Diversity and Judaism in Israel

Today, Jews of all backgrounds, including the Ethiopian Jews, contribute to the security, economy and prosperity of Israel.

Ethiopian Jews prepare for Passover (photo credit: LIOR SPERANDEO)
Ethiopian Jews prepare for Passover
(photo credit: LIOR SPERANDEO)
In recent weeks, the question of whether or not Ethiopians are Jewish has reemerged in the Israeli religio-political discourse. A rabbi from Kiryat Gat challenged the credibility of Ethiopian rabbis (Kessim) and asserted that the story of Ethiopian Jewry was a fabricated one.
I am always disturbed when I hear about some Jews questioning the legitimacy of other Jews. I believe that the meaning of a religious leader is someone who serves as a good example for his or her people. In my opinion, a rabbi who is dividing people should be removed from his position.
I am an Israeli citizen from the Ethiopian Jewish community. I am currently a student in the United States pursuing a master’s degree in business administration. Here in America, during this past high-holiday season, I went to synagogue and prayed. I feel that I have become more religious in America than I was in Israel. Back in Israel, I did not enjoy going to synagogue or participating in religious activities; I frequently felt that my community status as a Jew was being questioned by some individuals.
I would personally define myself as a secular Jew, but I still very much care about the unification of the Jewish people, no matter where they come from and how religious they are. A rabbi who influences his or her followers with his or her biased opinion could inculcate prejudiced and/or wrong assumptions among followers and, as a consequence, divide Jewish communities. I see religion as something that is meant to create communities and bring people together.
I am Jewish, and I neither need an Ashkenazi nor a Mizrahi rabbi to approve my credibility. It does not seem that this problem of Jewish delegitimization is only one affecting Ethiopian Jews; other groups such as the Russian community and movements such as Reform and Conservative Judaism are not accepted like Orthodox Judaism is in Israel. In America, Orthodox Judaism only accounts for 10% of the American Jewish community and the remaining 90% is divided into other movements including Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist.
As I see it, the current status quo is that Orthodox Judaism takes priority in Israeli politics. The Ministry of Religious Affairs has the exclusive right to make religious decisions in Israel. The multi-party system allows political parties with small numbers of seats to wield significant power in the formation of government and influence political decision-making processes. Those religious leaders decide who is Jewish, how to get married, and how to practice Judaism, and many other critical questions. Their decisions frequently have a reverberating effect throughout the entire Jewish community across the world, including the American Jewish community, which is the second largest Jewish community outside of Israel.
Israel was established to be a home for all Jews, and now many Jews in Israel have been left without power in the decision making processes that directly affect their lives. The unequal representation and power dynamics among different Jewish communities in Israel has contributed to a disconnect between religious and secular Israeli Jews as well as a disconnect between the diaspora community and the State of Israel.
So, what should we do?
What matters is how we connect people who arrived from different countries to their ancestral land. Today, Jews of all backgrounds, including the Ethiopian Jews, contribute to the security, economy and prosperity of Israel.
Modern day Israel consists of Jews from all backgrounds, as well as Arab-Israelis, Druze, Bedouins, and other minority groups. Modern-day Judaism consists of African Jews, Ashkenazi Jews, Mizrahi Jews, ultraorthodox Jews, Reform Jews, LGBTQ Jews, Conservative Jews, and secular Jews, just to name a few. We should accept the diverse nature of modern day Israel and Judaism and begin to think about how to harness this diversity and utilize it to promote the growth and prosperity of the State of Israel and the global Jewish community at large.