As she saw her Instagram feed fill with Israeli celebs sharing messages of “Black Lives Matter,” Tahuonia Rubel, an Israeli model, singer, radio host, and Big Brother winner, felt her blood boil. As an Ethiopian Jew, Tahuonia remembered that when her brothers and sisters took to the streets to protest the police killings of Ethiopian Jews in Israel, many of these celebrities kept to themselves. Yet suddenly, here they were, happy to say Black lives matter when the rest of the world was doing so. Unable to keep her rage to herself, Tahuonia penned a scathing message that she posted on her Instagram for all her over 60K followers to see.
“Don’t know whether to laugh or cry… So maybe I’ll just get mad because it’s more infuriating than funny and sadder than happy,” the 32-year-old wrote in Hebrew. “For three days I have been paging through social media and seeing the ‘moving’ solidarity of all those d0-gooders from the [entertainment] industry who have followers and an audience who goes after them and believes all their cheap slogans when they don’t understand anything! If you’re talking about ‘solidarity’ it’s better to say you have solidarity with the wave of posts from big stars in the world… It’s always more beautiful when the Kardashians are involved and other big names… But you forgot something really small… You live here!!! In Israel! So much grief is caused here to ‘Blacks’ as you say in your do-gooder posts that I don’t remember that one of you uploaded a black picture when we blocked the roads! When you called us hooligans! When we broke glass! When we burned tires! When we cried tearfully the name of Yosef Salamsa! Solomon Tekah! Yehuda Biadga! And so many mothers who are crying every day for their children!! Get out of the horrifying bubble you live in! You’re not better or prettier or more right! You are just selling one big lie to every person who follows you and mistakenly thinks you have empathy! You are far from emapthizing with our pain! You are just another drop flowing in a river full of lies.”
In her message, Tahuonia is referencing last summer, when Israeli streets were ablaze with protests. Ethiopian Jews from across the country filled the streets and blocked the roads, a lifetime of pain and discrimination spilling out after the killing of Solomon Tekah, who was shot by an off-duty cop. Six months earlier, they had taken to the streets of Tel Aviv to protest the police killing of Yehuda Biadga. And before that, in 2015, they had marched in protest after a video of two cops beating an Ethiopian soldier was released. Her post also references Yosef Salamsa, an Ethiopian Israeli who died by suicide in 2014 following repeated abuses by police officers.
Last summer during the protests, instead of tackling the true issue of systemic racism in the country, many Israelis focused, just like others are doing now, on the looting and the violence, refusing to value the lives and dignity of Ethiopian Israelis over issues of propriety and property. Most of the same Israeli celebs who posted black squares and Black Lives Matter messages, like Gal Gadot and Bar Refaeli, remained mum.
Tahuonia, one of the most successful models in Israel, has said that Israelis constantly tell her to just “be grateful that you’re here.” But Tahuonia, who came to Israel at age 3 as part of Operation Solomon, once said that her childhood and youth were spent fighting for survival. She recalled an instance in which a teacher picked her to clean a filthy classroom. When Tahuonia, who went by the name Michal then to fit in, asked the teacher why, she responded, “Because you stand out the most.” Tahuonia spoke out against that instance of racism — and was punished for it; she was suspended from school, and eventually expelled.
Tahuonia’s story is not unusual. In a video produced by Vice, Israeli Ethiopian citizens say that they struggle to feel welcome in Israel — they see themselves as Ethiopian first, before they see themselves as Israelis, they tell interviewer Alzo Slade, because they feel so rejected by Israeli society. Case in point: It took Israel’s rabbinate until this year to officially recognize the Jewishness of the Beta Ethiopian community.
As a white Jew raised in Israel and currently living in New York, I took Tahuonia’s strong, powerful words to heart. And then I scrolled through my own social media feeds, where I ran across a truly horrifying Israeli commercial from one of the most popular Israeli fashion brands, Castro. In the commercial, called “Not a Safari Commercial,” white-presenting Israeli models like Rotem Selah (of Baker and the Beauty), Reef Neaman, and Israeli singer Mergui (who is of Moroccan and Tunisian descent) use Black people as props, bringing forth colonialist and exoticizing themes.
It’s gross and thoughtless, yet the maker of the commercial said it had nothing to do with race. These are the same types of people who are happy to post photos of black squares to stand in “solidarity” with Black people across the ocean, yet ignore the ones in their own land. They are happy to celebrate the successes of Black artists, like Tahuonia’s, without listening to their pain. Tahuonia even said in an interview for Israel’s Channel 12 that “after last year’s protest, I had arguments with a lot of people and I lost some real friends from home.”
So, as we focus on the epidemic of police brutality and racism in the U.S., Tahuonia’s plea also needs to be heard. Just this past April, when asked if she thought things were getting better for Ethiopian Jews in Israel, she responded “not at all.” That is not okay.
“Even today, they told me to shut up in responses on Facebook. It is annoying that nobody gets up and talks about these things here in Israel and it happens all the time,” Tahuonia said. “The justice system does not work for Blacks in Israel.”