Tuesday, February 18, 2020 -
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The Ethiopian struggle in Israel

Something has gone wrong in the integration of the Ethiopian Beta Israel community into Israeli society.

The word racism is bandied about. I am always surprised by that. Not just because I have an abiding affection for the Ethiopian community. Not just because, as a Jew, on a human and on an Am Yisrael level, if the charge of racism is true, it is so disturbing and painful. I am surprised because I remember the genesis of the Ethiopian community in Israel. There was so much joy and pride in the shocking news of Operation Moses. The feeling was like that of a joyous family reunion with long lost cousins.

Israel was thrilled to have airlifted tens of thousands of Ethiopians to Israel. The pulse of the nation was one of optimism, symbolized by the name with which the operation was coined: Operation Moses. It was suffused with a sense of a modern day Exodus that we were witness to, even if not a part of. Racism was not there. Certainly not in my educational environment nor the social environment my family belonged to.

The harrowing stories of our Ethiopian brothers and sisters sounded Biblical; the miles upon miles of fleeing by foot through dark, terrifying, desert nights; the dream of Jerusalem beating and yearning within every Ethiopian — from birth to death. For my modern generation, the stories had a throwback quality.

Murmurs began, “they aren’t actually halachically Jewish.” “The Rabbinate will conduct mass conversions.” But even that was expressed in the manner of wanting to find a pragmatic solution to formalize their Jewishness en masse. The miracle of the Ethiopian arrival in Israel was, initially, received with great love. I can still remember the drives to crochet colorful kippot for the newly arrived Ethiopians. Sneaking the needle under my desk during class time, I certainly managed to crochet away my contribution.

Even as the difficulty of reality sets in past the initial honeymoon phase, I honestly don’t see racism as that which caused the current painful situation, or at least racism is not the exclusive reason.

While every immigrant story is unique, the Ethiopians weren’t just regular immigrants, people who risked so much to cross over into another life, another world, needing to navigate the usual, universal hardships of immigration. In addition to all that, they needed to make the adjustment from living an ancient Third World life to a modern, Western way of life. That journey, that divide, was the challenge to overcome.

One might think that traveling in that direction would automatically mean going from hardship to ease — e.g., from drawing water from a well to running water. One might think this kind of thing would lend itself to smoother transitions.

But real life adjustments are not so simple. Add in the emotional wound of many families having to cope with loved ones lost along the journey, the family members who didn’t make it, who died along the way, on their watch, literally collapsing before them, even as they had no choice but to continue. Imagine the complexity of those emotions. After those prices were exacted, then, upon their arrival, their very Jewishness was in question.

Perhaps this constellation of factors proved too much. Perhaps this transition was not handled by Israel with as much attention to detail as was needed. The resettling a group of people to a world so different from their previous one. As remarkable as the adjustment was, it nonetheless left festering wounds, not nursed in time for them to heal properly. Perhaps this vulnerable brew gave a place for racism.

When I moved back to Israel as an adult, one of the people I became friendly with was an Ethiopian guy. I remember how my then-boss noticed it and said to me, “Tehilla, the Ethiopian community is amazing. They are such a special, such a gentle people.” What he had said was borne out in my experience.

But these last couple of weeks, protests erupted against a story whose optics are terrible, but the truth is none of us yet knows for sure what happened, what went wrong. A young Ethiopian boy who was throwing rocks was fatally shot at by police. Protests escalated into violent mobs.

The response of many Israelis was something to the effect of, “You lost my support.” It doesn’t exactly translate into English with the vibe you get in Hebrew, but it comes off as us versus them. As though the Ethiopians are somehow viewed as The Other, not one of us, not “we are all in this mess together, let’s somehow find a way to work it out.”

The situation on the ground is complex. On some level, the Ethiopian community has elected to remain somewhat tribal. Or perhaps, it didn’t choose this, but never fully felt part of Israel.

I don’t know exactly.

But it seems there is much work still cut out for Israel — to find a way to integrate the Ethiopian community as a whole into Israeli society.

Now, many Ethiopians are high ranking IDF officers, doctors, lawyers, members of Knesset, etc. There are so many success stories, and by now, one might even say, a generation of Israeli-grown Ethiopians who on some level might even be more Israeli than Ethiopian. Yet they too have expressed stories of their sometimes daily struggle with feeling they are treated differently.

The protests we witnessed last week expressed the bottled up pain of the Ethiopian community bursting forth. I obviously don’t condone violence by protesters or mobs. Absolutely not. And I confess, it was more than a little off putting. While I felt tremendous empathy with the Ethiopian community, as the footage from the protests rolled in I think it had the reverse affect on me. Instead of gaining my support, the protests made me identify with the anxiety the policeman may have felt as he faced the growing violence. Yet, I endeavored to keep my eye on the ball. Ultimately, this was painful anger pouring out for what felt like an unjust death, but even more than that, it was the straw that broke the camel’s back — so much unstoppable, cumulative pain.

The actions of the policeman will be investigated to see if in fact this was a case of an accidental or intentional killing. Regardless, this is a moment for Israel. A moment to pause, to take stock, to find a way to create a paradigm shift in the current climate of tension and discrimination that is experienced or perceived by the Ethiopians in Israel.

It will take hard work. I do hope this moment will turn out to be a turning point, through education, dialogue, relationship-building, and policy changes that will remove any vestige of racism in Israel, and repair what might have broken. There should be zero place for racism in Israel. We are one with our Ethiopian brothers and sisters. End of story.

Copyright © 2019 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Tehilla R. Goldberg

IJN columnist | View from Central Park

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