There seems to be a broad consensus that the protests over the last few weeks are not only about police violence, but rather that police violence against an Ethiopian Israeli soldier was simply the catalyst for protests against broader discrimination against and disparities experienced by the Ethiopian community. Indeed, during my time in Israel and the Yahel Social Change program I have often become angry when learning about these disparities. While volunteering at Tebeka, a legal aid organization serving the Ethiopian community, I’ve been appalled by both individual and systemic forms of discrimination experienced by the community. I’ve been frustrated by the ways in which Israel’s absorption of the Ethiopian community failed to respect a strong Ethiopian Jewish culture, with strong leaders and community social systems. I’ve wanted to shake some sense in to the people who have claimed the primarily Ethiopian neighborhood in which I live and have been warmly embraced is “dangerous.” I believe the anger and frustration that is fueling the protests is well justified. Both the news media and a few of my Yahel peers have written about these social disparities and discrimination, and about the challenges in the Ethiopian aliyah to Israel, so I’d like to offer a complementary perspective.
In a way, I believe that this fight against discrimination and injustice is also a fight for recognition of the assets and contributions of this incredible community. I think in a truly just and equal society each community and individual must understand each other’s strengths, and work with these to complement their own. Throughout my time in Israel in the Yahel Social Change Program, I’ve also learned about the incredible strengths of Ethiopian culture and community members. I’ve been touched by the number of Ethiopian families who welcome me into their homes, week after week, by the mothers who always send me on my way with a belly full of delicious injera (traditional Ethiopian flatbread). I’ve been inspired by the Garin Ehud, a group of Ethiopian community members and activists living in Ramat Eliyahu who tirelessly organize programs and projects to support the neighborhood, all while working full-time and raising their families. I’ve been empowered by the incredible group of lawyers and staff of Tebeka who are fighting for a more just and equal Israeli society for all.
Israel’s initial absorption of the Ethiopian community did a poor job of capitalizing on the assets of the Ethiopian community. I’d like to recognize just a few of the many strengths now.
Ethiopian Judaism is pre-rabbinic. Kesim are the highly learned traditional spiritual leaders who are trained and mentored not only in Judaism and torah, but also to mediate community and familial conflict and serve as community leaders. Unfortunately they face an on-going struggle to be fully recognized and legitimized by the State of Israel in the way rabbis are recognized and financially supported. I believe Israel should be embracing these natural leaders and utilizing this traditional role of kesim to best analyze and support the needs of the community.
Ethiopian Jews are deeply devoted to Israel and Judaism. Most Israelis have probably never heard their aliyah stories, and the veracity of their Judaism has been questioned by some authorities repeatedly since their aliyah. However, they are a people who have maintained their Judaism through centuries of oppression and isolation from the global Jewish community. A people whose yearning for the land of Israel was so strong that they risked their lives crossing Ethiopia and Sudan, thousands dying during the journey. While various social factors may have catalyzed their decision, every individual who has told me their aliyah story has emphasized an intense and pervasive community belief that they were always meant to return to Israel and participate in a Jewish society. A people so committed to the state of Israel should be given more opportunities to participate in its growth and improvement. Like all Israelis, they are working towards a better Israel for their children. Their journey should be celebrated by Israel and recognized as a source of national strength and pride.
Traditional Ethiopian culture, and especially Ethiopian food culture is very communal. Traditionally food is eaten off communal platters and cultural practices such as eating at the pace of your neighbors ensure everyone gets their share. A young neighbor recently described how before her wedding the entire community was called upon to make the injera and other Ethiopian dishes, with everyone doing their part to ensure a successful wedding meal. Traditional communal culture and support systems should be incorporated into programs and initiatives to address socio-economic disparities.
This year I have only just begun to learn from the beautiful individuals and institutions of this strong, warm community of Ethiopian Israelis. I hope that as Israel continues to examine the social and economic factors leading to the recent protests, that Israelis and Jews across the world will also recognize all that we have to learn and gain from this community.
The Yahel Social Change Program is a 9-month service-learning program in Ramat Eliyahu, a predominately Ethiopian neighborhood in Rishon LeZion. Participants work and live in the community doing hands on social justice work. Below was written by program participant Rachel Kutcher, about the current events in the Ethiopian community.