Eisenbud's Odyssey: My Brother’s Keeper

How is it possible that as Jews – perhaps the most discriminated-against race in the history of the world – we see fit to treat our own brothers and sisters as children of a lesser God?

Democracy is measured by how it treats its vulnerable 390 (photo credit: Mark Hoffer/ MCT)
Democracy is measured by how it treats its vulnerable 390
(photo credit: Mark Hoffer/ MCT)
I have always harbored pronounced antipathy toward those who judge people based on the color of their skin or geographical origin. I never found it any different than anti-Semites who judge me based on my religion.
It’s a hateful and shameful practice, rooted in ignorance, fear and false elitism.
That said, my disgust at the ongoing discrimination against Israel’s already severely traumatized Ethiopian-Jewish community is beyond contempt.
Indeed, I frequently ask myself how it is possible that as Jews – perhaps the most discriminated-against race in the history of the world – we see fit to alienate our own brothers and sisters, with shared experiences, as though they were children of a lesser God.
It’s the epitome of chutzpah, and a disturbing blemish on an otherwise incandescent example of democracy in a region darkened by inhumane autocracies and theocracies.
ETHIOPIAN JEWS came here under strikingly similar circumstances to those faced by the myriad of Holocaust survivors who sought refuge in Zionism – my family included.
The first mass exodus of Ethiopian Jews came in the 1980s and ’90s during the Marxist- Leninist dictatorship of Mengistu Haile Mariam, who murdered thousands of African Jews, separated families, displaced survivors, orphaned children and forbade all from practicing Judaism.
Sounds familiar, no?
Mariam’s oppression, compounded by unparalleled famine, the highest infant mortality rate in the world and the constant threat of war, resulted in an untenable existence for Ethiopia’s tens of thousands of Jews.
Thus, under the auspices of the Israeli government (with some aid from the US government’s CIA), rescue missions known as Operation Moses, Joshua and Solomon saved over 21,000 Ethiopian-Jewish lives by bringing them to Israel.
Today, over 120,000 Ethiopian Jews live in Israel.
However, their story does not have a happy ending.
EVEN THOUGH Ethiopian Jews were legally absorbed, serve honorably in the military, attend university, have earned important political posts and contribute to the workforce, they have been treated with unconscionable disrespect.
Their assimilation into Israeli society has been marred by an ugly cacophony of institutionalized racism, manifested in a number of disturbing ways among their “more equal” white-skinned counterparts.
This, of course, doesn’t take into account the severe emotional trauma they faced during their exodus from a hellish nightmare.
THE MOST recent, and perhaps most egregious, indignity against Jews of Ethiopian descent was sparked last month following a national television exposé depicting how a young Ethiopian family attempting to buy an apartment in the town of Kiryat Malachi was turned away.
A subsequent investigation determined that the white tenants of the building concerned collectively signed an agreement not to rent or sell their properties to members of the Ethiopian community.
It was a disturbing story that rightly outraged a large segment of Israeli society and resulted in two mass marches in front of the Knesset in January, which were attended by thousands of Ethiopians and other men and women of conscience.
During the highly publicized peaceful protests, many held placards of quotes from the great Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in a scene eerily reminiscent of King’s 1963 March on Washington.
“Our goal is to raise awareness and send the message to the government of Israel to wake up and take notice that there are black Jews in Israel and that it is also our country,” Gadi Yevarkan, director of the Center for Social Equality for the Ethiopian Jews, and one of the protest’s organizers, told The Jerusalem Post at the time.
Many of the community’s young leaders who attended the protests reported segregation in the educational system and professional sectors and racist attitudes toward Ethiopian immigrants within mainstream Israeli society.
“We are protesting because we are Jews and we remember that the last time we were not allowed to rent apartments was when we lived in Ethiopia,” said another protester. “We want to share the message that, as Jews, we have all suffered because of our religion and there is no reason for us not to feel at home in Israel,” he said.
Again, sound familiar?
ON AN empirical level, I see Ethiopian-Israelis every day and it is evident that they keep among themselves, with far too few exceptions.
When I recently asked a 20-something Ethiopian-Israeli colleague, who was born in Israel, what adjectives came to mind when she contemplated Ethiopian Jews’ treatment in Israeli society, she used words like “racism,” “cruelty” and “inferiority.”
Furthermore, this exceedingly intelligent young woman, who served honorably in the IDF, went on to cite her memories as a child of blood drives during which Ethiopian blood donated was discarded into trash bins.
“I thought to myself: ‘Why doesn’t anyone want my blood?’ Even as a kid I knew it didn’t make sense to throw away blood.”
ON A clinical level, it has been determined by psychiatrists in this country that a disproportionate number of Ethiopian immigrants suffer from severe psychological trauma, reminiscent of concentration-camp survivors.
Indeed, Prof. Zahava Solomon, a Tel Aviv University expert in psychiatric epidemiology and social work, examined 600 Ethiopian Jewish adults and found that 28 percent of them suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
To put this in perspective, the average level of PTSD in the general Israeli public – which collectively has gone through wars, terrorism and other traumatic events – is 9%.
Prof. Danny Brom, director of the Israel Center for the Treatment of Psychotrauma at Herzog Hospital in Jerusalem, has worked diligently with members of the Ethiopian community in workshops to address and allay their suffering.
“The workshops are run the same way groups of Holocaust survivors have discussed their traumatic experiences,” he said. “The discovery that they are not the only ones to have suffered from traumatic events eases their pain.”
Meanwhile, just two weeks ago it was reported that a lack of funding, coupled with friction between the Jewish Agency and the Immigrant Absorption Ministry, has resulted in severely curbed funding for a highly effective domestic violence program geared toward Ethiopian immigrants.
“The establishment should have learned from mistakes in absorbing previous immigrant communities,” said Brom.
THESE MEN, women and children deserve dignity, respect and compassion.
They came here under similar circumstances to the majority of their fellow white Jews who have, comparatively, been exponentially embraced.
Why is that? Is it because of the color of their skin?
Ultimately, a true democracy is judged based on how it treats its most vulnerable population.
This being the case, we must ask ourselves: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
If the answer is no, then we should reassess our collective history.
And what it means to be a Jew.
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