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The Ethiopian Jews longed for Zion

3 key ways you can be harshly critical of something and love it dearly at the same time -- in conversation with Yaffa Tegegne
Aklum Ferede (L) & Baruch Tegegne (R) at Wall in Jerusalem
Ferede Aklum (right) and Baruch Tegegne (left) at the Western Wall in Jerusalem

There is a large and growing school of thought that the word “Zionism” is an ugly word, fraught with ugly connotations; imperialism, and colonialism being the two hot button words anti-Zionists tend to throw around all the time.

Not only is this school of thought wrong, it is idiotic, and assumes a certain amount of miseducation and privilege. Yes, privilege. Because it takes a ton of privilege to sit in an air conditioned college classroom in a first world country and pontificate on how the self-determination of a people is something other than what it is. It takes an insane amount of privilege to gloss over an entire world of people who, after being scattered for 3,000 years, have been and still are gathering from all over the earth to return to a land from where they were scattered. It takes a ton of privilege, even intestinal fortitude, to ignore the fact that no other people in history has been able to accomplish what these people have accomplished, and that even now, the ones that still remain in many of the countries where they were scattered are either trapped or murdered. 

It takes a special kind of dumb to take an entire movement that saw the return and safety of millions of Jews worldwide, and label it the opposite of what it actually is. Especially when the other group of people these “activists” seem to be fighting for have a legacy of enslaving, raping, pillaging, and colonizing North Africa. When I say “enslaving, raping, pillaging, and colonizing,” I don’t mean past tense. I mean “-ing.” I mean now. I mean today. Sure, it started in the seventh century, but it continues today. The Arabs (along with many other countries) have successfully colonized Northern Africa, while supposed Palestinian “human rights activists” accuse the Jews of the very sin. 

Zionism is the pinnacle of what liberation is supposed to be; it breaks the chains of imperialism and colonialism. It is the liberation movement for the Jewish people. Let us ask ourselves, before we come to our own conclusions about Israel, what the word “Zionism” means to the Ethiopian Jew. I have had the honor over the years of forming many friendships in the Ethiopian Israeli community. They would share with me about the challenges they face in Israel, like racism, discrimination, and an unfair justice system. We’ve spoken and grappled at great lengths about the deep issues in Israeli society and what needs to change in order for the Ethiopian Israelis to continue thriving.

Most recently, I spoke with my good friend, Yaffa Tegegne, daughter of the legendary Baruch Tegegne, about what happened in the summer of 2019 in Israel when an unarmed Ethiopian Israeli, Solomon Tekah, was shot and killed by an Israeli police officer. Our conversation was so heart wrenching, but necessary to hear. Yaffa pulls no punches when it comes to the flaws in Israeli society pertaining to its Ethiopian Jewish community.

A common theme with all of my Ethiopian Israeli friends however, is their love for their country. What Yaffa told me is something I will never forget. As we were discussing the Ethiopian Jews protesting in the streets, Yaffa told me three things:

  1. If you were to ask an Ethiopian Israeli the problems they had with Israel, they would lay everything out for you so succinctly and with passion, holding nothing back. But if you were to make a claim to them that Israel is somehow an illegitimate state, or more so, that Zionism itself is evil, they would laugh in your face.
  2. Ethiopian Israelis protesting in the streets is actually an incredibly huge testament to the face that they are Israeli, they know they are Israeli, and they are proud to be Israeli. The majority of their parents would not have rocked the boat, and that is a more traditional Ethiopian culture. But this generation does not see themselves as Ethiopians who were brought into Israel, because they aren’t. They were born in Israel. They are Israeli, and “only Israelis will protest in this way.”
  3. By and large, Ethiopian Israelis are extremely patriotic, they are over represented in the Israeli Police, and are very religious. Meaning, they understand the biblical precedent for them living in Israel today, and are extremely thankful for it. 

If one can’t understand how a group of people can be so harshly critical of something, and love it at the same time, one will not understand Israel. It’s easy to share an article on social media, draw your own conclusion and move on, but to truly understand what is happening on the ground, talking to people on the ground would be a great place to start. Especially considering some of the articles that still proliferate today are more than seven years old, and have had retractions published from the same publications that posted the original story (one would need to ask why said publications have not deleted the original false story, but that is for another day).

Zionism is what drove Ferede Aklum to constantly risk his life returning to Sudan so he can bring more of his Ethiopian brothers and sisters to Israel on foot. Zionism is what compelled Baruch Tegegne to work with and urge the Israeli government to assist Ferede Aklum and eventually airlift the remaining thousands of Ethiopian Jews into Israel and away from danger. Zionism is what gave the Ethiopian Jews hope, generation after generation for nearly 3000 years, that they would one day set foot in Jerusalem, and live in Israel again.

So if you are one of those for whom “Zionism” is an ugly word, look in the mirror. You may actually be the one ugly one.

To hear more of my conversation with both Yaffa Tegegne and Naftali Aklum (youngest brother of Ferede Aklum), subscribe to my podcast, the JW Show.

About the Author
Joshua is the Assistant Director of the Institute for Black Solidarity with Israel (IBSI). He’s 28 years old and a composition graduate of the University of Pacific’s Conservatory of Music. Joshua was formerly IBSI’s Director of Special Events, and planned music performances featuring The Hebrew Project Artists (THP) across the country. Joshua is also a graduate of CUFI’s 2016 Diversity Outreach Mentoring Endeavor (DOME), where he received training in Israel advocacy for diverse audiences. He was chosen to travel to Israel twice; once as part of CUFI’s millennial outreach, Israel Collective, and again as part of a music performance with Victor Styrsky’s Wild Branches & Friends. His other musical endeavors include writing for the Boston Pops, and music directing for other artists.
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