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Ethiopian Jewry: The half-full glass

The appointment of Belaynesh Zevadia as Israel's ambassador to Ethiopia this week calls to mind the situation of Israel's youngest immigrant community

Israelis took satisfaction in the appointment of Belaynesh Zevadia, their first female ambassador to Ethiopia, who is herself of Ethiopian-Jewish origin.

“It is a great honor to be appointed ambassador, and especially the first ambassador from the Ethiopian community,” said Zevadia. “I made aliya as a youth and am returning to Ethiopia as an ambassador.” AJC has worked with Ambassador Zevadia since her early Foreign Ministry days, when she served with distinction as vice consul in Chicago. We share the excitement at her appointment.

And yet, such “firsts” necessarily provoke mixed feelings, highlighting achievement but also calling attention to the overall state of a 125,000-strong community. Ethiopian Jewry in Israel features a mix of first-generation achievement and hindrances to its progress.

Belaynesh Zevadia (Courtesy)
Belaynesh Zevadia (Courtesy)

The absorption of Ethiopian immigrants faces historical obstacles.The majority of the parent generation was born into a poverty-stricken society and grew up in pre-modern villages in the mountainous regions of Ethiopia. About 90 percent arrived in Israel illiterate. Many had great difficulty learning Hebrew. That and the lack of modern job skills marginalized them in Israeli society. Their Israeli-born children often had to interact with the outside world on their behalf.

Furthermore, despite the best of intentions, the bureaucrats in charge of immigrant absorption repeated many of the same errors committed in handling earlier mass migrations. Housing placements broke up extended families, inadvertently undercutting a vital support system. A largely rural population was relocated inside towns and cities without the skills to make a living. To be sure, that may have been unavoidable, since hi-tech Israeli agriculture has little need for untrained labor.

Whatever the reason, those who immigrated above the age of 40 are unlikely to participate fully in Israeli society. And the absence of an older generation capable of leading generates serious social challenges for younger Ethiopian Jews, as it does for migrant youth worldwide. The delinquency rate among Ethiopians is three times that of the rest of Israeli youth. Unskilled and inexperienced Ethiopian workers are the worst-paid employees in the country.

Still, the generation born in Israel and those who arrived at a young age, like Ambassador Zevadia, are role models. “About a quarter of the 130,000 [sic] Ethiopian Jews living in Israel were born there. They are a young ethnic group relative to the general Israeli Jewish population with an average age of 20.1 compared to 30.5,” says Hebrew University researcher Dr. Shalev Weil. “As immigrants, they are afforded equal rights and responsibilities in all spheres of life and are often positively treated compared to other new immigrants and ethnic groups. They are entitled to subsidized public housing, free Hebrew tuition, an initial cash payment for ‘absorption’ and special educational advantages. However, in the realm of religion, some restrictions pertaining to marriage in particular still remain. Furthermore, Ethiopian Jews serve in the Israel Defense Forces or in the National Service in the same capacity as other Israelis.”

Newly arrived Ethiopian immigrants at Ben Gurion International Airport (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash90)
Newly arrived Ethiopian immigrants at Ben Gurion International Airport (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash90)

To this description we must add a few “yes… buts.” First, as Weil points out, the determination of the Jewishness of Ethiopians by two chief rabbis is still not fully accepted by ultra-Orthodox rabbis, some of whom place obstacles in the path of their marriages. Second, while service in the IDF is an effective vehicle for integration, most Ethiopian women decline to serve, citing their religious Orthodoxy. As a result, they forgo an important opportunity to gain skills and education. Third, while there are few major examples of outright racism, anecdotal evidence suggests significant social antagonism, much like that faced by previous immigrant ethnic groups. This is a problem that Israel shares with other multicultural societies.

Finally, there are aspects of Ethiopian Jewish culture that make it harder to move ahead in Israeli society. “Members of the Ethiopian community don’t always help themselves,” Haaretz reporter Tali Heruti-Sover wrote after the Foreign Ministry announced Zevadia’s appointment. Observers cite traditional Ethiopian teachings encouraging humility and self-effacement. Promoting oneself is a quintessentially Israeli cultural expectation that has yet to be adopted by Ethiopian Jews.

The cup of Ethiopian Jewish migration to Israel is half full, and all Israelis have their work cut out to fill it properly. Speaking as a migrant myself (under very different circumstances, to be sure): migration is a lifelong project. One’s identity remains forever a combination of cultures, influences and insights of which one’s neighbors may be unaware. Live that hyphenated identity and you bring unexpected bounty to yourself and your new home. Multiplied by millions of immigrants, this is the great gift of migration, a contribution Ethiopian Jewry has given generously to Israeli society and for which we are forever in their debt.

About the Author
Ed Rettig is the Chair of Shomrei Mispat, Rabbis for Human Rights.