Ethiopians finding identities in Israel

Volunteers are helping Ethiopian families in Israel obtain better service from the educational system and cope with new customs.The trials and tribulations of Israel’s Ethiopian Jewish community could serve as an example for other countries faced with the absorption of …

Volunteers are helping Ethiopian families in Israel obtain better service from the educational system and cope with new customs.The trials and tribulations of Israel’s Ethiopian Jewish community could serve as an example for other countries faced with the absorption of a disparate population. The Ethiopian community in Israel is gradually developing a crucial infrastructure despite problems usually associated with recent immigrant populations, including racism, poverty, and acclimation difficulties.

The Ethiopian Immigrants Volunteer Organization, a group with three full-time staffers, and nearly 200 volunteers, will play a central part in that process. Founded in Hadera in 1996, the organization takes a multi-tiered approach to bridging the cultural, educational, and financial gap between the Ethiopian community (which now numbers more than 80,000) and the rest of Israel’s Jewish community.

In a state where almost no teachers are of Ethiopian descent, the program has instituted after-school learning centers that cater to children as well as to adult educators. An adjunct to the after-school program, called “A Leap into the Third Millennium,” which provides almost 400 students with computer training, helps Ethiopian students prepare for life in a technology-driven society. And courses are being offered through EIVO on Ethiopian religion, language and culture.

“One of our biggest concerns is that our elders can’t speak Hebrew and know very little about Israeli culture,” said Tesfay Anderajew, EIVO’s chairman and executive director. “On the other hand, our children don’t know their background and roots – and that is also very problematic.”

During an interview conducted under the aegis of the San Francisco Jewish Community Federation, Anderajew provided some historical insights and offered thoughts on the future of Israel’s Ethiopian community.

Nineteen seventy-three was a pivotal year for Ethiopian Jewry. It was during that year that Ovadia Yosef, the Sephardi chief rabbi of Israel, issued a religious ruling formally declaring “Beta Israel” to be descendants of the lost tribe of Dan. That same year, Israel and Ethiopia severed ties in the wake of the Yom Kippur War. The confluence of events, where Ethiopian Jewry was at once recognized and isolated from the Diaspora, planted the seeds of the liberation movement.

That promise was fulfilled in a two-month span during the winter of 1984-85, when nearly 7,000 Ethiopian Jews were airlifted out of Sudan (where many refugees had fled to avoid famine) to Israel in what was later named “Operation Moses.” Seven years later, during “Operation Solomon,” more than 14,000 immigrants were transported to Israel. While the migration was hailed as nothing short of miraculous, the transplanted Ethiopian community experienced severe culture shock.

To begin with, the cultural norms between the two countries are vastly different. Meals are sacrosanct in Ethiopian cultures, according to Anderajew, and fast food is anathema to Ethiopian norms. So too is the amount of “skin” shown by Israelis and Israeli women in particular. Also, gender roles in Israel are much less defined, and Israeli women have access to many rights and privileges unknown to women in Ethiopian society. The gender differences are even more stark when one considers that many Ethiopian married couples consist of men in their fifties and wives who can be twenty years younger.

“The divorce rate among Ethiopians is much higher in Israel than it ever was in Ethiopia,” said Anderajew. “Complicating things is that the older a man gets in Ethiopia, the more he is respected. Here, an older Ethiopian man has much fewer options.”

To improve the situation, EIVO has set up a “peaceful home” project in cities, including Hadera, Natanya and Afula, where the Ethiopian population is large. The project calls for the installation of “schmagele,” or community elders, who resolve family and personal matters according to custom.

Formal education has also been a stumbling block for the Ethiopian immigrant community. Anderajew said education in Ethiopia is devoted to agriculture and technical trades. With the beginning of the technological age (a milieu where Israel is particularly advanced) increasing numbers of Ethiopian youth, in programs such as EIVO’s are being tutored in computers. Unfortunately, this creates a problem, since the more advanced Ethiopian youth become, the less they have in common with their parents and other older relatives. Hence, there is a need for Ethiopian religious and cultural classes to run simultaneously with computer classes, Anderajew said.

The program has already placed several Ethiopian teachers in school systems, a concept that was unheard of even three years ago. And 10 percent of college-age Ethiopians now attend non-technical universities in Israel, a figure that has improved every year during the past decade.

Although Anderajew thinks Israel’s Ethiopian community still needs to be integrated more fully into the social fabric of the country, he offered first-hand evidence that the population has come a long way.

“During the latest Intifada, people in our community are not saying ‘look at what’s happening to Israel,’ they’re saying ‘look what’s happening to us…’” he said. “This is much more than an immigrant success story. We belong here. Our community is coming home.”