An Ethiopian who delights in proving everyone wrong

Defying stereotypes, Danny Adino Abebe rose from a humble background and overcame his fair share of discrimination.

Abebe 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Abebe 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Danny Adino Abebe remembers clearly the day he knew for sure he wanted to be a journalist.
“I was in 11th grade, and an army officer came to speak to us about joining the army,” recalls Abebe, who is one of only a handful of Ethiopian-born journalists working today in the mainstream Israeli media. “I asked him if I could join Army Radio, and he said maybe, but only as a driver and most likely never as a mainstream soldier.”
This discouraging attitude toward him simply because he was an Ethiopian immigrant just made the young Abebe even more determined to succeed, and when he was assigned to be a reporter and producer at what is probably the most popular radio station in the country, the 38-year-old knew he had proven everyone wrong.
Proving people wrong, even those from his own community, has now become a favorite pastime of Abebe’s; in recent months, he has been working hard to set up and secure funding for a mass media initiative that aims to challenge a wide range of popular misconceptions about Ethiopian Jews here. He even hopes the endeavor will encourage his own community to look inward and change its negative self-image.
“I’m very critical of my community,” confesses the dread-locked Abebe, as we sit together in a popular Jerusalem-area café. “Maybe it’s because I live in Jerusalem and I’m a little bit spoiled, but I see the type of Ethiopians that are presented to international donors [to Israel], and in order to raise money here, they always have to show a poor, miserable Ethiopian immigrant who does not speak Hebrew and who is disconnected from Israeli society.
“I want to change all of that,” he says with confidence, highlighting that there is already a large number of Ethiopians from his generation who have become doctors and lawyers or achieved professional successes in their various fields.
“I know that not everyone has it in them to succeed, and I know there are always going to be those who failed, but I want to take the strongest youths from my community and give them the proper training and opportunities so that they can use the power of the media to change the overall image of the Ethiopian community in Israeli society,” states Abebe.
Called “Communicate your Space,” the program – which already has the support of the Journalists Association in Jerusalem, Channel 2 and Army Radio – aims to track down the most talented young Ethiopians from 11th and 12th grade and provide them with mentors from the mainstream media so that one day they, too, can become writers, reporters, radio presenters, television journalists and general movers and shakers in the mass communications field.
“My goal is also to change the self-image of young Ethiopians,” says Abebe. “For the past 30 years, the Ethiopians have been told they are poor souls and they are miserable here, but it’s like a child who has been told all his life that he has a disability and that he would amount to nothing, only to discover that he is, in fact, a genius.”
According to Abebe, “in Israel, Ethiopians are treated in the same way that Hamas is viewed; we are considered a ticking time bomb in society, with the authorities sending our children to special schools and considering all of them to be ‘at risk.’” He continues, “I want these young people to become integrated in Israeli society. They are Israeli-born sabras, and they deserve to be part of the mainstream, and they can help their community better from the outside than from inside.”
He highlights, though, that there is still a lot of pressure from the community to continue working inside it.
“Most of what I write is not about my community, and I feel that as a person I can give a lot to Israeli society in general, while at the same time I can use my position to help my community,” he says, adding, “I want to make it very clear that just because someone is Ethiopian, does not mean they should be writing or covering the community.”
Often criticized for turning his back on his own people, Abebe responds, “I have no problem with that, I attend the funerals and the weddings; I write about what is happening from time to time, but I work under my own direction and not under the direction of the community.”
BORN IN the Jewish village of Walaka, not far from the northern Ethiopian town of Gondar, Abebe made aliya with his family as part of Operation Moses in 1984. Only nine years old at the time, he says his was a classic journey, similar to many Ethiopian Jews who arrived in Israel during the 1980s.
“I grew up in a place where there were no buildings at all, and suddenly we arrived in Israel and they took us to an apartment on the seventh floor of a building in Arad,” he remembers, laughing. “Those who were looking after us told us that this way we would be closer to God, and we believed them.”
Abebe, who could be described today as an average secular Israeli, recalls how he was sent to a religious boarding school, taught to pray and wore tzitzit and a kippa consistently until he joined the army at 18.
“I was supposed to have become a rabbi,” jokes the father of two, who managed to surprise everyone by first securing his IDF service at Army Radio and later becoming a reporter at Yediot Aharonot. In between, he also managed a short foray into higher education at the David Yellin Teachers College in Jerusalem, but, he says, his heart was always in journalism.
“I always read many books and I generally love writing and reading,” says Abebe. “Writing is my thing, and I write in a very unique style that has kept the newspaper happy for more than 10 years.”
During our interview, Abebe’s views of his own people – and of those whose stated goal is to help the 120,000-strong Ethiopian community – range from clear anger to extreme disappointment.
“I’m from the critical generation,” admits the journalist.
“We are the ones who have enough power to speak out and say what is hurting us and what is making us sad.”
He theorizes that “we [Ethiopians] are caught up dancing the tango of immigration, but we are not dancing it very well at all. Ethiopians cannot blame Israeli society all the time for everything that has gone wrong. We should be asking what we have done to advance our own community. What have we done to move ourselves forward?” As for those who claim to be helping Ethiopian immigrants, Abebe is no less critical.
“Those who work with the Ethiopians understand that the community can pull in big money because we are poor, black and Jewish; it is the perfect recipe,” he says cynically, lashing out at the Jewish Agency for Israel, which he claims makes important decisions on behalf of the community but does not include any Ethiopians in key decision-making roles.
“We have been in this country for nearly 30 years; that’s a long time, it’s a whole generation. How is it, then, that there are no Ethiopians in important jobs at the Jewish Agency or the Immigrant Absorption Ministry?” he asks, “I think there is a glass ceiling for Ethiopians in this country, there is a point that they cannot move beyond professionally, and that is a huge problem.”
But it’s not all doom and gloom, because Abebe’s hopes are riding on the next generation, especially if he can get “Communicate Your Space” up and running.
Aiming to launch a pilot as soon as September in Jerusalem, Beit Shemesh and Ma’aleh Adumim, Abebe says he has managed to secure some funding from the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, run by Rabbi Yehiel Eckstein, who is involved in multiple projects supporting the Ethiopian immigrant community. But Abebe estimates that he still needs to raise some NIS 400,000.
“Working on this project has made me see that [sadly] the only way to help the Ethiopian community is by presenting them as poor and needy souls.
Most of the people I have turned to for help have said I need to find the sad stories, because that is the only way to fundraise for my community,” he observes.
“But I refuse to do that,” he continues. “I really think it’s time to invest in those who want to succeed and are able to succeed.”
Says Abebe,“In a few years from now, I want to see a different image of the Ethiopian community from inside and out. I want to see young Ethiopians working in the media and not being shown as the sad community.”