The trailblazer

Itzik Dessie is making his mark protecting the rights of Ethiopian olim and also trying to bridge the gap between American Jews and African Americans.

itzik dessie 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy )
itzik dessie 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy )
When Attorney Itzik Dessie, one of the first two Ethiopian Israelis to graduate from an Israeli law school, founded Tebeka: Advocacy for Equality and Justice for Ethiopian Israelis seven years ago, his main goals were to educate Ethiopian immigrants about the Israeli legal system and to fight discrimination. Since the Ethiopian legal system is substantially different from the Israeli one, the immigrants were unable to realize their rights and obligations as citizens; and so Tebeka began by giving lectures, publishing written materials and producing a radio show to fill the gap. As the community became more knowledgeable, there was a growing demand for legal services at prices that unemployed and disenfranchised immigrants could afford, leading Tebeka to place greater emphasis on providing legal guidance, aid and referrals to other agencies with expertise in particular fields. The organization became known for its willingness to call government offices, as well as private businesses, to account for discriminatory practices. More than once, discriminatory decisions were quickly reversed after it became known that Tebeka was planning to file suit. Today, there is no doubt that the organization is a force to be reckoned with in the Israeli civil liberties field. Rather than rest on his laurels or duplicate previous successes, Dessie is moving on to another new stage: American University's Washington College of Law (WCL) where he will spend a year working on a LL.M. degree as fellow of the New Israel Fund's Israel-US Civil Liberties Law Fellows Program. Every year since 1984, two Israeli lawyers with a special interest in civil and human rights have spent an intensive year of study at WCL, acquiring hands-on training in an American civil or human rights organization and then return to Israel for the second year of the fellowship program where they apply their skills and education to benefit and promote civil rights and civil liberties in Israel. When Metro spoke to Dessie shortly before his departure, he spoke excitedly about his desire to be part of an international program that is one of the best in the world, if not the best, for civil rights law and return with better tools to promote the goals of Tebeka, not only for the benefit of the Ethiopian Israeli community but for all Israelis who face prejudice and discrimination. "In the end justice and equality make society better for everyone," he said. Dessie has two additional, less obvious goals. First, rather than continuously asking Diaspora Jews to donate money to solve problems of poverty and education that never seem to be resolved, he would like their support to nurture a new generation of local leadership, from less affluent sectors of Israel society, so that they can tackle their communities' problems themselves and develop long-term solutions. He would also like to contribute to the American Jewish community by doing his practical work with ADL (Anti-Defamation League) or NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) where he hopes his presence as an African-born, black Jewish lawyer, who is a public figure in Israel, will help dissipate, even a little, the current tensions between Afro-Americans and Jews by demonstrating that Jews need not be racists.