(photo credit: Avi Masfin)
Danny Admasu, the man behind the Israel Association of Ethiopian Jews, a grassroots community organization that advocates for recognition and the rights of that population, is reluctant to talk about himself but, like any good leader, wants to talk about the "issues."
For Ethiopian Jews in Israel, those issues are numerous. Ranging from aliya and absorption to education and discrimination, it is how they are presented and by whom that is the key, says the 32-year-old who came here on Operation Moses in 1985.
"I've only just started my public life, and it is more important for me to talk about what I am trying to do rather than just about myself," explains Admasu, who in the year-and-a-half since becoming IAEJ's director has already managed to convince the Knesset to create a policy of affirmative action in all government offices.
Even though he steers the interview away from his own story, I do manage to extract some details. Like many others, Admasu left Ethiopia on foot with his family and fellow villagers, made the long trek to the Sudanese border and lived in a refugee camp for seven months before being brought here.
From those early years, he recalls adhering to strict Jewish traditions, such as refraining from working on Saturdays - he was a shepherd from age five to seven - and hearing relentless stories about Jerusalem.
His mother died when he was only a baby but his father, he says, continued to teach him about Jewish life and share with him dreams of leaving Africa and moving to the Promised Land.
"For years, my father told us stories about Israel and we could not imagine that such a place existed. Of course, we know now that there really isn't such a place!" quips Admasu, whose fluent, American-accented English has allowed him to share his aspirations with many international Jewish groups. "But, still, Israel is the homeland of the Jewish people and even though there are problems here that does not mean we are going to walk away."
Several years after arriving, Admasu's father died and he was sent to live in a variety of boarding schools before joining the army and, later, studying international relations at the Open University.
"My whole identity centers around the message that my father was trying to teach us," says Admasu. "He had a mission to bring us here and make us part of Israeli society and that is what I am trying to complete."
As part of that mission, Admasu believes his role is to create awareness and dialogue so that Ethiopian Jews are more readily integrated and accepted.
"I want people to know that even if they don't want us here, we are here to stay," he says in a tone that he has made many an MK sit up and take notice. "The rules have changed now. There are a lot of [Ethiopian] students and academics who grew up here like me, and we are ready to lead our own community. Our agenda is to let society know that Ethiopians are ready to represent themselves."
What is the main challenge facing Ethiopians in Israel today?
One of the core issues for Ethiopians is to raise awareness in society. I think that most people are not racists, but rather they just don't know much about our community. What they know about Africa is based on what they see on television. As a community we have to change that by writing about it and talking about it. We have to spread our opinions and dispel the negative images. What most people do not know is that one-third of today's [110,000-strong] Ethiopian community was born here.
Why are even those born here still struggling with education?
This is really a big issue for the Ethiopian community and it is why we see a lot of youth at risk. Many of the children get little support from home, because even though the parents want to be involved in their children's lives they just don't know how to.
Every child is meant to have someone to guide them or to teach them, and for most children that person is usually a parent, but because they grew up for 40 or 50 years in such a different way, they find that task impossible. It is very difficult for them to say: "Did you do your homework"' They just can't do it.
But there are hundreds of after-school programs and charities helping Ethiopian children. What else do you suggest?
There are, of course, many non-government organizations running after-school education programs, but they always end up in competition or they divide up the tasks. Also, these NGOs rely heavily on donations from abroad, but what happens if one year the American Jewish community does not manage to raise enough money? You cannot build the life of a person based on what is happening on Wall Street.
These groups should be giving extra enrichment not the basic help. That needs to be built into the education system.
There are now many educated Ethiopians; perhaps we should focus more on the successes than the failures?
In the beginning, when Ethiopians first arrived here people said, 'They are not educated; it will take at least 50 years for them to catch up," but that has happened much faster than anyone thought. Today, there are many educated Ethiopians, but they still end up working as security guards in the mall.
This is a serious problem and it must be solved. These people are the leaders of their family and their immediate community. If these people, who went to college, end up guarding a mall, everyone in the next generation sees that and says why do we bother? Why do I have to go to college if I will just end up working in a mall? We need to make this a big issue.
Do you think this new government policy to increase quotas of Ethiopians in the civil service is a positive step?
I believe that we are moving in the right direction.
A lottery of government ministries is already underway and will eventually see 15 Ethiopians employed in high-level positions. For us this is a big achievement, and I am really glad that it has become the flavor of the season. People have even told me that I am destroying the image of Ethiopians [as blue-collar workers].
Does affirmative action really work?
I really believe that those people are being employed not just because they are Ethiopian but because they are the best people for the job.
Of course, we want them to be the best. Whether they like it or not, they are now representatives of our community and it is important to us that they are good at their jobs, otherwise this will all backfire. People will say, "I told you the Ethiopians were not ready to do these jobs."
How else can the barriers to integration be broken down?
This should be done through dialogue in society. As long as they are not being racist, everyone should have the right to say what they want. What is frustrating is that even though I've written many articles about Israeli society for the Hebrew newspapers, because I am Ethiopian they are not interested in publishing my opinion. If I write about the Ethiopian community, however, it will be published immediately.
Alternatively, we complain that when we hold a demonstration mainstream Israeli society does not participate, but we don't join in other people's fights either. I try to encourage all the people working for me to go to other demonstrations; we have to be active in other issues, such as Holocaust survivors, because they affect us as a society.
Why has the community not managed to find representation in formal politics?
Firstly, it is a very long process and we have only been here 24 years. Considering where we came from, it's more like we traveled from the Middle Ages to the 21st century in 24 hours. However, what we have done so far is a big achievement, of course not enough and we need to do more, but still a big achievement.
Also, I have my own opinions and I don't have to vote for an Ethiopian leader if I don't agree with his political opinions. Different people in society have different wants, and not all Ethiopians have to vote for a candidate just because he is Ethiopian.
I also think that if an Ethiopian has the ability to lead, then he does not necessary have to represent the whole Ethiopian community. He can act for Ethiopian interests, but he does not have to be our leader.
What else can be done to see Ethiopians more accepted?
The Jewish Agency for Israel and the government have done a lot for the Ethiopian community, but they cannot adopt us forever. I am my own person, I am okay, and they now have to let us lead our own community.
In many public offices and other organizations where they help the Ethiopian community, the Ethiopian workers - the ones out in the field - are in the lowest positions earning the lowest salaries. When I meet with the heads of the Jewish Agency, I rarely see an Ethiopian working there. Something is wrong here, and someone has to speak out about it; you cannot solve a problem by not hearing or letting the people themselves solve it.
We are not asking to be made part of Israeli society; we already are part of Israeli society. I think that because the community has this image of being nice and polite, many people take advantage of us, but we are now ready to challenge this. The young people like me who grew up here are not willing to let this continue. We have already adopted the Israeli hutzpa.