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Israel made us convert to Judaism and left my brother behind

The Ethiopian-Israeli protests express deep pain, bottled up inside for years, that erupted because our anguish fell on deaf ears

My name is Sewalem. I’m 22-years-old and live in Be’er Ya’akov. I made aliyah in 2003 at the age of 6, together with two brothers, one sister, and my mother. My father and my oldest brother had to stay in Ethiopia. After four years of our family being separated from each other my father died and my brother was left alone in Ethiopia.

I wanted to express my thoughts about the demonstrations that took place last week throughout the streets of Israel. Everyone is talking about how violent the riots were and not about the reason WHY the youth felt they needed to be violent. These demonstrations were not just about the murder of Solomon Tekah, but about the unjust and unequal treatment we receive here from the government and from the authorities that are supposed to protect us.

As I see it, the root of the problem began with the aliyah of Beta Israel. After suffering for our Judaism in Ethiopia, the demand that we convert was deeply painful. The disparaging and insulting attitude of the authorities and those in power was even expressed by giving our mothers pills to reduce the birth rate in the community, by refusing to use any blood donations from Ethiopians — the examples are endless. The violence of our protests expresses deep pain that has been bottled up inside for years and erupted because our anguish fell on deaf ears!

Click for more Ethiopian-Israeli Voices.

I personally experience discrimination from the Interior Ministry (Misrad HaPanim), which refuses to bring my older brother to Israel on the grounds that he is not a Jew! How is it that my own brother, from the same father and mother, is not entitled to emigrate because he is not Jewish?

How then, am I Jewish, and why am I here? In countless telephone calls to the Ministry of the Interior, I have not received a single satisfactory response.

When my older sister got married we naturally wanted my brother to join us for the wedding, which is also his simcha, his celebration. The Interior Ministry refused to grant him an entry visa because they disputed the fact that he was actually my mother’s son.

I write this with a broken heart, in tremendous pain.

So now the question is, how can we change this warped reality? In my opinion everything begins and ends with education. It is necessary to invest in education from an early age, and only then will it be possible to change this reality, to reduce racism. Additionally, I think that we, the younger generation of the Ethiopian community, must study hard and succeed in life. We must reach senior positions that have influence and then try to institute change from within.

With prayers for peace among the Jewish people, Am Yisrael, and, with G-d’s help, for a complete redemption.

This post was contributed with the assistance of Nishmat – The Jeanie Schottenstein Center for Advanced Torah Study for Women.

Find perspectives on this issue at The Times of Israel topic page for Ethiopian-Israeli Voices.

About the Author
Sewalem Werkneh is a student at Nishmat: the Jeanie Schottenstein Center for Advanced Torah Studies for Women’s Maayan (N.E.W.) College Program and a student leader in Nishmat’s Identity Seminars on Wheels, where she leads empowerment workshops about identity and reducing prejudice in elementary and high-schools throughout Israel. In the fall, Sewalem will begin a degree in Bioinformatics. She grew up in Ethiopia in a farming community called Vagra (near Gondor) and made aliyah when she was 6 years old. After four and a half years in an absorption center in Mevaseret, her family settled in an apartment Be’er Yaakov. She served as a bat sherut in Ulpana Even Shmuel, where she worked with 11th and 12th grade girls.
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