Photo of Kiryat Gat.
(photo credit: Jerusalem Post Archives)
When four Jews, three of them children, are gunned down in front of a Jewish
school in the middle of Toulouse, France, it forces the question: what is
freedom, and how is it obtained? When, on the very next day, the European
Union’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton makes the skewed comparison of
these children’s deaths to the unintended deaths of children in Gaza when Israel
attempts to stop missile launchings and apprehend terrorists, again, one can
only contemplate the very same question.
As a citizen of the Jewish
homeland, years ago I would have responded that freedom means having one’s own
country and government without the imminent threat of anti-Semitism. Yet this,
too, is an unsatisfactory answer when one considers the threats we face to our
existence here in Israel as well, most recently exhibited by the consistent
barrage of rocket attacks in the Negev region, leaving us once again to ponder
freedom and its ramifications.
During the Passover Seder which is swiftly
approaching, this question remains the centerpiece of our attention and the
focal topic of our discussions as we annually recite the ominous words, “In
every generation people rise up against us to annihilate us.” Part of the fate
of the Jewish nation is that it will always have enemies, be they in the form of
a gangster, a Hamas terrorist, or a Catherine Ashton – a rather discouraging
Yet the Seder experience should help us understand that freedom
is a state of mind which begins with understanding ourselves as individuals and
our predicament as a nation, unfortunately a precedent which is misunderstood
and mishandled by many of our governmental institutions and agencies. It is
therefore incumbent upon us every year as we approach Passover, which
undoubtedly conjures reflections of the past, to apply the same concerns of
slavery and redemption as they affect the present.
Such application can
help facilitate certain freedom.
The top students in the Yeshivat Hesder
Derech Chaim in Kiryat Gat where I teach are of Ethiopian descent. Not only are
these young men academically driven but they exhibit outstanding character; they
are polite, soft spoken and well mannered. This may sound prejudiced, certainly
not my intention, but considering that I live adjacent to a neighborhood of
Ethiopian Jews which is plagued by crime and recklessness, quite frankly I am
The youth of this particular neighborhood are left to roam the
streets; juvenile delinquents with no parental supervision engaged in petty
theft and alcohol abuse.
Consequently, I found myself struggling with the
question: why is it that the Ethiopian youth in my yeshiva appear to be on the
road to success, while the Ethiopian youth in my neighborhood appear to be on
the road to disaster? When I posed this question to my students they replied
unequivocally that they and their families had made a conscious decision to
leave the ghettoized Ethiopian communities which they were originally situated
in and move into heterogeneous Israeli communities.
In so doing their
vision became both expansive and realistic and their aspirations grew in
accordance with the broader Israeli society surrounding them; they freed
themselves of a restrictive existence and adjusted to the societal norms around
I was reminded of an Ethiopian young man in our yeshiva who I had
brought to Kiryat Gat over five years ago from the neighborhood mentioned above
and who now, completing his fifth year at the yeshiva and having served in a
combat unit in the IDF, was indeed the top student in our institution,
presumably because he left the environs where he had grown up. I began to
appreciate that what my students were suggesting, and what I was witnessing
firsthand, was accurate; these young men were part of an ideological mission to
contribute and affect the country and nation which they felt a part of. These
young men were free.
When the Jewish Agency brought Ethiopian Jews to
Israel from the late ‘70s to ‘90s, they were positioned by both the Agency and
the government to live in large communities among themselves.
result, many of the Ethiopian Jews were never integrated, or encouraged to
become a part of Israeli society. What emerged were large clusters of Ethiopian
Jewish communities consisting of people who found themselves torn from their
past without a capacity to deal with, let alone prepare their children for, a
These same children, now the emerging generation, lost respect
for their disoriented parents, became resentful toward a system which reeked of
exclusion, and sank into the depths of reckless desperation, the results of
which we are now beginning to face. What is perhaps more disturbing is that the
absorption of Ethiopian Jewry was not the first time the government was tested
with such a state of affairs.
During the 1950s Moroccan Jews who had
immigrated to Israel were also conveniently situated by the government in
particular towns such as Beit Shemesh, Netivot, Dimona, Beit She’an and Ofakim.
These towns were called “development towns,” presumably because they were meant
to help the new immigrants “develop” and acclimate to their new surroundings and
integrate into the Israeli society. They did anything but. The mistakes and
failures which should have been obvious as a result of the Moroccan Aliya were
never rectified or modified during the Ethiopian Aliya.
The month of
Nissan begs us to recall our Exodus from having been slaves in Egypt. This
begins with an understanding that slavery is the obstruction of one’s ability to
progress and that freedom is an entity which may not easily reveal itself
because it is concealed in the most unobvious of places, places which can only
be revealed within ourselves and those around us.The writer teaches at
Yeshiva Hesder Kiryat Gat and serves under the Harel Division for the Rabbanut
of the IDF. He is also an author and lecturer on Israel, Religious Zionism and
Jewish education. More information www.hammer.com