The tribulations of being an Ethiopian Jew

In 1973, the state of Israel acknowledged the Beta Israel, also known as Ethiopian Jews.

These are Jewish communities that developed and lived for centuries in the area of Aksumite and Ethiopian empires as one of the ten lost tribes; referring to the ten of 12 tribes of ancient Israel that were said to have been deported from the Kingdom of Israel after its conquest by the Neo-Assyrian Empire circa 722 BCE, thus their acknowledging their Jewishness.

In April 1975, the Israeli government of Yitzhak Rabin officially accepted the Beta Israel as Jews, for the purpose of the Law of Return, an Israeli Act that grants all the Jews in the world the right to immigrate to Israel.

The mid 1970s marked the Beta Israel (Ethiopian Jewish) exodus, marred by the turbulence created by the coup against the monarch that was led by a pro-communist military junta known as Derg.

Derg’s rise to power followed totalitarian-style governance with mass militarization of state, funded mainly by the Soviet Union and Cuba.

The new regime gradually began to embrace anti-religious and anti-Israeli positions, as well as showing hostility towards the Jews of Ethiopia.

Civil war in Ethiopia prompted the Israeli government to airlift most of the Beta Israel population in Ethiopia to Israel in several covert military rescue operations, which took place from the 1980s until the early 1990s.

There are an estimated 125,000 Ethiopian Jews living in Israel, one of the largest Ethiopian population outside of Ethiopia

While they are supposed to be full citizens with equal rights, their community has continued to face widespread discrimination and socio-economic difficulties, according to its leaders,” stated the independent Israel Association of Ethiopian Jews (IAEJ).

About 81,000 of Ethiopian Israelis were born in their home country, while 38,500 were born in Israel, according to official records.

Between 1985 and 1991, more than 30,000 were airlifted in three rescue operations after years of civil war and famine had driven hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians into the capital, Addis Ababa and refugee camps in Sudan.

But more than 20 years on, many Ethiopians still face economic hardship and social problems in Israel,” the IAEJ said.

According to the Brookdale Institute for Applied Social Research, about 52 per cent of Ethiopian-Israeli families live below the poverty line, compared to 16 per cent among the general Jewish Israeli population. Also according to the Brookdale Institute, only 65 per cent of Ethiopian Israelis were employed, compared to 74 among the general Jewish population in 2010.

About 60 per cent of all Ethiopian families are still in a welfare program partly due to juvenile delinquency, which is four times higher than the Israeli average, and domestic violence, which is estimated to be 2.5 times higher than the average.”

The Israeli government places an emphasis on how much the unemployment gap has narrowed between Ethiopian and other Jews significantly, and the strict human rights laws placed to prevent acts of discrimination.

Nonetheless, Ethiopian Jews insights on their everyday struggles of growing up in Israel provide a bleak picture.

“Growing up was an everyday struggle,” said Sium, a member of the independent IAEJ.

For those who are different, the Jewish people can be a very closed community. Simply because I am Ethiopian, life has been harder than it is for others.

Raising a kid is tough for everyone in Israel, but it is even tougher for us,” he continued.

Once, my five-year-old kid asked me after a demonstration why the people on the street are shouting. I couldn’t tell him that it is because the white people don’t like the black people. I didn’t want to give him the feeling that he is not good enough.”

Shula Mola, chairwoman of the independent IAEJ, believed that Ethiopian Israeli youth have it even harder today.

My kids are born here. They face the same problems, but don’t have the excuse of being new immigrants. Whatever the problem, people automatically see it as a distinct Ethiopian feature,” Mola explained.

Such branding, as well as poverty and a difficult family background, often contribute to the youth’s disaffection from society.

Many are hopeless. When facing difficulties at school, poor and uneducated families usually can’t support their kids,” Mola said, adding that today’s Israeli education system puts more and more responsibility on the family.

Police brutality has been an issue faced by many Ethiopian Jews in Israel.

This issue was highlighted in April 2015 when the arrest of an IDF Ethiopian soldier, Damas Pakedeh, following accusations of him attacking an Israeli policeman, was overturned as a result of a video tape of the alleged attack.

The video showed that the IDF Ethiopian soldier was a victim of an unprovoked and allegedly racially motivated attack. Pakedeh believed that the incident was racially motivated and that if the video had not been taken he would have been punished.

I strongly condemn the beating of the Ethiopian IDF soldier, and those responsible will be held accountable,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced.

Following protests and demonstrations in Tel Aviv that resulted in violence, Netanyahu planned to meet with representatives of the Ethiopian community.

Discrimination and racism against Israeli Ethiopians continues to be perpetuated.

However, this is yet to be acknowledged by the Israeli community as a whole. Since racism is not seen as a cause of the injustices committed against Ethiopian Jewish communities, “bureaucratic ineptitude and a cultural gap between a traditional community and a modern, technologically-advanced, highly-competitive nation,” as stated by Director of the Anti-Defamation League Harry Wall, are oftentimes seen as cause of such injustice.

Israel was accused, by feminist organizations, of a “sterilization policy” aimed towards Ethiopian Jews, whereby Ethiopian women were given the contraceptive shot without full explanation of its effects; some felt they would be denied entry unless they received the contraceptive.

Thirty per cent of the Provera shots were administered to Ethiopian women, who only make up one per cent of the population, stated Dr. Yifat Bitton, a member of the Israeli Anti-Discrimination Legal Center.

Such tragedies are examples that highlights the disconnect that exist in terms of understanding barriers Ethiopian Jews face.

Since then the Israeli government has acknowledged the concerns, has launched investigations and has instructed gynecologists to only administer Depo-Provera after the patient has fully understood the purpose and effects of the medicine.

Amidst such struggles, there seems to be a glimmer of hope among the Ethiopian Jewish community. This glimmer of hope is rooted within the younger generation.

“The generations are different in dealing with problems,” Sium said.

The old generation is quiet. We have witnessed many demonstrations, but saw hardly any older people there. It is the young people who move things forward today. The elders understand that our situation is changing.”

Change has come sooner than many expected as Israeli government officials have called for mutual coexistence.

“We, the state of Israel, should say thank you to immigrants from Ethiopia, and not vice-versa,” Israeli President Shimon Peres said after the protests in Kiryat Malakhi.

In the meantime, activists say they will continue resisting what they see as racism.”

Right now, groups of activists are sitting together to see what we can do to fight the current situation,” Yalou, a member of the independent IAEJ said.

“Further protests are in the process of being planned… We hope to make changes,” added Yalou.