Israeli Life: South Side Story
Where have all the Ethiopian youth gone? To their homes away from home, where they move to the rhythm of rap and reggae and enjoy being part of a majority.
It’s 2 in the morning and the lines outside the half dozen Ethiopian dance clubs on Ben-Avigdor Street in Tel Aviv keep getting longer. Throngs of young Ethiopian Israelis clamor around the metal gates of clubs with names like R and B, Flame and Vibe waving I.D.’s in front of security guards and pleading to be let inside.
Ben-Avigdor and Hamasger Street, just a few blocks north, are where, on Thursday and Friday nights, young Ethiopians congregate. (By day, Hamasger is a neighborhood of car dealerships, mechanics and small factories.) Women walk arm in arm; men greet relatives and friends from the Army and school with outstretched arms, exchanging news. Stamps on their forearms reveal where they have already been. And the night is not over yet; most clubs are open from midnight to 6 in the morning.
Once the russian-speaking bouncers let them in, they climb stairs toward dance floors bathed in colors from strobe lights and packed with revelers moving to the thumping beat of American rap, reggae and an occasional Amharic song. The men dress in baggy jeans and T-shirts like their American hip-hop idols. Some sport dreadlocks. The women wear fitted tank tops, short shorts and high heels. Laughing dancers wave arms in the air and lean in to each other, moving in the way they have seen in music videos.
“It’s about dance style,” said Avital, 19 (one of several interviewees who didn’t want their last names published), shaking a head of long thin braids and shouting over the music. “I don’t like trance where you have to jump up and down all night, and I don’t like Mizrahi music either,” she added, referring to the popular Middle Eastern music.
The Ethiopian-only clubs are a phenomenon—there are no other clubs catering almost exclusively to one ethnic group; and only a small number of non-Ethiopian Israelis frequent them. What draws the thousands of young people, many bussed in by the clubs from places like Ashkelon and Rehovot?
“People feel more comfortable here,” said Tal Galai, 26, owner of the popular R and B; he came to Israel from Ethiopia at the age of 4 with the first wave of immigrants. “Everyone knows everyone. There is a feeling of togetherness, a feeling of home.”
These young folks out for an evening of dancing, drinking—18 is the legal drinking age—and socializing came to Israel as young children or were born here. Their sense of alienation from Israeli society has them searching for a social anchor. Some feel different because of the color of their skin and because of their cultural background; often they are from poor homes, which can also set them apart from their Israeli peers.
“I was not let into a club once because I am black,” said Daniella, 19. “It’s discrimination. Why should I go to a place where I am not wanted?”
Ilan Elias, a 21-year-old soldier from Beersheva waiting to get into Vibe, said he has repeatedly been turned away at mainstream Israeli clubs.
“Of course I was offended,” he said. “I was born here.”
It is common to hear stories of refused entry, though it is not clear whether it is a matter of policy or the personal prejudice of club owners or bouncers. The opening of Ethiopian dance clubs appears to be a response to this bias. Israeli sociologists say young Ethiopians gravitate to places where they can be part of a majority.
And the identity Ethiopian Jews have largely adopted is African American—though some clubs specialize in Amharic music and people dance in traditional circles, lifting their shoulders in a shrugging movement.
At one club, a large framed poster of the late American rapper Notorious B.I.G. hangs next to one of Sean Combs, the rapper known as Diddy. On the other side of the dance floor, a blow-up of reggae legend Bob Marley stands watch. As fellow minorities, Ethiopians feel a kinship with African Americans and admire the pride they have found in their own culture. Similarly, they identify themselves as members of the African diaspora, finding inspiration in their politics and culture.
Expanding on the Israeli expression “Israelis love immigration, but not immigrants,” Harvey Goldberg, professor of anthropology and sociology at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, argues that most societies have trouble accepting those who are different from the majority.
“It happens all over the world,” he explained, “but what I think makes Israeli society problematic and full of social tensions is that there is the ideal that the country should be welcoming, but Israeli society pretty much functions like other societies. There is the added disappointment because the whole raison d’être of Israel, the Zionist ideal, is that we should be taking in Jews from around the world. The clubs are a symptom of wider issues, that the mechanism of entering into Israeli society is slow.”
Being children of immigrants from a rural society radically different from Israel’s brings a layer of complexity to the tension. Young Ethiopians are expected to live within the cultural codes of the Ethiopian community and also fit into the modern lifestyle of Israeli society. For example, their traditional parents see the club culture as foreign and subversive. Some young people confide they had lied to their parents about where they were going.
“[Our parents] think they are still in Ethiopia, and in Ethiopia they would never go to clubs,” said Roke, 20, a supermarket clerk.
In addition, alcohol, long a part of club culture, is a new concept to Ethiopian Israelis, and some young people tend to drink too much vodka, beer and whiskey (food is not served). “At home there is no drinking,” said Tal Galai. “If you drink, you get beaten.”
Alcohol, however, may contribute to the violence that occurs at Israeli dance clubs; police patrol nearby streets, blue lights flashing. Galai keeps a close eye on the closed-circuit cameras in his office, which is guarded by a tall, barrel-chested Russian oleh. About half his 20-person staff is for security. Bouncers are quick to bar entrance to drunk would-be patrons.
The occasional violence and intergenerational conflict have not stopped the club scene’s growth. The first Ethiopian club in Tel Aviv was a reggae venue called Soweto. Later, other Ethiopian-owned and frequented clubs opened, first in smaller, less flashy areas in the south of the city, near the former central bus station; recently, more stylized clubs with swirling lights, mirrors and dry ice machines have been built near Hamasger Street.
Some venues cater to an “older” crowd, those in their mid-twenties. Outside one such club, Vibe, Moshe Yassou, 26, of Netanya leaned against a parked car. “It’s a place to unwind after the work week,” he said. “I prefer this. It’s where I have more friends.” Yassou insisted he suffers no discrimination in Israel and feels completely at ease in the country.
The same is true for Gadi Yavarkan, 25, a law student and Army officer who said he is drawn to the music, the shared culture and language as he is jostled in a pack of people trying to get into Vibe.
“People find unity in these clubs,” he said before being pushed through the club’s entrance by his friends, swallowed up by the echoes of hip-hop and laughter.