Aweke Kobe Zena, Manager of the Anti-Racism Unit, Israel Ministry of Justice (center-left), alongside Consul General Sultan-Dadon (center-right), Deputy Consul General Alex Gandler (second from left), and members of Georgia’s House of Representatives.
Part of the original dream of Israel’s founders was to have a normal country, dealing with the same mundane problems every other country faces.
And yes, one of those problems is fighting racism and discrimination. Aweke Kobe Zena, who has been tasked with that responsibility as head of the Anti-Racism Unit of Israel’s Ministry of Justice, recently visited the United States, including a stop in Atlanta, to discuss how Israel is working on this age-old problem, and to learn insights from America’s struggles.
While the two countries have much to learn from each other, the backgrounds are different, he said. “We are a very young country” with an “exile heritage” and the dream of returning to Israel, with immigrants from over 100 countries, leading to wide differences in culture and how modern their previous societies were. The United States has a longer history that includes the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow, so the experiences and dynamics differ.
He said his unit’s definition of racism is “unique” — racism is defined as the “harm to dignity, rights and opportunities on the basis of group affiliation,” whether biological or cultural.
The unit takes complaints from the public and works to find solutions or enact policy changes. The unit’s purview is governmental, “we don’t have jurisdiction to deal with private society, private business.” But Zena said that creating “fundamental change in the ministries and from government employees to treat everyone equally” will also influence the non-governmental sphere.
“The impact of racism or discrimination in government is very harmful to society,” he said.
He acknowledges that this is a difficult conversation to have with those outside of Israel who have a utopian image of the Jewish state, but in this respect, Israel is facing struggles similar to any other country on the planet.
But that notion is lost on anti-Israel groups, which try to tag Israel as a uniquely racist society, with the charge of Israel being “white supremacist” becoming more popular among those groups, even though Israel’s majority is from African and Middle Eastern countries. “I don’t accept an argument like that,” Zena said. Israel, like every country, deals with issues of racism, but that does not mean it is a racist entity. “There is a difference,” he said.
“We are trying, regardless of what others think about Israel, to create a better reality, especially to eradicate racism, to reduce discrimination,” he said.
Just before his visit, Hamas tried to exacerbate a divide by releasing a video, purportedly of Avera Mengistu, an Israeli of Ethiopian descent being held captive in Gaza since 2014. Anti-Israel groups charged that Israel went to great lengths to free Gilad Shalit, who is of European descent, in a 2011 prisoner exchange, but have ignored an Ethiopian captive. Hamas tries to use captives, whether soldiers or mentally-challenged individuals who make their way into Gaza, as bargaining chips in hoped of freeing their convicted operatives from Israeli prisons. This video was seen as a transparent attempt to sow discord in Israel and score propaganda points around the world.
There is also the element of Israel’s constant battle against terrorism from Palestinian operatives, and threats from Iranian-backed groups.
While it is necessary to fight terrorism, Zena said, Israel can’t treat every Arab as a potential terrorist. It is a balancing act between fighting terror and “in the meantime to understand we should treat people equally and see every person as a human being. It’s a very big challenge.”
“Racism is everywhere,” Zena said. “The point is we have the duty to do more in Israel… because we know our history regarding antisemitism.”
“It’s our responsibility to live in a country where there is no racism or discrimination,” he added.
A native of Ethiopia, at age 9, he was a refugee in Sudan in the 1980s. “Many people died during that journey (to Israel), but no one thought to go back to Ethiopia.”
Zena was an officer in the Military Advocate General’s office of the Israel Defense Forces, then received his law degree from Tel Aviv University. He was a criminal lawyer in the Tel Aviv District Attorney’s office before following this different path.
In April 2015, an Ethiopian Israeli soldier, Damas Pakada, was beaten by police. A video of the incident went viral and the officers were fired, but thousands came out to protest.
In 2016, Zena explained, the Israeli government created a committee to investigate issues of race. “There is racism, and Israel must take responsibility to eradicate racism,” he said. The study showed that there wasn’t one place in the government that coordinated all anti-racism activity among agencies.
But it was an earlier incident that spurred Zena’s involvement. In January 2012, Israeli media reported that housing committees in Kiryat Malachi, a city that has one of the largest proportions of Ethiopian residents, had covenants barring the sale of apartments in certain areas to Ethiopians. That practice drew widespread condemnation.
“It shocked me,” Zena said. He had become an attorney and assumed “I’m secure as long as I invest my time to develop a career, and also I represent the state,” but he found that this was not yet the case. He started to work in the field of anti-racism, and after the 2015 demonstrations “I realized I should do more (to) try and change the reality.”
After all, he has four children and “I want to create a better reality for them.”
With the establishment of the Anti-Racism Unit and him being appointed to lead it, “society is more aware of the problem and has a main address to complain.”
Though the unit was formed in response to discrimination against Ethiopians, the unit fields complaints from a range of communities. According to a presentation to the Knesset’s Committee for Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs in early February, there were 415 cases opened in 2022 following complaints of racism in the public sphere. Arabs filed 32 percent of the cases, 17 percent were Israelis of Ethiopian descent, 18 percent were Israelis from the former Soviet Union, 5 percent were from the Haredi sector and 5 percent were Mizrahi (Middle Eastern) Jews. Members of the LGBTQ community are also represented in the complaints. Discrimination in public service provisions drew 19 percent of the complaints, 12 percent were related to discrimination in employment, and 11 percent of the complaints were related to expressions of racism in the public sphere.
The ultra-Orthodox, for example, had to deal with prejudice and discrimination over popular views of how that community was — or was not — dealing with the Covid pandemic.
One major goal “is establishing procedures to reduce conflicts between police and the community,” Zena said, and he has been working with officials on training procedures and other ways to improve relations.
Shai Fredo, a noted Ethiopian Israeli actor who is spending the semester at Clark University in Atlanta, said that having Zena in that position gives young Ethiopians confidence that there is someone in the government who is listening to their concerns.
“Six years ago we didn’t have an answer to this question,” Zena said. “We are doing. Israel took responsibility to eradicate racism.”
He said that Jews outside Israel “should be aware of what is happening in Israel” and deliver a message that the Israeli government should do more to eradicate racism and promote equality.” That will reflect well on world Jewry, as “the state of Israel belongs to all of us and it is our responsibility to take care of it.”
While in Atlanta, Zena visited with students from Morehouse College and Emory University, toured the King Center, met with leaders in the Atlanta Jewish community and had a luncheon with state legislators at the Capitol.
In the New York area, he led a discussion with students at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and met with a wide range of Jewish clergy from across the area.
He also met with officials from human rights commissions in New York and New Jersey, New York City Police and the New York City Office for the Prevention of Hate Crimes.
He also met with the Philos Project, which works to build bridges among the Black and American Jewish communities and Israel.