Domestic violence: An aliya story

There is a disproportionate amount of violence against women, particularly of husbands murdering their wives, in the Ethiopian community. Many blame Israeli society for emasculating Ethiopian men and confusing traditional gender roles.

Domestic violence (do not republish) (photo credit: Anna Kaplan/Flash 90)
Domestic violence (do not republish)
(photo credit: Anna Kaplan/Flash 90)
BY NOVEMBER OF 2008, the reports had become more optimistic: the number of Israeli women of Ethiopian origin murdered by their husbands had gone down for the first time in five years.
None had been murdered so far in 2008.
But a month later, with nine days to go until year’s end, Ananiyeh Jamara, 42, became the first and only Israeli woman of Ethiopian origin murdered in 2008. Jamara, too, had become a statistic, one of 11 women murdered by their spouses or partners that year. She represented 9 percent of the total.
A mother of six, she had been on her way back from a meeting with a social worker when her husband, Mula Jamara, 53, ambushed her, cut her throat, stabbed her in the stomach and left her dead in a park, and then hanged himself from a tree.
The couple had a history of domestic violence followed by periods of reconciliation and she had already taken out five restraining orders against him since coming to Israel.
They had just moved to Haifa from an absorption center near Jerusalem.
David Molla, a social worker and director of the absorption center where the couple had spent two years, remembers the husband very well.
“He told me what kind of man he was in Ethiopia. As head of the village security he was respected, looked up to. He told me that in Ethiopia he was a lion but in Israel he was a cat. ” By that Jamara meant, explains Molla, that “‘they made me small, my wife made me into a cat. I have to meow like a cat to get some money from her. If I’m hungry I have to meow to get some food.’ But this time the cat had no place to go, and he became a street cat. He ambushed her, killed her and hanged himself.
“I still can see his eyes before me,” Molla recalls. “Poor children, orphaned in one day.”
Similar stories relating to the Israeli families of Ethiopian origin repeat themselves with a monotonous script – a woman murdered while her helpless children watch, a husband who commits suicide, or tries to. The number of such murders among Ethiopian Israelis has been grossly disproportionate to the size of this small community of roughly 100,000 who make up only 1.5 percent of the population.
The frequency of wife-murder goes against the stereotypical expectations of behavior, since Israelis of Ethiopian origin have a reputation for being gentle and law-abiding.
Even including the murder of Ananiyeh Jamara, it does appear that the number of murders of women of Ethiopian origin has, in fact, decreased. In 2009 “only” one Ethiopian woman was murdered by her spouse or partner, out of a total of eight women. In 2010, it was one out of six. So far in 2011, no news is good news.
This is a marked improvement over previous years. In 2005, for example, five out of 12 murdered women were of Ethiopian origin, a startling 36 percent of the total. And the numbers weren’t that much better in 2006, when four Ethiopian women were murdered out of 10, for a total of 40 percent.
THE WIFE MURDERS HAVE LEFT the Ethiopian community shocked and ashamed. Community leaders say that while violence against women was prevalent, such murders were unheard of in Ethiopia. They attribute the phenomenon to the disorienting transition to Israeli life, which places a frustrating, almost unbearable, burden on Ethiopian men who, as Jamara complained, lost what was once their dominant patriarchal role as undisputed head of the family.
Furthermore, experts explain, when they left their villages Ethiopians also lost the emotional support system of extended families living side by side and the counsel of the shmagile, the wise elders in every village who were consulted when problems arose.
The lack of Amharic-speaking social workers had contributed to the crisis, say community leaders.
“We need to have more Ethiopian social workers who know how to decipher the cultural code and help men and women both,” says Dr. Nigist Mengesha, who was the first Ethiopian social worker in Israel. Mengesha, who holds a PhD in education, was, until recently, director of the Ethiopian National Project, (ENP) a program to help Ethiopian students realize their academic potential.
According to Mengesha, the ENP also mobilized to fight against the phenomenon of wife murders by launching roundtable discussions in each city to coordinate services among the various agencies. The ENP located shmagile among the immigrants and the respected elders were provided with additional training and were set to work within neighborhoods to educate and prevent violence.
The ENP also formed men’s groups in each city under the title “Men Leading Change” to address the challenge of disempowerment.
Since 2008, a “No to Domestic Violence” campaign has been broadcast on Amharic radio stations and the Ethiopian television channel.
“We knew there was a problem even before the first murder case,” says Mengesha in an extensive telephone interview. “Nobody prepared them for these cultural changes. In Ethiopia, everybody worked the land and lived in peace. Here in Israel the men sit by idly and they are frustrated. Traditional farming has no place in Israel. Nobody uses a plough anymore. Their own children are the ones who must interpret for them and it makes the men feel small.”
“Israel is a country for women and children, but not for men,” has become a common phrase among the Ethiopian community, MK Shlomo Molla (Kadima) tells The Report. “It is the cultural difference, the blurring of the gender roles and the loss of the man’s status in the patriarchal family. It creates much pressure and despair and it has brought some men to a point where they lost their control. The majority of men who hurt their wives later committed suicide, or tried to.”
In contrast to the men, the women, says Mengesha, are becoming increasingly assertive and a growing number of them are turning to the police and seeking safety in shelters.
“Women are making their voices heard,” she says. “In Ethiopia there were the traditional solutions for domestic violence and nobody went to the police. To use these modern services you need to be aware of them and to have the belief that they can help. Ethiopian women have become aware of new options open to them.”
YET ISRAEL IS A COUNTRY of immigrants and various groups, each with its own set of problems, have made aliya from all over the world.
And most of these groups have dealt with the pressure without developing a phenomenon of wife-killing.
The large waves of immigrants from lessdeveloped countries came largely in the 1950s, when Israel was also less developed.
But the Jews from Ethiopia have come to a post-industrial, high-tech, highly urbanized Israeli society. The gap between agrarian village life in Ethiopia and modern Israel is too wide, says Almaz Kasa, who directs a shelter for abused women in the center of the country.
“Don’t forget where we came from,” she tells The Report. “In Ethiopia there were places where there was no electricity, no running water and to buy something you had to go a few hours by foot. When we came here, all of a sudden we were in a place where women can work, study and advance themselves, and some men didn’t know how to cope.”
One of the men who didn’t know how to cope was Kasa’s ex-husband. She herself was a prime candidate to become a murder victim, she says, had she not escaped to a shelter in time.
“The possibility that he would kill me was high, and there was a period that I didn’t sleep at night for fear that he would murder me in my sleep,” she recalls. One night when Kasa got up to breastfeed her six-month-old daughter, her husband told her that if it were not for the children he would finish her off on the spot. “The next morning my milk dried up from fear,” she relates.
Studies around the world have found that violence against women is most common where gender roles are rigidly defined and enforced, and where the concept of masculinity is linked to toughness, male honor, or dominance.
Other cultural norms associated with abuse include male control of wealth and decision-making within the family, tolerance of physical punishment of women and children, acceptance of violence as a means to settle interpersonal disputes, and the perception that men have “ownership” of women.
The first-ever World Health Organization (WHO) study on domestic violence published in 2005 may shed further light on the phenomenon of domestic violence among Ethiopian Jewish immigrants to Israel. The study, based on interviews with more than 24,000 women from rural and urban areas in 10 countries ranging from Bangladesh to Japan and including Ethiopia, shows that nearly one-half of Ethiopian women experienced physical violence by a partner at some point in their lives, and 59 percent experienced sexual violence at some point.
Combining the data for physical and sexual violence, 71 percent of Ethiopian women experienced one or the other form of violence, or both, over their lifetime.
Semai Elias, the kes (spiritual leader) of the Ethiopian community in Rishon Lezion, says that the social norm in Ethiopia is that a man can hit his wife in order to “educate” her.
“For the Jewish population it was forbidden, but there was influence from the society at large,” he says. “Still, we never heard of a case where a man murdered his wife.”
But immigration is a radical life transformation, which includes drastic changes in culture, language and status. Recognized as a major life stress event, it even has its own medical term – the Ulysses Syndrome, referring to the Greek hero who suffered countless adversities and dangers in lands far from his loved ones.
“Jamara felt empty, like he was nothing,” says Molla. “I think he represents many like him.”
Molla recalls that he had visited a man in jail who was charged with murdering his wife. “He said he’s very sorry and he’s very sad. He blames the society that gives legitimacy to the dishonor of the men and says that he had no one who would listen to him. He, too, said ‘Israel is a country for women and children, but not for men.’” The man felt, Molla says, “that he didn’t have a choice. There was no way out. He said he did it in a moment of rage. He used an axe.”
But Kasa shows much less sympathy for the men than would appear from the explanations provided by many of the interviewees for this story. “In Ethiopia the man was the king. He determined what to do and what not to do and the woman washed his feet when he came home. In this society, the woman goes to work and learns Hebrew. The man doesn’t accept it – and he doesn’t want to accept it.
He doesn’t advance and he doesn’t want his wife to advance. He wants the woman to keep washing his feet.” ✡