Black in Israel

The film 'Red Leaves’ is a timely depiction of the Ethiopian-Israeli struggle.

Still from 'Red Leaves.'

Watching the film Red Leaves now as opposed to a month ago wouldn’t have gotten the same reaction. The past few weeks have seen what is probably the most extensive coverage of the Israeli-Ethiopian community since the 1996 “blood donation affair.” Then, it was discovered that Israel’s national blood bank was destroying blood donated by Ethiopian-Israelis, claiming that they are in risk to be infected.

This time, the trigger was footage showing a police officer and police volunteer beating an IDF uniformed soldier of Ethiopian origin. The soldier, Damas Pakda, who appeared to not do anything wrong, was then arrested. The incident sparked a wide protest against police brutality, which in itself became an arena for what some had described as the most brutal police attack on Israeli citizens.

In a powerful and heartbreaking scene Red Leaves does present an encounter with law enforcement but only by the end of the film. In fact, this is one of a very few times that characters who are not of Ethiopian origin make an appearance in the mostly Amharic-language film. This makes this film a very rare product in the Israeli film industry by offering a realistic a look into the lives of Israeli-Ethiopians, even though fictional. It is only the second Israeli feature film that deals this way with a community numbered over 120,000. The first one was Zrubavel, which was released in 2008.

28 years ago Red Leaves’ protagonist Masganeo (Debebe Eshetu) immigrated to Israel, following a long journey that went through Sudan. But even now, at the age of 74, he’s still walking. A large portion of the film he walks. He walks to his recently passed wife’s grave, he walks to his kids’ houses, after he decided to sell his apartment and live with them. And he walks away from their homes, one after another, when things don’t go the way he expects, or rather, the way they were done back in the day — in Ethiopia.

The film is about intergenerational gaps and conflicts, concerning tradition, family values, gender roles, and relationships outside the community. But the film mostly demonstrates how they are intensified by the emigration process, let alone a long, traumatic, and in a way a never-ending one for our protagonist, as its long walks, often shot from the back, illustrate. Any descendant of immigrants could easily relate, but really anyone with a family, namely anyone.

Perhaps more important than its universalism, very much carried by its plot line that is inspired by the classic King Lear, Red Leaves’ look into Ethiopian-Jews lives in Israel allows the viewer to start and unpack the complicated situation in which the community operate to struggle these days.

This film, brings to the screen a totally different Israel than the one we usually see (what is often regarded as “other Israel” literally translated to second Israel – a phrase used to describe communities that are on the margins of public attention), is a great introduction to the growing disillusion of the Israeli “melting pot.”

This paradigm of assimilation, which has dictated policies and discourse in Israel for many years, is losing its relevance in the current social justice struggles. For many Ethiopian-Israelis, this dropping of the assimilation idea comes after they went the hardest road to become “Israelis”. As activist Daniel Bashach wrote in Walla News:

The IDF uniforms used to be our best shelter, from cops and racists. And then something happened: the video in which a young soldier of Ethiopian origin got beaten up was not only a turning point but a token of the fact that the uniforms that they once worn with pride became irrelevant, even there, in the place where young blacks feel Israeli and safe. Suddenly they realize that even dying for the country — it’s not enough anymore.

More and more Ethiopian-Israelis, like other identity groups in Israel, reject assimilation and simply demand their rights, starting with not to being discriminated against because they’re black.

  • Red Leaves, which screened at the New York African Film Festival, screens this Tuesday May 19, 7:30pm, at the JCC Manhattan.

Further Reading

Goodbye, Piassa

The demolition of an historic district in Addis Ababa shows a central contradiction of modernization: the desire to improve the country while devaluing its people and culture.