Ethiopian Jews have faced racism in Israel but UJIA’s programme offers hope

British and Ethiopian-Israeli participants together on the UJIA’s Bar Bat Mitzvah Programme (EBBM) (Jewish News/UJIA)  (Photo credit: Neil Mercer)
British and Ethiopian-Israeli participants together on the UJIA’s Bar Bat Mitzvah Programme (EBBM) (Jewish News/UJIA) (Photo credit: Neil Mercer)

I was nine when my family braved the dangerous route from Ethiopia and through Sudan, to Israel. We arrived there in November 1984, fulfilling the ancient dream of Ethiopian Jews of living in our homeland.

Yet in Israel, Ethiopian Jews have faced numerous challenges. We face racism. As immigrants to a very different society to that of our parents and grandparents we also face the daily struggle to get by and the challenge of educating our children to thrive in our new society. We have therefore come up against a glass ceiling. Some have broken through it and made a tremendous contribution to Israel’s society, providing Ethiopian-Israeli role models in the army, politics, high-tech,  media and elsewhere. But there is much more work to be done.

Our challenges have often been in the public eye, most recently after Solomon Teka, 18, was shot dead by an off-duty police officer. Too many young Ethiopians have died in such circumstances without police officers facing justice. Our youth feel treated in a racist and arbitrary way by police. Some have committed suicide and, unfortunately, this has occurred in the army. We have also faced discrimination from the ultra-Orthodox Rabbinate and in the workplace. This is why Solomon’s death released so much stored-up anger in the demonstrations that followed.

Many of our youth have not been successfully integrated into the educational system, resulting in young Ethiopians on the street and friction with the police. Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has promoted credible solutions, working with members of the community to launch a new policy on Ethiopian integration in September 2016. By that time, however, much damage had already been done. Our youth already felt humiliated and alienated by racism and prejudice. It will take a major investment of time and effort to earn their confidence.

(Photo credit: Neil Mercer)

It was against this background that UJIA’s Ethiopian Bar and Bat Mitzvah programme took place this year. As an educator, I have been involved in the programme since it began 15 years ago. It takes British Jewish children of Bar Mitzvah age and twins them with Ethiopian-Israeli children the same age from Kiryat Bialik in northern Israel. Last month, the British children and their families joined their Ethiopian “twins” in Israel for their Bar and Bat Mitzvahs.

The impact is profound. For the Ethiopian children, bonding with their British twins strengthens their sense of belonging to the Jewish people. Programme graduates have gone on to become young leaders within our community. One of this year’s participants, Osher, expressed his joy at hosting Charlie, from London. “I’m glad I got a wonderful, lovely, and friendly twin,” said Osher. “I was privileged to host him in my home. I couldn’t have asked for a better Bar Mitzvah celebration.” Osher has not had an easy life and is being brought up by his 24- year-old sister. Being twinned with Charlie gave him a positive, life-affirming Jewish experience.

Young Ethiopian-Israelis need to know they are a valued and integral part of Israeli society. They need more opportunities to develop the pride, confidence and leadership skills that come from appreciating their Ethiopian-Jewish heritage and their ties with the Jewish people.

Overcoming our challenges will take long-term cooperation between the state and the community. There is no quick fix. But through UJIA’s programme, described by the mayor of Kiryat Bialik as “a model of success”, UK Jews are having a positive impact. I hope you continue to find ways to deepen the ties between our community and yours, bring our branches of the Jewish family closer together and make a difference to the lives of young Ethiopian-Israelis.

About the Author
Shmuel Yosef is an educator and the spiritual mentor for UJIA’s Ethiopian Bar and Bat Mitzvah programme
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