A traumatic history

Over 30 years since the first wave of Ethiopian aliya, community members speak up about continued racism and discrimination.

Danny Brom (left) and Asher Rahamim at the Israel Center for Treatment of Psychotrauma in Jerusalem. (photo credit: LAURA KELLY)
Danny Brom (left) and Asher Rahamim at the Israel Center for Treatment of Psychotrauma in Jerusalem.
(photo credit: LAURA KELLY)
‘It’s not a surprise the protests began,” says Asher Rahamim, the services coordinator for the Ethiopian community at the Israel Center for the Treatment of Psychotrauma of Herzog hospital. “It happens every 10 years or so.
In 1984 it was against the poor living conditions, in 1995 it was the blood scandal... Israeli society has a problem: racism.”
The numbers have been often repeated in the past weeks: While 2 percent of the Israeli population is of Ethiopian descent – a small group of around 135,000 people – much higher numbers and statistics define this Jewish community in Israel. Studies by the Central Bureau of Statistics and state comptroller’s reports between the years 2009 and 2013 show shameful gaps in education, employment and wealth between Ethiopian Israelis and the general Israeli population.
Those that make it out of the statistics, that advance their education and standing in society, still face a racist society, unequal pay and a broken system that has failed them.
It’s two instances in particular that set off protests and violent confrontations with police at the beginning of May: the unprovoked beating of IDF soldier Damas Pakada by police officers, caught on tape, and the circumstances surrounding the death of Yosef Salamsa in July 2014. But the hurt, distrust and systematic neglect of the community run much deeper.
In speaking with a few pioneering voices, snapshots emerge of the hardships facing the community. Rahamim and general director of the psychotrauma center Danny Brom speak on their innovative programs to identify trauma and treat it; a soldier tells his own story of immigration, hardship and ultimately success; community leaders in Jerusalem speak on integration and understanding; and an activist writes a personal testimony of her participation in the violent protests that shocked Tel Aviv at the beginning of this month.
For a community small in number but diverse in problems, these are some of the few that are standing up to make a difference.
The professionals Rahamim and Brom both agree that there was a waste of NIS 800 million by the government, that there is little to no coordination between the health and welfare ministries, that – while the National Insurance Institute and the Health Ministry have given them the funds to implement programs they’ve designed to treat trauma in the Ethiopian community, the programs will only be implemented with a coordinated effort.
Rahamim, who says that although his children go to a school which is pluralistic and has high academic standards, they still come home with stories of mean and hurtful things being said to them about the color of their skin.
Brom, who opened the trauma center after making aliya in 1988, had worked in the field in the Netherlands and was shocked at the severe lack of services in Israel. The center works across a multitude of disciplines that include training to identify and deal with trauma, research, teaching resilience, identifying and treating trauma in children and various programs to follow up with trauma victims, especially former combat soldiers.
The Ethiopian community in Israel requires a different nuance when it comes to trauma. Beginning with their journey to Israel, the absorption process had them put in the poorest and most neglected neighborhoods, where they had little access to quality education, and had to contend with cultural and language barriers that made communication near impossible.
“To look someone in the eye is a sign of disrespect,” Brom says of Ethiopian culture, “in contrast to the Israeli way where in normal conversation you are cut off mid-sentence.”
Despite the three decades since the first wave of Ethiopian aliya, it was only seven years ago that the center and the government began to work together to develop programs to treat trauma in the Ethiopian community in Israel. In February of this year, their work, and Rahamim’s story of his aliya, was profiled by Judy Siegel for The Jerusalem Post.
In January, Rahamim and Brom organized a day-long conference called “From Ethiopia to Jerusalem: Communal empowerment and Trauma treatment.” They also distributed a 68-page booklet they authored with research assistant Nili Lavi on the treatment of psychotrauma and empowerment of Ethiopian immigrants to 150 social workers, psychiatrists, psychologists and other attendees.
Over the past seven years, however, their most well received program has been organized: weekly meetings in Ashdod, Kiryat Gat and Jerusalem to give Ethiopian Israelis a safe space to discuss and identify their trauma and how to handle it.
Rahamim has also started the STEPS Home program, which stands for Sharing Testimony of the Ethiopian Peoples’ Survival.
One aspect of the program are recorded video testimonials, for the generation that suffered extreme trauma and loss during their journey through Sudan before arriving in Israel. A project such as this seeks to bridge the gap between an individual’s current life and their personal journey, as well as the intergenerational gap between grandparents, parents and children.
Rahamim scoffs at the idea of the government taking any action.
“They’ll form a committee,” he says sarcastically. Another frustration is that the government – when looking at different ways to help the community – believes that any program which is developed should be flexible enough to use over a wide spectrum of the population.
Brom says this is not reality, that each group has specific needs that should be addressed, no one system can do it all. Brom is critical of the lack of integrative planning on the level of the ministries.
Brom is also critical that no one Knesset member has stood up and offered a plan to combat racism. While on Tuesday dozens of Ethiopian- Israeli social activists met with Knesset members and MK Dov Henin hosted the meeting, former MK Pnina Tamano-Shata accused the Knesset of not supporting laws meant to tackle racism and discrimination.
But on the other side, Rahamim is optimistic: what the community needs to do, he says, is look inward, and move forward from there. He boasts that this generation of Ethiopian Israelis is more educated, more motivated and interested in change. “Looking inwards and working within our own community, this is our greatest strength, and our greatest successes,” Rahamim says.