A man wears a sign that says ‘I am also Yosef Salamsa,’ an Ethiopian Israeli believed to have killed himself after alleged abuse by police..
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
On April 27, an Ethiopian-Israeli soldier named Damas Pakada was beaten by two policemen in an incident caught on video by a bystander, triggering two large protests, in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Ethiopian immigrants to Israel have long complained of systemic racism which no amount of dialogue seems to solve. However, the root of the problem is more serious: Ethiopian Jews were never accepted as Jews in the first place.
When Operation Moses airlifted some 75,000 Ethiopians in 1984, Ethiopian Jews were regarded by the Israeli government as a group needing to be converted to Judaism. This led to the vicarious accusation that they were never Jews in the first place. The fight by Ethiopian Jews is one generation too late – they should have never agreed to convert to their own religion for a second time. If this struggle had been fought from the beginning, Ethiopian Israelis would have won respect on their own terms. Instead, due to their economic hardships, conversions were accepted as being inevitable.
What is now needed in Israel for the acceptance of Ethiopian Jews – and indeed any non-white or non-Ashkenazi Jew – is the understanding that no group has a monopoly on who is a Jew; such a determination is in the heart, where Adonai is the adjudicator. There are two Latin sayings that are appropriate here.
One is Audi alteram partem – hear the other side; while the other is Nemo iudex in causa sua – no one should be judge in his own case.
As to who is Jewish, only God makes the final determination. From a combination of oral history and DNA evidence in the case of my people, the Lemba, the Chief Rabbinate should rethink the humiliating process of converting a member of a Hebrew tribe into an Ashkenazi Jew.
Historically, the people we know as Jews is but one segment of the Judah-Israel kingdom. There are communities such as the Lemba around the world whose oral histories and DNA have vindicated their claims of being transplanted from the earlier tribes that were part of this kingdom, the Hebrew nation. We cannot afford to engage in petty civil rights debates in the Holy Land.
What the Ethiopian case teaches us is that there is more work to be done in accepting the non-white Jew as part of Israel. There is more work to be done in removing obstacles for non-white Jews to practice their religion. And there is more work to be done in stimulating dialogue among Jews.
The culture in Israel needs to change to accept non-Ashkenazi Jews more fully.
By acceptance, I mean equality in treatment.
More importantly, there must be equality in education, policing, and housing. There is no reason why Ethiopian Jews should be at the low end of Israeli society.
When acceptance of all Jews occurs, it is a beautiful thing, because the shared culture only builds understanding of Judaism, its goals and history. An example of how nonacceptance affects these scattered communities is that Ethiopian Jews, because of initial rejection, no longer wear their beautiful blue clothes with the Star of David.
Their cultural history has been pushed aside, so that they can be integrated as Orthodox Jews in Israel. This is where all the stereotypes begin.
The writer is a Lemba Jew, constitutional lawyer and president of the African Jewish Rights Center in New York.