Ethiopian Jews (Beta Israel) came to Israel with a strong Jewish identity based
on the Torah alone, making their religious and cultural framework quite
different from the dominant Orthodox one. Moreover, their community developed
for centuries without any contact with the larger Jewish world. The first real
contact with the Western world occurred in the late 19th century. This explains
why the religious practices of Ethiopian Jews are based on the Torah alone and
not on any of the commentaries.
When Ethiopian Jews arrived in Israel,
they were stripped of their original Amharic names and given common Jewish names
like Avraham, Yitzhak and Ya’acov. No consideration was given to the fact that
for Ethiopian Jews names are filled with meaning, often recalling ancestors and
other family members. Most children were sent to Orthodox educational
institutions that did not recognize Ethiopian Judaism or any of the practices
that played such an important part in their identity and narrative.
additional big blow to the Ethiopian Jewish community was the lack of
recognition for their religious authority, their kessim.
Ethiopian-Israeli parents, who function in a cultural framework quite different
from the Israeli one, are not fluent in Hebrew and are ill-equipped to deal with
their children’s difficulties adjusting in school. Because of this great
cultural and linguistic gap, teachers and education officials have failed to
include Ethiopian-Israeli parents in their children’s education, through parent/
teacher meetings and the like. This process translates into the children’s
alienation and resentment toward their parents.
The children develop a
mixed identity, stuck between their rich Ethiopian cultural background and their
desire to be considered regular Israelis. This sometimes leads young Ethiopian
Israelis to look to African Americans and adopt certain elements of their
culture that they feel give meaning to the color of their skin, such as rap
music and baggy pants. Stuck between cultures, Ethiopian-Israeli youngsters find
themselves without guidance or mentors.
In an effort to promote their
integration into Israeli society, the Jewish Agency and Ministry of Absorption
often insisted in placing Ethiopian- Israeli children in boarding schools where
the rate of Ethiopian-Israeli children is high; Where there is a homogeneous
population, there is less competition as all come from same cultural background,
which is not connected to the Israeli culture.
In their teens, Ethiopian
Israelis are often directed toward vocational educational frameworks such as
mechanics or plumbing for which academic skills are not required – which makes
sense, given their low achievements. Nonetheless, this makes it difficult for
them to continue their education, as the matriculation certificate they receive
is not sufficient for admission to higher education institutions. Thus continues
the chronicle of a failure foretold for the younger generation of Ethiopian
descent, and of the entire community.
SO WHAT is the solution? The
Ethiopian- Israeli community counts 120,000 souls – it is a small community and
change is possible. First and foremost, it is crucial to reverse the policies
(in housing and education) that enable the massive concentration of Ethiopian
Israelis in certain schools, occupations and neighborhoods.
integration of Ethiopian Israelis is achieved, no longer will the community need
affirmative action or special treatment. In parallel, measures should be taken
to promote the Ethiopian Jewish heritage and connect it to the Zionist narrative
– as Ethiopian Jews came to Israel because of ideology.
must be careful when demanding equality. Leaders of the struggle for equality
(including those in the tents outside the prime minister’s house) have abandoned
the call for solidarity within the Jewish world and have started using terms
such as “concentration camps,” “Jewish fascism,” “Israeli colonialism,” “Is
Zionism racism?” and others. A troubling reality in this regard is that this
rise in extremism is led by the educated class; including college graduates –
lawyers and PhD students. This is common in history: the Bolshevik and French
revolutions were led by the educated middle class, not due to intolerable
oppression, but due to a feeling of being discriminated against and barred from
the higher echelons of society.
But when protest leaders say the attitude
toward the Ethiopian community in Israel is similar to the apartheid South
African regime (or the Nazis), they go down a slippery slope: First, the
protesters lose some of their loyal supporters, who like this writer argue
wholeheartedly for their struggle for civil equality but refuse the extremist
slogans that depict Israel as an apartheid state. Second, when making universal
claims of racism, they see themselves (and are seen by others) as part of the
general “black” group, no longer distinguishing their own specific demands and
grievances as Ethiopian Israelis from, for example, those of illegal immigrants
from the Ivory Coast.
In a previous paper, I discussed the issue of the
lack of Israeli media coverage with regard to the Ethiopian-Israeli protests.
While borrowing terms used by some of Israel’s biggest enemies might get the
protesters more media coverage, it is bound to be badly received by most
Israelis. Israelis of all backgrounds know there is no apartheid in Israel.
What’s more, divide and rule: a faction within a country allying with the
country’s enemies for political gain is a sure-fire way to damage and weaken
Education is the key for the growth of a prosperous society, any
society in the Western world. As discussed above, the present situation, that
nips in the bud any chance of success for Ethiopian Israelis, cannot continue.
If it does, the results will be disastrous. At the same time, constant
separation from particular arguments as is the case for protest in recent times,
will end in the erosion of the support for it from most Israeli society, and
gain the extreme, irrelevant and marginal one.
The writer has a law
degree and is research student at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya (IDC).
Moreover, he leads Youth for Justice group at Tebeka-Advocacy for Equality and
Justice for Ethiopian Israelis.