Guest Column: Idleness kills

It both sad and sinful to watch Ethiopians from a distance slowly die because of their failure to adapt.

ethiopian woman crying88 (photo credit: )
ethiopian woman crying88
(photo credit: )
Ever since Ethiopians came to Israel some of our people have been plagued by maladies - physical and social - that could have been avoided had they received the right kind of support. There is far too much idleness about. It's not uncommon to hear an Ethiopian say, "I am coming back from a mourning house. We buried someone in Holon," or "Now I am going to Ashkelon to a family in mourning." There are two milestone events in which an individual must take part: marriage and mourning. But lack of work and idleness have warped traditions. With nothing to do, people seek out such encounters - especially weddings and bar mitzvas where folks drink, overeat and gossip. The Beta-Israel who lived in the Ethiopian countryside worked the land. A peasant would leave his home early in the morning and return late into the evening. A young son or daughter - or if there were no children, the wife - would take his lunch to the field. He would take a short break from his work to eat, and also to rest the oxen which had been yoked all morning. In the field, the oxen got tired, but not the farmer. Men would work from dawn to dusk. But they were clean and healthy. In the evening, the farmer would free the oxen, go to the nearby river and wash the animals and himself. There was no Beta-Israel village which didn't have a river flowing through it, or one nearby. For religious reasons also, water was essential. Afterwards, both farmer and oxen would go home. The sticky mud from the fields having been cleaned off the oxen, they'd be properly fed, usually on hay. In Israel, these one-time peasants, formerly sturdy and hard-working, have become obese. I am a witness, for I was there. AFTER THE Ethiopians immigrated to Israel, they suddenly found themselves idle. No substitute was created for what they did in Ethiopia. Moreover, the food they now eat is not natural. In Ethiopia, even though there was a dearth of food, whatever was eaten came fresh, straight from the fields. Here there is nothing that can engage these people. They are not educated. They are not skilled. The abilities they do have - metalwork, pottery, weaving - are not in great demand here. They have become bulky from inactivity. Diabetes and high blood pressure, diseases hardly known in Ethiopia, have become rampant in some quarters. People are always taking different kinds of pills. Sometimes, because they are unable to read doctors' prescriptions, a husband takes the medication prescribed for his wife, and vice versa. OFTENTIMES, enforced idleness contributes to family violence. Husband and wife are in the house, idle and bored, blankly facing each other. Sometimes the husband goes out to drink, and when he returns he engages in hostile conversation with his wife. Such boredom can lead to hatred. If they were given jobs, these people would not have the time to quarrel. The sense of achievement - the simple, basic act of earning one's livelihood - would create a healthy atmosphere in the family. The feeling of being productive would create peace in the home. Ultimately, it is not a question of money, even though the financial benefits are not to be discounted. It is a question of giving people a purpose in life, filling the emptiness that comes as the result of idleness. THE MOST tragic consequence of the current situation is the impact it has had on the children. When youngsters see endless parental bickering, it weakens the family structure and, ultimately, contributes to juvenile delinquency. The condition Ethiopian children find themselves in has taught me one thing: Crime is man-made. There are few social outlets - such as community clubs - in places where Ethiopians live. If the government had created the necessary conditions for absorbing Ethiopian families they would be living a healthier lifestyle and raising better-adjusted children. It saddens me that nothing is being done to engage these former peasants when there are lots of things the absorption authorities could do. EVEN THOUGH the government authorities deserve most of the blame for the tragic conditions in which Ethiopians find themselves, the various non-profit organizations run by educated Ethiopians are also responsible. These NGOs have few concrete programs. Their main interest, it sometimes seems, is to hunt for donors and collect money. But there is a lot these groups could do. They could arrange sports programs for young and old; they could organize walking tours under the guidance of trained instructors. It would be possible to arrange evening dance clubs, comedy shows and other healthy social activities. In the beginning, people might resist change and not come to such social activities. It is hard to break with sedentary habits. But through perseverance and effort it is possible to change self-destructive ways and get people engaged again. What is important, on the part of the NGOs and government agencies, is a willingness and readiness to work with the Ethiopian community. ONE OF the most important things the authorities could do is employ able-bodied Ethiopians in agriculture, picking oranges and olives. They would be useful, they could make money and, most importantly, they would be living a healthy lifestyle. Of course, care would have to be taken that these peasants not fall prey to profiteers. They would have to be paid decent salaries and given legal protection. Even native-born Israelis can need experts to help them lead healthy lifestyles. This is all the more true for people who have come from rural Ethiopia. It is not only sad, it's a sin to watch these people from a distance, slowly dying because of their failure to adapt to Israeli society. Something has to be done to save them and their children. The writer is a freelancer based in Jerusalem.