“People do not understand what it means to arrive in Israel, the Promised Land, the Jewish State, and having your Jewishness continuously contested. No one owes me a favor; nobody gives me anything for free. I'm here because I have a right to be here, it is my place. My country. I'm as Jewish as you are, if not more than you. Feeling uncomfortable with what I’m saying? This is your problem”.
The quote above belongs to Imaye Taga, 32, an Ethiopian descent Israeli footballer who plays for Maccabi Netanya in the Israeli Premier League. Taga was a permanent member in Israel’s youth national teams, at all ages. He played for Hapoel Ashkelon, Hapoel Akko and made 10 appearances in Israel’s Under-21 national team. After been chosen in BabaGol's 2016 Best Of, Uri sat with Imaye for an interview, about his personal life and his journey for justice.
Nowadays, he is one of the leading figures of the Israeli-Ethiopian community’s struggle against racism and demand for equality. Taga became the face of the efforts for the release of Avera Mengistu, an Israeli citizen who is held as Hamas’ prisoner in Gaza for more than a thousand days, after he crossed the border by himself while being identified with mental issues. In addition, Taga is dedicated to the cause of unveiling the justice in the case of Yosef Salamse who was harassed and tasered by policemen, and few months later was found dead, allegedly in suicidal circumstances. Those two cases were the core of the 2015 protest, where young Israelis manifested their objection to the authorities’ racism and discrimination towards Ethiopians-Israelis. Up to date, Mengistu and Salamse remained main issues in the growing tension between the Israeli-Ethiopian community and the establishment.
Thanks to his public influence and high profile in football, Taga is raising the Israeli people awareness to these causes, in what is regarded as a unique phenomenon in Israeli sports – a footballer, who’s a social activist too. “I am aware of what is happening around me. I can easily focus on taking care of myself and my family only, but when I’ll look at the mirror, what would I feel? That's how my parents raised me, and this is what I educate my kids for”.
Taga was born and raised in a small village near Gondar, north Ethiopia, and made Aliyah with his family when he was about five years old. “Before we made Aliyah, we were living in Addis Ababa. Jews there, as everywhere else in the world, weren’t very popular. We got into a ‘waiting camp’, called ‘Ambessa’. There, you wait for your name to be called, in order to immigrate to Israel. It can take a day, a month, or three. Before our names were called, my father went to get our bags and all our belongings, in order to bring them to the camp and later, to Israel. Just when he left, they called our names. When he finally arrived, we weren’t allowed to take our suitcases with us. We’ve landed in Israel completely empty-handed. I have no pictures, no memories, neither mine nor the family”.
When in Israel, Taga grew up first in Shavei Zion, then moved to Hatzerot Yasef - a caravans’ site near Kibbutz Lohamei Ha’Getaot. It was there where he started playing football, none-officially. When he was 13, his family moved to Kiryat Ekron, and he moved to a boarding school in Netanya, where he joined local club Maccabi Netanya’s youth department. From a young age he was marked as one of the top talents in Israeli football. Back then he was known as Amir Taga, carrying a Hebrew name that one of his teachers in school gave him, instead of his original Ethiopian name – Imaye.
In 2006 a family tragedy rocked his world. His younger brother Avi, then 16, was found dead allegedly committed suicide. Taga was devastated. When he is 21, a notable member of Israel’s young national team, football suddenly became secondary for Imaye.
Two months afterwards, Taga returned to the national team for a decisive match against France, then with world class prospects as Karim Benzema, Samir Nasri and Blaise Matuidi, in the European Championship qualifications. Israel needed a victory in order to qualify for the final tournament, and Taga, who only came in as a substitution in the 88th minute, scored the winning goal on his second touch on the ball, few seconds to the final whistle. Israel won 1-0 and Taga became the hero of the hour. Yet, instead of celebrating with his friends he went to be united with his family. “I was very absorbed in the family mourning. Of course, after the goal, it was a crazy burst of emotions, but once the game was over I showered, got into the car with my wife and brothers, and we went to my parents”.
Not so long after his brother’s death and the historical goal against France, Taga decided to change his name back from Amir – to Imaye. “It was some kind of enlightenment. In the time after my brother’s death, I looked at my parents and thought what a horrible thing it is for a parent, that his child will change the name they gave him, only to become a part a certain group or society. It’s completely twisted”.
This act gained ambivalent reactions in Israeli media, but Taga doesn’t second guess his decision. “Today I am speaking in schools in front of kids. Russians, Ethiopians, Arabs, from all the colors and descents. My message for them is ‘never change your identity and neglect your roots’. Don’t change yourself for anyone. If someone wants you, he would accept you as you are. And if not? Wave him goodbye”.
Taga’s uncompromising attitude in social matters is inspired by a horrific injury he succumbed during his career. During a usual practice he got into a tackle and tore his cruciate ligament. The doctors told him he should be thankful if he won’t be walking limply for life. Football, again, came in second. Taga was out for almost a year, but he didn’t give up.
“This injury changed my career. I had many dreams in football, all became irrelevant. But I’ve received something invaluable in this experience. The long recovery process (almost a year) taught me that everything a human being wants to do, to achieve - he can”.
Two years ago, the Ethiopian protests took over Israel. At the time, Taga tried to raise the public awareness for the stories of Avera Mengistu and Yosef Salamse.
Taga believed that in the same way that the whole country stood behind Shalit family when their son Gilad was a hostage in Gaza (between 2006 to 2011), the Israeli public will gather in support of Mengistu family and will encourage the government to do everything it takes to bring Avera home. He’d sent letters to the Premier League management, the football association and the ministry of sports. He never received an answer. Therefore, during a warmup for a league match he wore a t-shirt that calls for justice in both Salamse and Mengistu cases.
This act echoed in the media. The football association fined him with 750 ILS for making a political statement. As a response, he paid the fine with 7500 coins of ten Agorot (0.10 ILS). These moves have pushed the protest forward in the mainstream media outlets, encouraged equality and anti-racism within Israeli football. Most importantly it promoted a public discussion in the matters, something that was barely spoken before.
“If Avera Mengistu wasn’t black, things were different. There is a hidden-but-seen racism in our society. I am not just looking for ‘where the blacks are being discriminated’ so I can spot it. It’s around me all the time. It doesn’t matter if I suffer from it directly or not, the thing is that some people get screwed for their skin color. This is what people need to understand. And currently they don’t”.
Taga believes that the shift will start in education, but also in changing given perspectives in Israeli society. “People see a successful person who apparently also from Ethiopian origin and say: "He is the first." The first pilot. The first lecturer, the first doctor or the first footballer. This statement distances, marks and undermines an entire population, and mainly causes a sense of non-belonging to a lot of people in the Ethiopian community”.
Taga knows that no matter how effective his quiet protest will be, the change must come from the inside of the Israeli establishment and politics. “This is my problem with the establishment. I keep Shabbat and Kashrut and everything. But I have a problem with the rabbinical institute, which will forever look at me suspiciously because of my color”.
When he looks towards the future, despite the obstacles, Taga is optimistic. “I believe that it is possible to win the fight against racism in Israeli society, and in general. If not to win, then to fight hard and promote a change. You must understand. I will not wait 200 years for everyone to change and educate. I know it will take time, but I and many more are not waiting for this day to come. We are working for bringing it now.”
This article was first published in the Jerusalem Post Magazine.