Baltimore vs. Tel Aviv Comparison Obscures Key Differences

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Cultural comparisons can be useful, but tread with caution!
In the case of the Baltimore/Tel Aviv protests, most people are focusing on the similarities rather than the differences. This is a major mistake.
It’s fair to point out that both American and Israeli societies need to reevaluate their attitudes towards difference, particularly in regards to race. People of color have been continually marginalized throughout history, and it is clear that we are not living in the post-racist society that many of us so eagerly want to believe in.
But the similarities must stop there.
To reduce the situations into “black vs. white” is to erase both historical context and what’s actually happening today. Not to mention the fact that it is demeaning towards both Ethiopian-Israeli and African-American populations. They are different people who are struggling with very different issues.
The most crucial difference is time. The protests in Baltimore, Oakland, and Ferguson are part of a decades-long struggle against racism in U.S. history (even if that struggle is often overlooked in our high school textbooks). The protests in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are some of the first of their kind, mostly due to the simple fact that their presence in Israel only dates back to the early 1990s.
Ethiopian-Israelis do not have a decades-long history of protests, movements, social revolutionaries or key leaders to support their struggle to gain equality in Israeli society. It is difficult to protest a cause when most of the world barely even knows that you exist, let alone the ignorance of your own society (the people who brought your families to their country in the first place).
Their relatively new presence in Israel also means that along with a structurally racist system, they’re also dealing with the issues that all first-generation immigrants must deal with. Language, clothing, manners…culture shock is not a laughing matter, even on an individual level. Magnifying that pain into an entire population of people and shock can become complete chaos.
This is not to say that one struggle is “easier” than the other, nor that one society has done more or less than the other. They are quite simply different struggles supported by very different histories, and these differences should not be overlooked.
I also want think about Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, Yosef Salamseh, and the countless other people of color who have been murdered. How would it feel to see your name be reduced to one aspect of your identity? How do their families feel about their sons’ stories being tossed into a stockpile of statistics, even while serving a larger cause?
Those of us who are invested in social change often have a tendency to oversimplify situations in the hopes of drawing attention and awareness to our causes — myself included! But as a white female feminist, I know when it’s my turn to listen. I want to listen to the details.
We cannot forget that we are discussing human beings who have names, lives, and stories. Yosef Salamseh was not the “Israeli Michael Brown.” He was Yosef Salamseh. He was important because he was a human being, not because his story echoes that of an American’s.

Shani Chabansky is an English teacher and singer-songwriter living in Prague. She graduated from UC Santa Cruz in 2012 with BA in Anthropology and Jewish Studies. You can find her writing here and her music here.