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Center for the Study of Multiculturalism and Diversity

The Hebrew University of Jerusalem
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One shocked community

February 27, 2017


On the mohels scandal and the long journey from racist practices to the covenant of peace to come

# Mebratu Mashasha

What more can be said on the story of the Mohel Rabbi Eliahu Assoulin, where Jewish babies of Ethiopian and Caucasian descent served as guinea pigs for the rabbi and his apprentices? Much has been said. And yet, I decided to speak some more, because very little has been done. I am writing down my thoughts on a Friday, in the week of the Vayigash Torah portion. It tells of Joseph's reunion with his brothers and their father Jacob in Egypt. The Haftarah speaks of the Kingdom of Israel and the Kingdom of Judea becoming united once again. Both the Torah portion and the Haftarah link the peace between the brothers and between them and the rest of the world, and in the middle there is the covenant to be upheld, which is expressed in their unity through performing mitzvoth: "I will make a covenant of peace with them; it will be an everlasting covenant. I will establish them and increase their numbers, and I will put my sanctuary among them forever." (Ezekiel 37, 26)

The cleric, Rabbi Assoulin, was supposed to be familiar with this text. He should have known and understood the meaning of the covenant, just like all mothers, of all ethnicities, who were willing to offer their babies so that the esteemed rabbi would carry out his duty by performing the first mitzvah that makes their children members of the People Israel. 

In another time and another place, somewhere in the Caucasus or in Ethiopia, where Jews performed the mitzvah of entering their babies into the covenant, Rabbi Assoulin would have been the lost brother that they might one day reunite with in the Land of Israel. And here we are, an Ethiopian mother and a Caucasian mother who were willing to put their babies in the hands of that supposed brother, to enter that brotherly covenant. But the brother betrayed them. 

This story is written in blood – on the bodies of babies and in the souls of mothers, who happen to be Ethiopian or Caucasian, united in their shock caused by the rabbi's actions. These mothers are joined by the mothers of Eritrean and Sudanese children, who were also among his victims. Beyond the religious issue, from Rabbi Assoulin's point of view, all the mothers have one thing in common: They rank low in Israel's social hierarchy, and their children are "cannon fodder, the best you can get" – and those who are so lowly, cannot find help in the laws of the land nor in the heavenly laws. The fact is that nothing happened, not to the mohel-trainer as the representative of the State, nor to the rabbi as the representative of God and divine institutions.

As of today, the "regime" in Israel hasn't reached any new conclusions regarding new laws or improved regulations, which will allow us all to enter a trustworthy covenant. As of today, there are only personal conclusions – each individual person and their own conclusion regarding their own family. We are united, perhaps, only in our feeling of shock in the face of the rabbi's actions and what he represents – the attitude of the State and its institutions towards its weakest members.

There is a long purging journey to make on the way to peace, but on our way, we must prepare ourselves to be shocked by further actions that will surely be revealed, since racism is a terrible disease, or, as Étienne Balibar calls it, "a total social phenomenon". Balibar explains how racism "inscribes itself in practices, discourses and representations, which are so many intellectual elaborations of the phantasm of prophylaxis or segregation (the need to purify the social body, to preserve 'one's own' or 'our' identity from all forms of mixing, interbreeding or invasion)." He goes on to explain that "the practices, discourses and representations of racism are articulated around stigmata of otherness.  It therefore organizes affects … by conferring upon them a stereotyped form"... Balibar sums it up in the following words:

It is this combination of practices, discourses and representations in a network of affective stereotypes which enables us to give an account of the formation of a racist community (or a community of racists, among whom there exist bonds of 'imitation' over a distance) and also of the way in which, as a mirror image, individuals and collectivities that are prey to racism (its 'objects') find themselves constrained to see themselves as a community.   ("Is There a 'Neo-Racism?'" By Etienne Balibar)

And here is the only piece of gratitude I can find regarding the entire affair: The actions of the rabbi and the establishment he represents have turned many mothers of Ethiopian, Caucasian, Eritrean and Sudanese background into one outraged community; maybe thanks to that, we will come together and change something in this corrupt and oppressive establishment. We must. It is only then that we may see the manifestation of this verse:  "I will make a covenant of peace with them; it will be an everlasting covenant. I will establish them and increase their numbers, and I will put my sanctuary among them forever." (Ezekiel 37, 26)

* Mebratu Mashasha works in the Association of Ethiopian Jews