The yearning in the eyes of Ethiopian Jews is something that I will never forget. I witnessed this twice. The first time was when I was privileged to welcome many of the Ethiopian immigrants who arrived in Israel through Operation Solomon in 1991. Their first Israeli home was the Diplomat Hotel, just a few blocks away from the yeshiva where I studied. I visited them daily to sing and play ball with them. I recall how hopeful they were for a bright future in their new home.
I saw this same hope again last winter when I visited the thousands of Ethiopian Jews in a transit camp in Gondar, Ethiopia. They sang “Am Yisrael Chai” and chanted about Jerusalem while waving their official state approvals for immigration in their hands.
For over 2,000 years, Ethiopian Jews have dreamed of a return to Israel. Unfortunately, for many if not most, the experience has evolved into a nightmare. They have struggled to acclimate to Israeli society and, with the exception of select individuals, have been unable to advance themselves both in terms of education and in the workforce.
There is no simple answer for the Israeli government in terms of how to better help Ethiopian immigrants adjust to a society which is literally a “different world” than the society in Ethiopia. However, Israeli society must improve its attitude towards Ethiopian Jews. This past week, the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews surveyed Israelis about the Ethiopian Jewish community. One specific statistic stood out in my mind. Only twenty four percent of non-Ethiopian Israelis would allow their children to marry Ethiopians. I certainly understand concerns about cultural differences and potential family tensions which create negativity in such a match. However, there is strong reason to conclude that the unwillingness to have children marry Ethiopians is not based purely on these concrete, practical concerns. I say this because it is well documented that even those Ethiopians who navigate successfully through the challenges and obstacles of the education system and manage to earn a degree still have great difficulty finding employment. Many have told me that the moment they walk into the door for a job interview they see the faces of the employers which indicate their discomfort and unwillingness to move forward with hiring them, despite how worthy a candidate they looked on paper.
I hope this survey will serve as a wake-up call for all of Israeli society and especially for leaders in the realm of education. We must proactively address the negativity that exists towards Ethiopian Jews or between any of the many other different populations living in Israel. I believe that we can educate the next generation to embrace the prospect of their children being more accepting and marrying Ethiopians as well as Jews from other cultures and backgrounds.
This can be done in two ways. The first is returning our focus to teaching the values of our tradition in all Israeli schools through a mandatory curriculum specifically devoted to these basic fundamentals. Texts such as Chapters of our Fathers which is replete with teachings such as “The honor of your friend should be beloved to you like your own” and “Love all people” must be taught in-depth. Imagine the rich resources such texts can provide for properly trained teachers to engage their students in meaningful discussion about how they can apply these teachings to their lives.
Furthermore, students must be taught that these values are the most central and important ones in faith. After all, Rabbi Akiva taught that “love your neighbor like yourself is a great rule in Torah” and Hillel explained that the entire Torah is captured in the words “That which you do not want done to you, do not do to others.” These teachings are perfect springboards for role playing and imagining what it must be like to be an Ethiopian immigrant who is viewed as lower class simply because of skin color. Children are open to hearing, exploring and developing these ideas and acting accordingly, but they need to be taught. It doesn’t come naturally, especially if they sense that their parents feel otherwise. Teaching these values will also improve the way students act towards non-Jews living in Israel which is not the focus of this column but which current events have proven needs to be addressed.
My second recommendation stems from a mandatory course I took while studying for my Masters in Education at Johns Hopkins University- “Multicultural education.” The purpose of the class was to prepare future educators to be successful teachers in classrooms comprised of students from different backgrounds and cultures. We were taught how to understand the needs of Hispanic, Asian, African American, Native American and Caribbean students who frequently sit in the same classes in a typical United States Public School. We learned about the various cultural nuances and even discovered that dignified and upstanding actions in one culture were acts of disrespect in another.
This course helped on the practical level of enabling teachers to properly manage their classrooms. But, the message of the class struck a much deeper chord in me and my fellow classmates. It stripped away any feelings of racism or discrimination which we may have had within us due to our own upbringings. Understanding other cultures and the challenges and difficulties they faced in their past and deal with currently as members of a new society made us super-sensitive to their needs. Learning about the richness of their traditions and customs bred respect for all.
I recommend that the Israeli Education Ministry introduce a similar training program for all teachers and develop a similar curriculum for students. Once teachers truly understand the needs of all their students and once students learn not only to accept but to appreciate the differences in cultures and backgrounds, we can help foster future generations prepared to live with sensitivity while respecting the rights and needs of all fellow citizens. Furthermore, once citizens gain an understanding of the rich culture and history of other populations, the barriers preventing marrying them begin to crumble and the very differences can even be a source of attraction.
We live in the wondrous times of the ingathering of the exiles. Jews from all over the world have returned and continue returning to our homeland. This presents unique challenges with combating any hint of racism and discrimination ranking at the top of the list. We must stay true to our core values of respect, tolerance, and basic human decency and the only way to do so is to proactively teach these values in an aggressive and thought out manner. Aside from the inherent good of doing what is right and creating a more cohesive and unified Israeli society, Israel can then elevate itself to the next level as a true “light onto the nations,” modeling the most moral and value centered ideals to the world.
When I was in Gondar in February, I asked one of the young leaders in the camp why he wanted to live in Israel so badly. He responded, “Because Israel is where Jews can live as Jews.” Let’s pave the way now for that young Ethiopian Jew to feel completely welcome and able to live as a fully accepted, embraced and respected Jew when he arrives in Israel.