From Ethiopia to Israel, and back again

Israeli ambassador to Ethiopia Belaynesh Zevadia talks to the "Magazine" about the unprecedented relationship between the Jewish state and the country known as the "gateway to Africa."

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn preside over the signing of mutual agreements between Israel and Ethiopia, with Israeli Ambassador to Ethiopia Belaynesh Zevadia (seated left) (photo credit: FOREIGN MINISTRY)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn preside over the signing of mutual agreements between Israel and Ethiopia, with Israeli Ambassador to Ethiopia Belaynesh Zevadia (seated left)
(photo credit: FOREIGN MINISTRY)
For a few weeks in late June and early July, Israel’s ambassador to Ethiopia Belaynesh Zevadia was a celebrity in Addis Ababa.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit – the first ever by an Israeli prime minister to a country that shares a long history with Israel and the Jewish people – thrust her into the limelight.
Ethiopian television networks sought her out, wanting to do a segment on the prime ministerial visit. Israeli journalists turned to her for questions about the state of Ethiopian-Israeli relations. And Netanyahu brought up her name in public appearances throughout his four-country, four-day African visit last week, as an example of how Ethiopian immigrants to Israel have successfully integrated into the highest levels of Israeli society. In addition to Ethiopia, Netanyahu also visited Uganda, Kenya and Rwanda.
The prime minister acknowledged Zevadia at the outset of his address to a special joint session of the Ethiopian parliament. “I am so excited to be here,” he said – as is Zevadia, though he quipped that she has been there before.
That small acknowledgment, Zevadia told the Magazine, was important for her.
“I felt a great deal of pride,” she said. “I felt pride that the first visit by a prime minister took place during my tenure, and I felt proud that my prime minister stood in front of the parliament, in front of people with whom I work on a daily basis, and mentioned me. ‘Wow,’ I thought, ‘we made history.’”
BUT THE history, really, was made in 2012, when Zevadia – who was born in Ethiopia’s Gondar region and immigrated to Israel in 1984 at the age of 16 – was appointed Israel’s envoy to the land of her birth. She was the first Ethiopian- Israeli cadet in the Foreign Ministry, and before being appointed ambassador to Addis Ababa, she served in various positions in Israeli consulates in Chicago and Houston. In addition to serving as envoy to Ethiopia, she is also Israel’s non-resident ambassador to nearby Rwanda and Burundi.
Zevadia’s special situation – a native- born Ethiopian who returned to the country to serve her adopted land – was on full display on June 30, just days before Netanyahu’s visit to Africa, when she was interviewed in English by Tefera Gedamu of the Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation.
After Gedamu asked a few perfunctory questions about Israeli-Ethiopian relations, and after he politely asked about the Israeli business people traveling to the country with the prime minister – to which Zevadia gave perfunctory replies – he made the interview personal.
“Ethiopian Jews have faced a number of issues in integration and other stuff. Are things changing lately?” he asked, alluding to reports of racism in Israel. “Let’s start with you. When you left for Israel in 1984 as a student you had to grapple with the reality there.”
Zevadia did not seem surprised by the question, nor did she miss a beat. She told the Magazine later that she often gets asked these sorts of questions by journalists and ordinary citizens, though never by government officials. Reports of racism and discrimination against Ethiopian Jews may make the newspapers and social media outlets in Ethiopia, but these issues are not raised at a governmental level.
“It is not easy to move from one country to another country,” she replied to the television interviewer. “It doesn’t matter where, even to come back to Addis.”
Zevadia explained that when Ethiopian Jews moved to Israel, they were coming – for the most part – from rural villages, and were catapulted into a super technological and developed society. That type of transition “is not easy,” she said, in quite the understatement.
The ambassador did not deny that there were absorption and integration problems, but she said that “the problem is that the media is showing only negative things. I’m not saying that it [discrimination and racism] does not happen, but it is not the government – the government is not discriminating against Ethiopians by any means.”
As indications that there is no governmental discrimination, and that the country is trying to integrate the Ethiopian Jewish community, which today stands at some 140,000, Zevadia noted the housing assistance the Ethiopian immigrants receive upon arrival – she said that 95 percent of the mortgages they receive to buy an apartment is a “gift” – as well as free education that extends even to those studying for a doctorate.
The interviewer persisted. “I’m not saying that this was sanctioned by the government, but because of the color of the skin obviously you were discriminated against, that is what we heard.” He then mentioned as proof the inability of Ethiopian Jews to donate blood because of a fear of spreading HIV.
That issue is currently in the courts, she shot back, before – with the skill of a seasoned diplomat – turning a negative into a positive, and praised the freedom in Israel that allows the Ethiopian community to protest and demonstrate for their rights.
She mentioned how the “second generation” Israelis of Ethiopian origin born in Israel are having an easier time integrating into society, with the army serving as the great equalizer.
“The army is a good school for Israeli kids in general,” she said. “It doesn’t matter what family they come from, when they go into the army they are together: they sleep together on the floor, they fight together. Ethiopian youth love to go into the army, and they learn a lot there. You can see today very high-level army people from the community, as well as good doctors, engineers, lawyers – lawyers, more than anything – and nurses.”
In the early days of the massive Ethiopian immigration many of the immigrants went into social work, she said. Now the favored profession is law. “So many lawyers,” she said, with a chuckle.
ZEVADIA TOLD Gedamu that there was “opportunity in Israel.” She, in fact, is an example of that opportunity.
The ambassador told the Magazine that during her tenure so far she has not felt any residual resentment from Ethiopians that she somehow turned her back on the country of her birth, and went to live in Israel.
On the contrary, she said, “they respect this.” She said that when she presented her credentials to Ethiopia’s president four years ago, he insisted on speaking to her in Amharic, and said it was a proud moment for the country that an Ethiopian native returned to serve as Israel’s ambassador.
Moreover, she said, there is also respect for Israel among the government class for giving an Ethiopian immigrant the opportunity to serve at this level.
Soon after being posted in Ethiopia in 2012, Zevadia traveled back to her native village in Gondar, a visit she said was highly emotional. Hers was a village without running water or electricity, and as a young girl there “I ran around without shoes,” she reflected. “The most important thing is how I overcame that to become what I am today. That is amazing.”
AND WHAT Zevadia was last week during Netanyahu’s visit to Ethiopia – a visit of some 36 hours – was not only a translator, when the conversation, as it did at a press conference with the Ethiopian prime minister, turned to Amharic, but also a key liaison between the prime minister and his hosts.
Of the four countries that Netanyahu visited last week, the ties with Ethiopia are the ones that go back the farthest.
These ties stretch back way before 1992, when the countries renewed diplomatic relations after Ethiopia joined the bulk of the other African countries and – under intense pressure from the Arab states, including Arab states in Africa – broke off the ties after the Yom Kippur War in 1973.
These ties reach back even prior to 1960, when David Ben-Gurion ordered a plane to be sent to Brazil to pick up Ethiopia’s Emperor Haile Selassie and bring him back to his country to put down an attempted coup.
The ties go all the way back, as Netanyahu pointed out during his speech to the parliament, to biblical times.
“I bring you greetings from Jerusalem,” Netanyahu told the parliament, “the eternal capital of the Jewish people, the place where I grew up and the place where the Queen of Sheba met King Solomon 3,000 years ago.”
The prime minister knew artfully which notes to play, and that a reference to the biblical history between the countries would resonate strongly with many members of the parliament, at least with the Christian ones, for whom ties to Israel are emotionally very important.
“The members of parliament were very moved” by Netanyahu’s speech, Zevadia said. “One person came up and actually cried.”
The reason for the emotion, she said, is that those deeply rooted in the Ethiopian church, a church that has a physical presence on a quiet street in central Jerusalem, have a strong connection to the Jewish people.
There is a deep affection, Zevadia said, between the Ethiopian Christians and the Jews. Haile Selassie considered him self the “Lion of Judah,” a direct descent of the Jewish people.
This explains the Jewish imagery seen in the Presidential Palace, where gold Stars of David are emblazoned on deep red carpets. It also explains why Ethiopia’s President Mulatu Teshome broke protocol and took Netanyahu down into the grounds of the palace to look at the symbol of Ethiopia roaming the grounds: the Abyssinian lions, known for their black manes.
Not all leaders get such an up-close look at the lions, Zevadia said. In fact, she added, it was almost unprecedented, with other leaders only getting a view from “up above,” and not going below where the lions actually roam, as Netanyahu did.
This gesture, she said, was an “important symbolic act,” which had to do with the Ethiopian idea that these lions represent the Lion of Judah.
Zevadia said that just as this was unprecedented, it was also rare for the Ethiopians to put up posters of the visiting guest – together with Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Deaslaegn – on the streets of the capital, as was done for Netanyahu. This was done for last year’s visit by US President Barack Obama, and in honor of a visit in May by South Korean President Park Geunhye, she said, but not – for instance – German Chancellor Angela Merkel, nor France’s President François Hollande when they visited.
It was equally rare, she said, for a foreign leader to be asked to address the parliament, an address that was broadcast live on radio and television.
All that testifies to the importance that the Ethiopians attributed to the visit, she said, adding that Israelis, too, should appreciate the significance of the visit.
Zevadia said that Ethiopia is nothing less than the gateway to Africa, both physically, with Addis Ababa serving as the preeminent air hub on the continent, and diplomatically as well.
Ethiopia is important because it is the seat of the 54-African Union. Housing that pan-African organization gives Ethiopia stature, a stature Israel hopes Hailemariam will use – and which he pledged to use – to upgrade Israel’s status there to one of an observer country.
Addis Ababa, Zevadia said, also houses some 130 embassies, with the rest of the world understanding the importance of this east African state on the continent.
“The entrance to Africa is through Addis,” she said. “And we have to be here. Africa is rising, and we have to be a part of it.”
And physically, Ethiopia is the central destination for those wishing to fly further inland. Ethiopian Airways operates two daily flights from Tel Aviv to Addis.
The night flight, the ambassador said, is generally full, because it brings travelers catching connecting flights elsewhere, while the day flight – bringing tourists to and from Ethiopia – is less full, depending on the season.
Many of the travelers to Ethiopia are Ethiopian Israelis going back and forth, visiting family and conducting business. Two former MKs of Ethiopian origin, Shlomo Molla and Addisu Messele for instance, now represent large Israeli companies in Addis (Molla represents Israel Chemicals Ltd., and Messele represents Marathon).
About eight times a year, Zevadia said, these flights bring Ethiopian-Israeli youth to see the land of their parents’ birth. Zevadia always meets these groups, and feels they are important for the “second generation” to understand “where they came from.”
At the end of her interview on Ethiopian television, Zevadia was asked if she feels Ethiopian. “I was born in this country,” she said. “I love this country. I have the blood here. I do care about the two countries. I do want the relations to be very strong.”
The Netanyahu visit, the one she helped facilitate, was designed to do just that: strengthen a relationship that extends back to the days of Solomon’s Temple.