The struggle for Ethiopian Jewry's soul

Ethiopian-Israeli journalist tries to wash the community’s dirty laundry.

March 10, 2010 05:34
4 minute read.

falash mura 311. (photo credit: .)


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Anyone who tries to keep track of Israel’s vigorous and often nasty public debate is surprised by the shrill voices on the Left and Right. Self-criticism is a hallmark of the Western ntellectual world, but in this country it is taken to unimaginable heights.

It seems that this extreme culture of self-critique and angry infighting has sadly penetrated one of Ethiopian Jewry’s few well-known public figures, Daniel Adino Abebe. One could say that this is a mark of integration, and one might also say this marks, in the words of Winston Churchill, yet another front in the “struggle for the soul of the Jewish people.”

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Abebe was born in the village of Ugara in Ethiopia. He made aliya in 1984 at the age of nine as part of Operation Moses, the first airlift of Ethiopian Jews. Like most at the time, he was sent to a boarding school. During his army service he worked at Army Radio. He received an international prize in 2003 for investigating settlers who harmed olive trees. Today he is a journalist for Yediot Aharonot, covering Diaspora affairs, the Jewish Agency and aliya. During his time as a journalist he has been described as being “one of the few outspoken Ethiopian voices in Israel” and exposing “some ugly truths about Ethiopian aliya, over his community’s vehement objections.”

The New Israel Fund calls him a “chain-smoking, wild-haired skeptic.” He claimed once; “I know this [Ethiopian] community very well, and one of the problems is that it kept all the problems inside, focusing instead on building a new life here.”

SO ABEBE set about doing to the Ethiopian community what some veteran self-critiquers such as Yitzhak Laor have done to the larger Israeli Jewish community. A major breakthrough came with his investigation claiming that Ethiopian Jews had owned slaves in Ethiopia (“They call them blacks” November 1, 2002 Yedioth Ahronoth). This fed a growing fetishization of the “other.”

Self-critiquers require that Jews, the ultimate other, must themselves have an “other” (a fact we are reminded of in the recent offering by the Shalom Hartman Institute of “The Life and Language of the ‘Other’ in Judaism”). Therefore they claim Ethiopian Jews must have been racist against those they perceived to be black, as Hagar Salamon informed academics in her 2003 article “Blackness in transition: Decoding racial constructs through stories of Ethiopian Jews.”

Abebe’s theme of the Ethiopian Jews as slave-owning racists lives on at the university, tarnishing the image of Ethiopian Jews in Israel. The public ate it up. Abebe followed on this success with another “expose.” This time it was the 2005 documentary Code Name: Silence. He portrayed the documentary as “breaking the silence,” and reviewers claimed it was “publicizing the great, long-suppressed secret of the Ethiopian Jewish community.”


It was to the Ethiopian Jewish community what the Kastner affair (in which a high-ranking Hungarian Jewish leader living in Israel was accused of collaboration with the Nazis) was to the early Israeli state.

In Silence Abebe claimed that some Ethiopian Jewish leaders had raped and abused other Ethiopian Jews in the lead up to Operation Moses when the community was trapped in the Sudan. In a sense, Abebe was “exploding the myths” like so many are encouraged to do these days regarding anything holy. But he was also impugning the traditional leadership of the community and its cherished heroes.

In August 2008 Abebe reinvented himself as the voice of the “real Ethiopian Jews” with an editorial entitled “Bringing Falash Mura impugns the real Ethiopian Jews,” and as “Falash Mura masquerading as Jews” it made its way around the Jewish world through the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. He described the Falash Mura immigration as a “project of the American Jews.”

ABEBE HAS been so successful at capturing the title of the go-to guy on Ethiopian Jewish issues that his own community is afraid to criticize him publicly and finds it has few outlets in the media to express another side of the story. In much the same way that Europe uses dissident Israelis to anesthetize itself from charges of anti-Semitism at anti-Israel fests, the Israeli media have found a voice in Abebe. At one and the same time he portrays himself as knowledgeable about Ethiopian culture and as daring to expose its supposed secrets.

However there are other responsible Ethiopian Jewish voices, such as the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews’ Danny Admasu; David Mihret, director of the Steering Center for Ethiopian Immigrants in the Education System; Tsega Melaku, director of Israel Radio’s Reshet Alef; and Shmuel Beru, director of the film Zubravel.

These are authentic activists and artists who care about their community and about the country as a whole. They don’t attempt to gain attention by purposely washing as much dirty laundry as possible in public; they don’t take small problems and make them huge; and they don’t crave attention that hurts the feelings of their community.

Abebe once said: “Many people have asked me not to show this film, but I don’t care.”

It is time people start caring and listening to the quiet voices, the good voices, the silent majority.

The writer is a PhD researcher at Hebrew University.

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