On Ethiopian Jewry, Jewish Values, and Acceptance

The sights of the Kotel | Photo by Rebecca Weinberg

On June 30th, 2019, an 18 year old Ethiopian man named Solomon Teka was shot and killed by an off-duty police officer in Haifa, Israel. He was unarmed, and enjoying a nice day at a playground with some friends before he was interrupted by the officer. The officer claimed that Teka and his friends instigated the situation, but there was no conclusive evidence to support his claim. After this incident and many similar ones to follow, a study by Israel’s Justice Ministry concluded that police disproportionately targeted Israelis of Ethiopian origin at a very high rate.

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Ethiopian Jews are facing injustice in the only Jewish state in the world, even though they’re also Jewish. Unfortunately, it appears this is due to nothing more than the color of their skin. As the Black Lives Matter movement reaches from the U.S. to across the world, it provides a unique opportunity to explore what Israel is doing to confront this issue. And, as it turns out,  there is a lot of room for improvement.

Fortunately, Judaism has plenty of wisdom to offer. In order to start moving in the right direction, Israel should address racism against Ethiopan Jews by turning to guidance from Jewish values about justice and equality.

The Ethiopian Jews have been fighting for equality for years in Israel. After being rescued from religious persecution in Ethiopia in the 1990s, they were offered a new home and a fresh start. However, upon arrival in Israel, they faced similar issues such as racism and discrimination, and weren’t met with the compassion that they deserved. One reason for some Jews to view them as outsiders could be that their community lived in complete isolation from other Jews around the world, leading them to develop unique religious practices. Because their community was so separated, at one point they thought they were the only Jews left in the world. Some of their unique traditions include having priests instead of rabbis, and reading the Torah but not the Talmud.

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Prior to accepting a new life in Israel, the Jewish community in Ethiopia felt that they were in an extremely unsafe environment. Late in the 14th century, Jews were fighting to maintain their independence while facing forced conversions, enslavement, and massacre. According to an article dating back to 1983, an anonymous member of the community stated, “If you follow the religion seriously, you will be put in jail.” Jews in Ethiopia had been dreaming of this escape to Israel since its establishment as a state in 1948.

As of now, Ethiopain Jews have been living in Israel for over 20 years, but have been failed by Israel to be fully integrated into society, leading to unrest and inequality. Ethiopian Jews suffer from the highest poverty rate of Jews in Israel, in addition to much higher levels of arrest and incarceration than other groups. They also have a much lower income than the general population and receive fewer educational opportunities.

Judaism preaches many values related to ensuring justice and equality, and many of them can help guide our actions when tackling topics such as these. The first one to consider is lo ta’amod al dam reacha (לֹא תַעֲמֹד עַל דַּם רֵעֶךָ), or, you shall not stand idly by the blood of thy neighbor (Leviticus 19:16). This is a law expressing the obligation to stop crime and injustice, and also placing a responsibility on Jewish people to protect other people’s right to live free of injustice. In the past five years, there have been six young Ethiopian men killed by Israeli police, leading to huge protests across the country, similar to what is happening in the US today. By standing idly by, and not taking action to support those facing unfair treatment, we aren’t doing our part to help. If nothing else, the Black Lives Matter movement is teaching us that it’s not enough to be a non-racist.  The question is what are all of us, including Israelis, doing affirmatively and proactively to be anti-racist? This entails more than just saying we are not racist, but instead means that we are committing to and pursuing actions that help achieve racial equity.

A second value we can learn from is Ahavat Ger (אהבת גר), loving the stranger. As Jews, we identify with the outsider, because we ourselves have once been outsiders. The Torah explicitly says, “You shall not wrong nor oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 22:20). Ethiopian Jews living in Israel don’t have another home, but many people still don’t want to accept them as Jewish. Their origins can be traced back to the lost tribe of Dan, one of the 12 tribes of Israel. However, Israel only officially recognized them as Jewish last year. Instead of singling them out, welcoming Ethiopian Jews with open arms and fully integrating them into Israeli society are approaches that can better relations and improve society as a whole. As Mohammad Darawshe, a leading expert on Jewish-Arab relations mentioned, “It’s important to not legitimize discrimination against minorities because we as Jews as a whole are also a minority”.

In addition, Judaism also prioritizes the pursuit of justice. Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof (צדק צדק תרדוף), meaning justice, justice you shall pursue, is a phrase being spread on social media in light of the Black Lives Matter movement and another important value to strive for. Bakhya ben Asher, a rabbi living in Spain in the twelfth century, taught that the double emphasis of justice means that we must pursue justice under any circumstance, whether you profit or lose from it. Similar to lo ta’amod, Jews are expected not only to stop crime and injustice, but then take it to the next level and pursue justice whenever needed. In Judaism, justice is viewed as a value that we must always pursue but will never fully achieve. By participating in this pursuit, making sure everyone is treated with equity and respect, we fulfill our true nature. There are many ways we can show our support for the Ethiopian Jewish community, but the main one that applies here is fighting for justice for those harmed by police brutality. Working to stop this can look like holding the officers accountable, educating current and future officers, and working to create better relations between the police and the greater Ethiopian community.

Finally, perhaps one of the most well known Jewish values, Tikkun Olam (תיקון עולם) plays a major role in guiding Israel towards racial equality. TIkkun Olam is the responsibility to fix, change, and improve the world around us, but also ourselves. Increasing the well-being of human kind is viewed as a key aspect in improving our world. A more modern usage of the phrase comes from a rabbinic concept concerned with public policy and societal change. A start to repairing relations with the Ethiopian Jewish community can be creating more inclusive policy and laws related to equality and fair treatment of everyone. Although the change needs to come from the top, it also starts with us. What can we as individuals do to create a more welcoming environment? As guided by this value, by improving ourselves we are also improving the world around us.

The Black Lives Matter movement has created an opportunity to re-examine racial equity not just in the U.S. but across the globe.  While Israel is a progressive democracy, it too must do better in handling it’s own race relations with its fellow Ethiopian citizens.  The path for doing so is provided by our Jewish values.  Israelis and Jews around the world should not stand idly by but should work together for anti-racist solutions to help the Ethiopian community. We should love and embrace the Ethiopians so they are not perceived as outsiders.  We should pursue justice for them and in doing so, repair the world.  As Jews, the answers are right in front of us in our tradition.  The question is, what will we do to seize this moment and work for lasting change?

About the Author
Rebecca Weinberg is a student from Seattle, Washington, and sports writer for Lookout Landing, a Seattle Mariners affiliated website.
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