Ethiopian Israelis and the need for dialogue

By YAEL ROSEN
November 23, 2011 23:29

Israeli indifference to Ethiopian immigrants has led to tough communication issues. The Sigd holiday is an opportunity to begin to right this injustice.




President Shimon Peres at a Sigd celebration

sigd 311. (photo credit: Yossi Avi Yair Engel)

Today, thousands of Ethiopian Israelis will celebrate Sigd, the annual holiday marking their ancestral desire to return to Zion over the generations.

The actual date of the holiday is the 29th of the Hebrew month of Heshvan, but because this year’s holiday falls on Shabbat, celebrations are pushed up to Thursday.

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Many revelers will travel to the Armon Hanatziv neighborhood in Jerusalem for a festive reenactment of their annual ascent to a high hill in Ethiopia where they prayed for the end of their long, bitter exile and a swift return to the Promised Land.

In the late 1970s and 1980s, whole Jewish communities left their lives in Ethiopia behind and started walking toward Jerusalem. The journey was treacherous and many lost family members along the way. The dream of Zion clashed with the harsh realities of aliya, with numerous repercussions still being felt today.

As a commemoration of a traditional event from the “old country,” Sigd highlights the ever-growing chasm between the two generations of Israel’s Ethiopian Jews: those who made the journey from Ethiopia, and their children and grandchildren born into the Israeli reality. While the holiday still holds much importance for the elders, symbolizing their fulfilled dreams for the Land of Israel, much of the younger generation does not share those sentiments.

Though children of immigrants often drift away from their cultural heritage when joining a new society, the rift in the Israeli Ethiopian community extends well beyond the familiar phenomenon. For many families, the generation gap has led to a communication breakdown between parents/ grandparents and their Israeli-born children.

Language barriers often exist within the household. The children often do not understand their parents’ Amharic and Tigrit and are not always able to express themselves in a way their parents will comprehend.

While the Western culture embraced by the younger generation promotes sharing and expressing one’s feelings, the elders are used to an Ethiopian culture that lauds internal dialogue and limited sharing.

Furthermore, constant social and economic troubles, coupled with a noticeable lack of expressed interest from Israeli society regarding their hardships (past and present) has led the older generation to bury their experiences within themselves, never letting on to their children and grandchildren the sacrifices they had to undergo to reach Israel.

As a result, you’ve got some of Ethiopia’s bravest men and women, people who risked their lives for the loftiest of ideals and the opportunity to build a better life for the next generation, but they are seen by those very same successors as foreigners and outcasts. No recognition as heroes. No national or familial pride in their unprecedented courage.

Nothing but scorn and rejection.

The distress and despondency is palpable, and our national mission is clear. We must stem the tide and create effective programming that encourages intergenerational dialogue in the Israeli Ethiopian community with emotional and technical support on both sides of the conversation.

Such programming will allow parents and grandparents to delve into their pasts, unburdening themselves while restoring their rich Ethiopian heritage and bridging the cultural divide.

THIS OPEN dialogue will also help children and grandchildren gain a new appreciation for their elders as well as an improved sense of self and pride in their families and their community. With the Ethiopian community often portrayed as underprivileged and unable to fend for itself, personal accounts of their elders' bravery, sacrifice and determination will give Israel’s Ethiopian youth the inspiration and encouragement they need to fulfill their ancestral destiny – honoring the past while building the future.

As the coordinator of a project that introduces high school students to the littleknown stories of “Prisoners of Zion” (those jailed for Zionist activity or affiliation) from Ethiopia, I have seen the effects of such programming firsthand. While the Prisoners of Zion are presented with a rare opportunity to share their stories with the younger generation and receive the recognition and respect they richly deserve, the students are introduced to compelling elements of their cultural legacy and are empowered to carry the torch forward.

More often than not, meetings with the Prisoners of Zion prompt the students to ask their own parents and grandparents to recount their family’s aliya stories. And sometimes it is the parents who break the silence, taking advantage of the project as an “opening” to regale their children with in-depth accounts of the journey to Israel. For many, it is their very first dialogue about the topic.

The encounters also help the participants see the older generation in a new light. As they begin to understand the trials and travails of the Ethiopian aliya, and the leadership positions assumed by the Prisoners of Zion – and sometimes their own parents and grandparents – to help others make it through the arduous journey, they begin to develop a sense of pride in their families and the community.

For them, living in Israel has always been a given. But knowing that their elders fought and sacrificed to establish this life changes everything.

The students often speak about what they take from the stories and how they assimilate this bravery into their own lives. They understand that they must never despair, and that their dreams are always within reach as long as they believe in themselves.

This newfound inner strength helps them believe that they can accomplish anything and generally encourages them to succeed in life.

As one student participant mentioned, “The Prisoner of Zion that we interviewed worked hard to bring us to Israel. His actions inspire me to act, even in the hardest of times. I am proud of my community and it gives me hope for the future.”

What a difference a simple discussion can make. Our national mission is clear, and the time to act is now.

With our help, the Sigd holiday can become a celebration of intergenerational understanding, a platform for deep appreciation of the past, and the launch pad for an impassioned push towards the brightest of futures for Israel’s Ethiopian community.

The writer is the Coordinator for ATZUM’s Project Abrah (www.atzum.org), an oral history film project that bridges the generation gap in Israel’s Ethiopian community by shedding light on the heroic struggle of Ethiopian Prisoners of Zion.


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