Mequnante’s healing: A reset for Israel and its Ethiopian community?

An Ethiopian kid had been killed by a police officer and this was not investigated; my wife was arrested at a demonstration last week!

Ethiopian Israelis celebrate the holiday of Sigd in Jerusalem on November 27 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Ethiopian Israelis celebrate the holiday of Sigd in Jerusalem on November 27
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
“I arrived in Israel 36 years ago after months of walking through Sudan,” said Asher Mequnante Rahamim, an Ethiopian social worker who was participating in a demonstration on anger with me, during my training in Somatic Experiencing® – a trauma healing technique.
“I arrived in Sudan in 1981, after walking thousands of kilometers, and stayed there for two years and three months. It was March 1983 when I arrived in Israel. I went out for a walk in the middle of the night. Two policemen stopped me and asked me for an ID card. I told them I did not have one, I was too young. They asked me where I was going and I answered – for a walk. They nodded, smiled, and said, ‘Have a good evening.’ It was a good experience for me. My whole body felt relaxed. I am really in Israel, I thought. It is different now.”
He talked about the multi-layered pain he had experienced recently.
“My heart is on fire. My sister went to sleep and, in the morning, didn’t wake up. An Ethiopian kid had been killed by a police officer and this was not investigated; my wife was arrested at a demonstration last week! Our community’s demonstrations were stopped by the police. This is also a difficult period for me because of the protests. Thirteen young Ethiopians were killed directly or indirectly by the police – none of these cases were investigated, and no one was put on a trial.”
Mequnante’s cri de coeur took us all by surprise. Usually a gentle and soft-spoken man, Mequnante was plainly upset and angry.
His story made it clear there is still a need for justice among the Ethiopian community in relationship to the Israeli government, the law enforcement agencies and policy makers. In the spirit of Yom Kippur, perhaps we can start with a clean slate, address our shortcomings and refocus on that beautiful promise of redemption, unity, and Am Yisrael coming home from afar.
What atonement do we need?
I listened carefully to Mequnante’s words. I asked him to focus on his body sensations. “I feel my heart beating stronger. I feel tears and something heavy, a turmoil in my chest and belly – a lot of discomfort. What is happening inside me matches what is happening outside.”
The technique I was teaching, Somatic Experiencing®, consists of tracking the sensations we feel when thinking of painful traumatic moments and focusing on one sensation at a time, which allows our nervous system then to release the unpleasant charge.
“It is not OK the way that the Ethiopians are treated. We are not second-class citizens. They are silencing us! In a democratic country, how can this happen?”
I helped Mequnante express the anger swelling in his chest. “As you think they are stopping you from talking, feel the anger now and say what you want to say and couldn’t say,” I told him.
“This is a democratic country and we belong here as well, and we’re allowed to speak,” he said. “It reminds me of when I was a child in a Christian school in Ethiopia and I feared that they would discover that I’m a Jew. I chose to remain silent to deal with that situation. Now they are trying to silence me again. I don’t want to raise my kids in a country where they are silenced. We had longed for Israel for so long and had faced such enormous and dangerous obstacles to attain it.”
Mequnante pressed his head in his hands and began to cry. I invited him to express his anger again and to push with his hands. He pushed and had a few deep breaths, a sign of discharge. He felt calmer and freer.
“I will not allow that to happen,” he said as he kept pushing with his hands. “In contrast to the wonderful experience I had with the policemen 36 years ago, today many unreasonable things are happening. I’m sure that everyone who is sitting here does not have to give their kids advice on how to respond to a police officer when they are stopped. We are always explaining to our kids to be prepared and give the police all the information they are asking, because if our kids do not respond immediately...” (Mequnante made a motion with his hands for clashes and violence).
“This reality cannot continue. This cannot be.” Mequnante sat quietly for a while. “I just saw that there is nothing to be afraid of. Ha! My stomach has calmed. There is nothing to be afraid of. We’re not to blame. The reality has to change.”
 “It needs to change, and I think that it can, and I believe it can rather quickly,” I replied.
“The situation is complex,” said Mequnante. “I am not sure that a quick therapeutic experience will magically solve the problem that has been going on for so many years, and at such different levels! The life-threatening violence is an ongoing and present condition. Maybe if we were to apply SE to the policy makers, the police, the clergy, the Israeli public, and our community, substantial change can happen!”
“What a great idea!” I said. “Until we can apply it, let’s start by raising awareness of the pain in the community. I would love to eventually bring our model for conflict resolution to all these sectors.”
 “Yes, I need to write about our collective trauma,” said Mequnante. “People have no idea what our trauma looks like. Moms of kids ages 10-18 in our community worry sick and don’t sleep at night, waiting in their living room, terrified and anxious, until their kids return home safely. Many of our young people don’t make it to the army. It’s terrible.”
Mequnante took a deep breath and sat again quietly for a while. Another deep breath came up.
“The tragic death of Solomon Tekah, as well as 12 other people who had been killed, triggered months of protest, and brought thousands of our community members to a large rally in 22 locations across the country,” he said. “I do recognize that the demonstration was to some extent also violent, causing roadblocks for several hours and civilians suffered, unable to return home after a hard day’s work; they were greatly angered. But it was our continuous cry of pain, which spontaneously erupted; the trigger of Beta Israel’s ongoing painful experiences.
“The mainstream media covering the rally were violent and gave us terrible press during the protests. The next day, citizens were directing harsh comments toward the Beta Israel community. One sentence specifically still haunts me: ‘You lost us; you lost our support with this behavior.’ This phrase was repeated by lots of people, between colleagues at work, between friends and in society in general.”
Mequnante was now more vehement.
 “I say, what do you mean we lost you? How can you say that? We are part of you. You must open your eyes and see what happened to us. Our immigration process has been impossibly difficult. How could you lose your support for us? It’s going to take a lot to repair this,” said Mequnante, shaking his head.
“Maybe not,” I said.
Mequnante stopped again, tracking and releasing his activation.
I suggested to Mequnante that we need to work with the young people in his community to help them release the pent-up frustration and hurt.
“Definitely,” said Mequnante. “We need help.”
“There is help,” I said.
“It’s a good feeling to hear that there is help. We see more and more non-Ethiopians joining us. The atmosphere in our community was very difficult. We had to help release the 300 community members violently arrested in the wake of the demonstration. We live in great anxiety. We feel that society is judging us. Because we blocked the roads, we were called violent. It’s hard to fix.”
“Maybe, maybe not,” I said. “It’s at its beginning. It can change quickly.”
“I hope so,” he said.
“What do you notice now?” I asked. Mequnante again indicated his stomach.
“We are upset that some people in the community acted violently. This is not what we wanted, and not what we planned. Ya, really sad!
“Very sad, also, that the welfare and education systems did not mobilize. There was no training to help the community deal with the distress created during and after the demonstrations. It just shows the systemic indifference of the system.
“For us, these recent events reawakened our extreme past traumas and amplified the second generation’s ongoing trauma of immigration. There were difficult episodes like the rabbinate demanding conversion in the 1980s, ongoing police violence, the humiliating refusal of some of the educational institutions to accept our children in their schools, discrimination in the workplace, etc. They happen too often and are rarely addressed. Many of us felt shame, guilt and self-deprecation. Our encounter with the police severely damaged our sense of self-worth. Many of our kids revolted. No doubt it has led to their ‘oppositional behavior.’”
“What do you notice now?” I asked.
“My stomach is tight again,” said Mequnante. “Life is not simple. Tomorrow is the shiva of our chief rabbi who went through so many difficult things and helped so many people. Unfortunately, he just died and it’s a truly great loss. He was also silenced and was not given the honor he deserves. That whole thing was terrible.”
“What’s happening in your body now?”
“Oy,” sighed Mequnante.
“Maybe make more of those noises, like ‘oy.’ What do you feel?” I asked.
“Very uncomfortable. Like my jaw is closing.”
“Give sounds to it,” I instructed him.
“My sound is in my belly. It is saying: ‘It’s not fair.’” Mequnante began to sob. “It’s not fair.” He looked down. There were several minutes of silence, with Mequnante focusing on his sensations, and a few deep breaths.
“I feel calmer. The thought that came up for me is that I kept conveying that everything is OK. But during this last period, I had lost my confidence that things will be OK.”
I ventured, “You need to take the voice of your rav and become that.”
“I will,” said Mequnante, with firmness.
“I just had the thought that actually the tragedy of what happened can be used to call attention to the community’s needs in a way that hasn’t been done until now,” I said. “It is important also for the community not to imitate America. This is an opportunity. Many in Israel had wanted you and loved you, knew how hard youworked to come to Israel and were very excited to fly you in. You were its babies, miraculous like a new baby arriving in the world!
“It is important to recognize other complicating factors, such as illegal immigration, a police force that cannot afford part of the civil population demonstrating being co-opted by violent elements when there are ongoing security issues, that the process of integration is difficult by itself for all groups and does not always necessarily mean racism. And yes, there is always racism with some people.”
“This is definitely an opportunity,” said Mequnante. “We need to take advantage of it. If the situation continues to deteriorate, no one will benefit from it – not us and not our society. It is hard for me to imagine that Israel as a nation once loved us unconditionally. But I want to believe that part of it did, and that that part will win this time.”
“This is your nation here,” I said. “So, you have a lot of responsibility ahead of you, to bring the right language to the request for change. As you think about that, where do you feel it in your body and what do you need to hold this space?”
Mequnante sat quietly, with his eyes closed.
“I know that I need to make my voice heard. What I need is more and more people who understand the situation and can support us, and more Ethiopians in the healing field.”
“You are right,” I said. “And if the language comes from the healing vortex, then everything is possible. And you’re not alone.”
“I felt alone,” he replied. “Now, I don’t. Now it’s temporary. Last night I was invited to go to a book launch with a client. People helped her to write her story. That is why I say that I’m not alone. Last night there were 250 people there and I felt that all the people understand. Also, they believe that therapy can help. There were voices that can spread that message that therapy can help. That calms me. It’s harder for me – the political angle. How many of my colleagues here will join? I feel my heart and lungs are opening. I feel hopeful.”
“Great,” I said.
I was happy to see how helping Mequnante discharge the traumatic activation of these past few weeks and validating the suffering of his community helped him move through his pain and anger and recover his optimism and positive outlook. He clearly understood that the community needed help to move from the trauma vortex, away from violent demonstrations and into the healing vortex, looking for constructive ways to get their needs met.
We made plans to develop a larger cadre of trauma therapists and lay leaders that could help the community with their heavy legacy of trauma, and a plan to communicate the pain of the community through articles, books and speeches.
I talked to Mequnante after the course and he related this:
“In retrospect, I can say that working with you, Gina, on this difficult time in my life for me and for my community in the session helped me feel more hope. The feeling of the deep nonjudgmental listening, the compassion, and the support allowed me to release lots of deep anger and frustration. But the reality is that thinking that the ongoing suppression is a matter of policy and not a misunderstanding or mistake brought back that helpless feeling.”
It made total sense that this would be an ongoing effort of healing that must be supported by changes in the culture. My hope is that Israeli society will rally to bring kindness and warmth in their dealing with the Ethiopian community, understanding and soothing its trauma, along with policies and governmental resources to help the youth feel cared for, wanted and empowered.
But most of all, what the Ethiopian Jews need is to be recognized as a proud and ancient culture, with also a history of persecution and pain, like all other Jews, and that they are an integral part of Am Yisrael. We can use the atonement and the clean slate Yom Kippur affords us for a reset. And as Mequnante said, healing the rift with the Ethiopian community will contribute to the healing of the whole of Israeli society.
Gina Ross, MFCT, is Founder/President of the International Trauma-Healing Institute in the US (ITI-US) and its Israeli branch (ITI-Israel). Asher Mequnante Rahamim contributed to this article. He is Director of Clinical Services for the Ethiopian Community, Metiv – The Israel Psychotrauma Center