish organizational world.

Apologizing for her reaction, the prospective buyer explained that she had been confused by Gaday-Agenyahu’s excellent Hebrew over the phone. “But why shouldn’t I speak good Hebrew, I asked her. I’ve been living in Israel since I was 3,” the Jewish Agency envoy says by phone from Washington.

Gaday-Agenyahu was rather shocked by the response this elicited. “Oh, so you’re from Ethiopia,” said the woman standing in her home. “I thought you were one of those Sudanese. But if you’re from Ethiopia, that’s fine. You’re converted, so you’re like one of us.”

No, Gaday-Agenyahu had never converted. In fact, she informed her interlocutor, she could easily trace her Jewish roots back seven generations, “which I was sure she could not.”

Thousands of Israelis of Ethiopian origin who see themselves as the victims of ongoing discrimination held mass demonstrations in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem this week. But Gaday-Agenyahu, a prominent advocate for the community, hesitates to describe Israel as a racist society. Like the woman who showed up at her doorstep several years ago, she says, many Israelis are simply ignorant.

“This is our Achilles’ heel as a society,” she said. “People grow up ignorant, they educate their children this way, and some become racist. But they are ignorant not only about Ethiopians.”

As envoy to the Greater Washington area, one of the largest Jewish communities in North America, Gaday-Agenyahu’s turf includes the city of Baltimore, where racially charged tensions have also been boiling over. This puts her in a unique position to address claims that Ethiopian Israelis have been influenced by events on the streets of America.

“I think the only thing they have in common are injustices, and that, unfortunately, is universal,” she says. “I definitely don’t think people in Israel are looking at what’s going on in Baltimore for inspiration. We’re talking about two separate countries with two different histories that can’t be compared.”

Gaday-Agenyahu traces the current unrest in Israel to protests three years ago that erupted following disclosures that property owners in the town of Kiryat Malachi had been refusing to sell or rent apartments to Israelis of Ethiopian descent. “That was something that really shook up young members of the community,” she says. “I knew that the next time something like this happens, people are going to go out into the streets.”

That something happened last week, when a video was released showing police beating up an Ethiopian soldier for not promptly obeying their order to evacuate an area they were clearing. Like many Ethiopian Israelis, Gaday-Agenyahu had heard numerous accounts of police targeting members of the community. “But when you hear these accounts, you’re never sure if you’re getting the full story,” she says. “What made a big difference here is that you had the video and you could see clearly that this soldier was innocent. It made you wonder whether the police would have reacted the same way had someone else gotten in their way.”

Before assuming her latest position, Gaday-Agenyahu was for six years the director of the Tel Aviv University Hillel Chapter. Married with one child, she was the first Ethiopian Israeli to represent the Jewish campus life organization, which has 550 chapters around the world. She was also the first Ethiopian Israeli to be appointed to the Council for Higher Education in Israel.

All this professional success has not spared her from run-ins with the police. Several years ago, Gaday-Agenyahu reports, she was visiting relatives who live in an affluent neighborhood of Rishon Letzion, a suburb of Tel Aviv, where they are the only black residents in their building. “We were sitting in the park outside their home talking late at night, when a policeman stopped us and asked what we were up to,” she recounts. “When my cousin told him that he lived here, the policeman laughed. He didn’t believe him. We eventually had to bring the policeman to the apartment to prove it. It was so sad. I was so ashamed and shocked.”

In her previous advocacy work in Israel, Gaday-Agenyahu became closely acquainted with the young members of the Ethiopian community who are at the forefront of the new protest movement. Unlike their parents, she notes, this younger generation is not afraid to question authority or religious observance. Many, like herself and her siblings, received their first exposure to Israeli secular society while serving in the military. “It’s in the army that many see for the first time that you can still be Jewish without leading a strictly Orthodox lifestyle.”

It’s still too early to predict where the fledgling protest movement is heading, but Gaday-Aganyahu lists a few immediate points scored. “For one, and this really excites me, there’s clearly a new generation out there that wants to take leadership and do something — not just sit back,” she says. “Besides that, what happened this week started a conversation in Israel, and I think that’s a great thing. A real open and honest conversation about differences, about the other, and also about color. Color and how it makes a difference is not something we wanted to discuss in the past. But now people are starting to talk about it.”

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