Simon Hardy Butler

Our Ethiopian Friends

Anyone who doesn’t consider Ethiopian Jews “real” members of the tribe isn’t a friend of mine.

In Hebrew school, I learned long ago of the plight of Ethiopian Jewry. We identified with them, as they were struggling with famine and persecution in their own country…much the way my ancestors did in Eastern Europe. Now, as a complex, potentially dangerous political environment foments in Ethiopia, movements are being made to bring Jews from the region into Israel.

And to those who believe that’s wrong and that these folks aren’t really Jewish because their skin is a different color from ours, I say: phooey. Bring them all in. Bring them to Israel.

Because we live in a time when anyone who wants to live as a Jew should be lauded, welcomed, appreciated. We haven’t had many of those in our history. Isn’t it time we rewarded those who make that choice?

The situation surrounding Ethiopian Jewry and recognition of their heritage is complicated. Some are rediscovering their Jewish roots, as many of us in other countries around the world do. My feeling is, they are just as Jewish as any one of our Ashkenazic or Sephardic brethren—and attempts to dismiss them as not being Jewish enough because they don’t have easily identifiable ancestry is wrong … as is the prejudice they may encounter in their efforts to achieve such recognition, by the Israeli government or by individuals.

Yes, prejudice … and, in a disturbing way, anti-Semitism. For that is what Ethiopian Jews are dealing with; otherwise, they would be allowed to make aliyah in greater numbers and with more expeditiousness.

The fact that this hasn’t happened is a great shame for us as Jews and as human beings.

Don’t give me arguments like “There’s not enough room in the Israeli government’s budget for that.” There’s always room, in any budget, for altruism. Helping Jews is part and parcel of the Israeli mien. It is an obligation to step up and assist our Ethiopian siblings during this troubled time. If they want to live in the Holy Land according to the tenets of Judaism, they should be given every opportunity to do so.

The state of Israel, however small it may be, is certainly large enough to accommodate them, both physically and spiritually.

We, as Jews, have lived so long in the noxious mist of discrimination and prejudice that we’re often skeptical of any positive outreach. Yet today, we’re finding that there are people who love us, want to live with us, worship next to us, dine with us. We’re finding that people want to sit at our tables, do business with us—without any ulterior motive other than the fact that they want to exist as Jews. That’s very different from how things were once upon a time. Why not encourage this phenomenon, salute it, embrace it?

So should we embrace our relatives from Ethiopia, members of an old, distinguished community that somehow doesn’t get the reception it deserves. Well, we need to change that. We need to come out and support endeavors aimed at conducting these Jews to their new home. We need to treat them just as well as we treat our neighbors. After all, they’re our family. We can’t afford to ignore them.

As I stated before, anyone who doesn’t consider Ethiopian Jews “real” members of the tribe isn’t a friend of mine. Anyone who does, however, is doing a lot of things right.

We must ensure that the principles espoused in the latter statement endure forever.

About the Author
Simon Hardy Butler is a writer and editor living in New York City. He has written for publications ranging from Zagat to Adweek and has interviewed innumerable people—including two Auschwitz survivors whose story may be heard at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s website. His views and opinions are his own.
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