View from Central Park

Ethiopian struggle in Israel


Something has gone wrong in the integration of the Ethiopian Beta Israel community into Israeli society. I have an abiding affection for the Ethiopian community, and on both a human and an Am Yisrael level, if charges of racism is true, it is disturbing and painful.

There was so much joy and pride at the 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 the Jewish state. The pulse of the nation was in a state one of optimism, filled with the sense that we were witnessing a modern day Exodus. 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 —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.

While every immigrant story is unique, the Ethiopians weren’t just regular immigrants. They needed to adjust from living an ancient Third World life to a modern, Western life. One might think that traveling in that direction would automatically mean going from hardship to ease — for instance, from drawing water from a well to running water. But real life adjustments are not so simple and perhaps the transition was not handled by Israel with as much attention to detail as was needed.

When I moved back to Israel as an adult, 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 in this particular case. 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.”

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 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 expressed the bottled up pain of the Ethiopian community bursting forth. I don’t condone violence by protesters or mobs. And I confess, it was more than a little off putting; 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.

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