Free Avera Mengistu

I am sick and tired of my blackness being used as a political tool to shame the State of Israel.

In the last few years, there has been a trend of social justice groups claiming solidarity with the struggles of various minority groups in Israel, yet only when it suits their political agenda. As a black Israeli woman, I am outraged by the hypocrisy and cynical co-opting of my struggle for the smearing of Israel. Look no further than the story of Avera Mengistu for a prime example of this hypocrisy.

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Avera Mengistu is a black, mentally challenged civilian from a minority, low-income family, held captive by a terrorist organization. Every single aspect of his story screams out as being a humanitarian cause. It begs for attention in the international media and it ought to be at the forefront of the agenda for social justice organizations. And yet, there is a deafening silence.

Our television screens and social media feeds us with stories of the American who was imprisoned by North Korea; Western prisoners who are currently held by the tyrannical regime of Iran; or the journalists who were kidnapped and murdered by ISIS, yet most of the world has never even heard of Avera.

Since September 2014, Avera has been imprisoned by Hamas, the jihadi organization controlling the Gaza Strip. On paper it couldn’t be more cut and dry. We have a mentally ill civilian who is being held by a terrorist organization. This issue and the response to it should be clear-cut: We should rally behind him and his family; we should all sign petitions; make video and audio clips calling for his release; #FreeAvera should be trending everywhere.

And yet, there is a shocking nothingness from so-called supporters of social justice organizations, those who claim to wave the flag of equality. Many of the same groups who expressed solidarity with the Ethiopian community in Israel during our protests against police brutality and discrimination in 2015, have nothing to say about Avera today. What’s the difference?

In 2015, there was wall-to-wall coverage of the protests in Israel, with social justice organizations around the world expressing solidarity with the Ethiopian community in Israel. Articles were written, videos were made, all calling for Israel to improve the way it treats minorities.

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Now don’t get me wrong. Israel, as a young country, has a lot to work on when it comes to the treatment of minorities. We are progressing, but still have much to change in both Israeli society and government. Equality on paper is not sufficient, we need to see it on the ground. But why is it that social justice groups in the West only raise their voices in solidarity when they feel they can accuse the State of Israel?

Their silence on cases like Avera’s tells the truth about who they really are: they don’t care about the struggle of the black community in Israel. They misuse intersectionality to tap into the emotions and pain of my community and hijack our story to fit their narrative. Our fight for equality was the tool, and we were the props, in promoting their anti-Israel political propaganda. 

The social justice organizations supposedly leading the movements for equality in the West are not the only parties cynically using the Ethiopian struggle to promote their own political goals. The media is guilty as well. Al Jazeera and its revamped social media platform, AJ+, is a prime example. Al Jazeera is Qatari state-funded news.

THAT’S THE same Qatar where they enslaved foreign workers to build football stadiums for the 2022 World Cup, the same Qatar that continuously fund Hamas (the terrorist organization holding Avera Mengistu captive), and where homosexuality is punishable by imprisonment.

Yet when it comes to the struggle of my community in Israel, AJ+ tries to tap into the divisions in Israeli society. That is the agenda of Qatar. AJ+ has produced videos on the Ethiopian Jewish community in Israel and African asylum-seekers in Israel, and hundreds of other videos related to the social justice shortcomings in the Western world, from the perspective of promoting liberal values.

One of the organization’s most notorious for attaching themselves to the struggles of other groups is the boycott, divestment and sanction movement against Israel. For years, the BDS movement and its leaders have attempted to be a part of every social justice movement under the sun for the sole purpose of promoting their own agenda – even when the causes they align themselves with are contradictory. For example, the BDS movement has repeatedly claimed they endorse movements like the Women’s March, yet they are silent on those rights and the push for equality among Palestinian women. They have also repeatedly issued statements about the importance of racial equality for the black community, and yet not one word of condemnation has been made on Avera Mengistu’s captivity.

At the same time, the media and these social justice groups ignore that fact that we have a black, mentally challenged Ethiopian Jew, who by no fault of his own is being held captive by a terrorist organization. Ahed Tamimi became a household name. This 17-year-old blond-haired, blue-eyed Palestinian girl, spent several months in an Israeli prison. Tamimi had a trial, was provided with a lawyer and was sentenced for the crime she committed. Avera’s family doesn’t even know if he is still alive! And who do you think is getting more attention? Hint: it’s not the black guy.

Like Avera, my eyes are not blue, and my hair is the farthest thing from blond. I don’t fall into one of the stereotypes that will make you listen to me. When people from my community rightly express rage, we are dismissed. In my case, you may even be categorizing this article as that of an “angry black woman.” But instead of paying attention to the racial injustice we face, these so-called social justice advocates are taking my pain for their own gains.

The story of Avera Mengistu is far from political. It is the story of a son and a brother – a human being. It is heartbreaking and painful, and the silence surrounding it is tragic. He was dealt a bad hand in almost every single aspect of his life: the “wrong” race, religion, socioeconomic class, and to make things even harder, a disability. Even the people who are supposed to care for him, to rally for his cause, don’t, because he represents the wrong groups.

I write this to urge you to see the hypocrisy of these social justice groups. Be a voice for actual justice and be consistent in your principles. Black lives matter for more than political slogans and hidden agendas. It’s not about politics, it is about humanity. 

The writer is an international speaker and educator specializing in social media engagement and activism. One of eight siblings, she was born in Gondar, Ethiopia, and made aliyah during Operation Solomon in 1991. She is currently studying at the IDC Herzliya Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy and Strategy.

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