Israeli youth explore their roots in Ethiopia

Israeli society’s opinions and attitudes toward ethnic identity are often negative and stereotypical, and based on prejudices and incomplete information

Jewish Ethiopian kids in Ethiopia 390 (photo credit: REUTERS/Eliana Aponte)
Jewish Ethiopian kids in Ethiopia 390
(photo credit: REUTERS/Eliana Aponte)
Three months ago, we took a trip to Ethiopia with 15 young people and four adult chaperones.
It is important for young Israelis of Ethiopian descent to visit Ethiopia since their identities are made up of two parts: Ethiopian and Israeli. These two identities need to exist in each individual in peace and harmony.
If they don’t, the struggle between them will take these Ethiopian-Israeli youth on a crazy roller coaster ride, from which they are liable to end up completely confused, with no sense of belonging, self-confidence or aspiration.
Teenagers are constantly asking themselves: Who am I? What makes me special? What is my connection to society, to family and to the culture from which I’ve come? Where do Israeli culture and religion fit in? Each individual’s identity is created from the integration of self and community.
One of the most important components of identity in Israeli society is ethnic and Jewish identity. In the case of Ethiopian immigrants living in Israel, their ethnic identity is prominent, which makes it easy for people to identify and associate them with their home country. As a result, their ethnicity is even more important a factor for them than for other Israelis of various ethnic origins.
On the other hand, Israeli society’s opinions and attitudes toward identity are often negative and stereotypical, and based on prejudices and incomplete information.
The absorption of Ethiopian immigrants in Israel has been fraught with family crises and economic hardship, which have only strengthened these opinions.
The community’s Jewish identity has also been harmed as a result of the doubt cast on the validity of its Jewishness by the Israeli rabbinate, which required Ethiopian immigrants to undergo conversion so as to remove any doubt.
In this complex situation, the young people of this community must form an identity that comprises all of these components: their past as individuals and that of their community, along with the culture and value systems espoused by Israeli society, where they are being raised and educated. These youth are expected to fulfill their families’ expectations, while at the same time integrating into Israeli society.
These circumstances have made it extremely difficult for today’s youth to cultivate a positive self-image and to successfully integrate into Israeli society.
The fact that their parents grew up in Ethiopia – a society that is culturally and socially so different – has made inter-generational discourse difficult. The two generations no longer share historical values and common cultural references.
The idea behind the trip to Ethiopia was the belief that the problems of identity significantly affect social and personal adjustment, as well as feelings of social belonging.
These youth will only be able to connect to Israeli society if they are at peace with themselves and with their past. Once they have a clear and healthy selfidentity that is connected to their roots, they will be able to fully integrate into Israeli society with a sense of positive self-worth. They will then be capable of building a sense of positive self-worth and developing educational and social motivation that would allow them to reach their potential. These were our goals for the trip.
During our trip, we visited villages where Ethiopian Jews once lived. In one of the villages, we cleaned up the Jewish cemetery, said Kaddish and ended the ceremony by singing “Hatikva.” Afterwards, we visited an abandoned synagogue that had once been the spiritual center of the Beta Israel community. We also visited important and impressive historic sites that many of the participants had never even heard about. Of course, we also enjoyed the nature and the rich diversity in culture that the country is blessed with.
We planned and carried out social and educational activities with the Jewish children who are still waiting to immigrate to Israel. Each night after we lit Hanukka candles, we would share with each other the experiences of the day.
Trip participants described the visit as an eye-opening and life-altering experience. Many of them said that learning about their past and their parents’ lives has made them more proud of their origin, and strengthened the connections between the Jewish, Ethiopian and Israeli parts of their lives.
Seeing firsthand where their parents grew up made a great impression on them. They are now able to appreciate how much their parents did for them when they brought them on aliya. They were now better able to understand their parents’ perspective on life in Israel.
This understanding has also helped them connect these two worlds and develop a language in which they can dialogue with and better understand their parents.
This acquaintance of the younger generation with their parents’ histories has also helped to connect parents with their children’s current lives; they were now better prepared to create a common future together. In this respect, the goals of the trip were achieved – and maybe even surpassed.
As a result of the trip, the participants could carry out deep and meaningful introspection into their identity, and into their past, present and future. Adolescents are constantly trying to formulate an identity for themselves as an individual, as part of a family, a community and a nation. From our perspective, this group was just the first of many, many more trips to come.
The partner organizations involved in the trip were: the Jewish Agency, the Rashi Foundation, the Association for the Advancement of Education, Keren Hayesod – United Israel Appeal, Hakeren Layedidut, Ariella, and the Education Ministry.
The author is director of the Steering Center for Ethiopian Immigrants. Translated by Hannah Hochner.