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Beta Israel: Orphans of Circumstance

Under the provisions of Israel's Law of Return, more than 120,000 Ethiopian Jews have settled in the country over the last three decades. Many of these Jews arrived during the 1980s and 1990s, when, in response to civil war and famine in Ethiopia, the Israeli government mounted massive rescue operations. Operation Moses in 1984 and Operation Solomon in 1991 airlifted over 85 percent of Ethiopia's entire Jewish population to Israel.

All of the immigrant groups who have settled in Israel have encountered problems integrating into Israeli society, but minority ethnic groups have often had a particularly hard time. Unlike many of their central and eastern European brethren, the new Ethiopian olim arrived without educational qualifications or job skills. Coming from a subsistence economy, they often found themselves ill-equipped to work in an industrialized, first-world environment like Israel. Besides having to start virtually from scratch economically, Ethiopian Jews (like the Mizrachi immigrants two decades before them) have found themselves consistently confronted with prejudice, discrimination, and racism from both Israeli society and the country's political establishment.

While vast amounts of government money have been poured into absorbing these immigrants, progress has been slow. Figures released in 2007 show how serious the socio-economic disparities still remain between Israel's Ethiopian population and the rest of Israeli society: Ethiopians live in impoverished neighborhoods, face sky-rocketing unemployment, and have the highest high-school dropout rate of any Jewish group in Israel. With average per capita income among Ethiopian Jews standing at NIS 2,000 a month, Ethiopians' salaries are around half those of all other Israeli Jews, and considerably lower even than those of the country's Arab population. Ethiopian youth often fall behind in basic skills like reading, writing and arithmetic early on in their education. As a result, around 40 percent of Ethiopian adults of employable age don't have an education beyond elementary school level. In deprived neighborhoods, drug use is increasing dramatically and criminal activity, practically unheard of among Ethiopian Jewish communities before they came to the country, is on the rise.


Yuvi's Story

Yuvi Tashome arrived in Israel as a young girl during Operation Moses in 1984, when some 33,000 members of Beta Israel were airlifted to the country from refugee camps in the Sudan in a dramatic rescue operation orchestrated by the Israeli government and the Mossad. Two and a half years ago Yuvi, now in her early thirties, was among the co-founders of a community in Gedera that runs initiatives to help the town's underprivileged Ethiopian population.

Before moving to Gedera, Yuvi worked for many years in programs run by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI), designed to help integrate Ethiopian youth into Israeli society. "When I was working with Ethiopian kids there" she tells me, "I began to realize quite how serious the gaps were that exist between Israeli society and Ethiopian society here in Israel."

"As an Ethiopian immigrant in Israel, you have to erase everything Ethiopian in order to be Israeli. For example, when you first get here they erase your name and give you a new one. When we arrived they asked me my name and I replied ‘Yuvnot.' The girl didn't understand what I said, so she said ‘OK, from now on you're going to be Rahel.' So I was Rahel until after my army service. All through my childhood I wanted to be Israeli so much, so I was Rahel, my accent was Israeli, I didn't like Ethiopian food, only Israeli food, I dressed Israeli and so on. The Ethiopian part of me was completely pushed aside. I didn't want to deal with it".

Instigated by the majority Ashkenazim, official absorption processes have often failed to account for the particular social and cultural needs of minority ethnic groups. Yuvi points to this identity crisis experienced by so many of the Ethiopian olim as a significant contributor to the alienation inadvertently fostered among the Ethiopian community by the Israeli establishment. "When two Ethiopian kids are speaking Amharic in class" she says, "the teacher will intervene and force them to speak Hebrew. When parents come to the school, the teacher will often have to translate what he says to the parents to their child, or vice versa. If you ask an Ethiopian youngster about Ethiopia or about his Ethiopian name, he'll say ‘I don't have any Ethiopian name–only Israeli'. I think it's a big problem. I think that this is a big part of the underlying cause of a lot of the things that are happening to Ethiopian youth–the crime, the drugs and so on".

It was only when she finished her army service and started working with Ethiopian youngsters in the SPNI that Yuvi herself began to reconnect with her own Ethiopian identity. "SPNI is about hiking," she says, "it's about knowing the country. When I was hiking with the kids and we talked about the history or the geography of Israel we'd always need to speak about Ethiopia. Let's say we talked about the mountains around Nazareth, we'd find a similar area in Ethiopia and draw comparisons with that. This way, once you've helped them draw out their Ethiopian identity, the Ethiopian kids who didn't want to hear about Nazareth would listen because you begin with Ethiopia, and Ethiopia interests them.

"So, of course, to work with the kids I needed to go home and ask my parents all about Ethiopia, about the hiking there, about the plants, the animals–everything I wanted to use when I was teaching the kids. This was the first time I'd really asked my parents anything about where we'd come from".

Yuvi's decision to set up a community in Gedera, which is home to around 1,700 Ethiopian families, was born of her desire to work with the youth population of one neighbourhood in particular, Shapira. "I used to work with a lot of the kids in Shapira when I was in SPNI," she told me, "and it seemed that something very strange was happening there. Every year the situation with the neighbourhood's youth was getting worse and worse. If in the first year they smoked cigarettes, in the second it'd be alcohol. If the second year it was alcohol, the next it would be drugs. I began to feel that I was investing a lot of time and energy here and something was not moving, so I wanted to figure out what it was."

"There are many programs aimed at helping Ethiopian society in Israel" Yuvi explains, "but basically they're not working. After five, six, twenty years, things here are not getting better. I began to realize that the main problem is that the motivation for everything was coming from outside–from the government, from foundations and so on. Within the Ethiopian community itself, there's no real motivation to do anything. It's just a cycle of poverty and disempowerment."

"When I talked to my parents about their life back in Ethiopia I was amazed, because they were so activist, they were so motivated," Yuvi tells me. "But here it's the opposite. People are just sitting and waiting–waiting for what, I don't know. In Ethiopia, if you don't work, you don't eat. It's as simple as that, so the motivation's there already. It's built in. Basically my friends and I decided that we needed to come up with ways of getting the motivation for change in the Ethiopian community here to come from the families and the kids themselves."


Garin Kehillati

The community Yuvi and her friends established calls itself garin kehillati, or ‘seed of community.' Comparisons have been made in the past with the urban kibbutz concept, but the basic idea behind Yuvi's project is to bring people to live together in an extended neighbourhood community bound not by kibbutz-style economic communalism, but by a common ideological mission. Today, two and a half years since the garin first took root in the town, its initial nucleus of three families has evolved into two separate neighbourhood communities. Yuvi's alone now consists of eleven families, six of whom are Ethiopian immigrants, the rest sabra Israelis and Russian olim.

The communities run a variety of local-level initiatives in the surrounding area, including educational and social projects, a community garden and a non-profit organization, Haverim Bateva, all of which aim to restore a sense of belonging to the town's alienated youth by strengthening their Jewish Ethiopian identity. Every two weeks, the families meet for Bet Midrash (communal study), during which they learn about Ethiopian religion and culture, study other cultures and belief systems, discuss social problems, and share ideas about the future direction of the community and its role in helping the surrounding society.

"Everyone who wants to come and be a part of our community basically can," Yuvi says. "I don't think that there needs to be a separation between Ethiopian community and the other families living here. We're all the same; all of us are immigrants. It doesn't matter if you're black or white, religious or not religious–as long as you accept and respect the other, you're welcome. The first thing is to see the other, and to know the other." The community, she tells me, is in a permanent process of evolution and still developing all the time. "We're constantly asking ourselves how we can improve what we're doing. For example, with eight children in the community, we're now talking about opening a kindergarten and bringing in Ethiopian kids from the neighbourhood to be with our own children."

In addition to the eleven families, the community counts among its number thirteen young people from the neighbourhood aged between 20 and 25, all of whom are volunteering in the locality, half of them as permanent members of the garin. "We started to work with this group three years ago," Yuvi says. "This year, six of them go to university, so we we're very happy about that. That's a real success story for us."

Reluctant to leave Gedera, this group goes to college in the town and comes back home in the evenings. As Yuvi explains, this was an important part of the idea behind beginning the garin in the first place. "Like many other families across Israel, the Ethiopian families living in this neighbourhood have been trapped in a kind of cycle. The stronger kids from the neighbourhood always end up leaving to go on to university, so the ones who stay behind are the ones drinking, the ones who dropped out or who didn't go through the army or whatever. So when you're a young child growing up here, these are your role models. The idea of having this young community staying in the neighbourhood is to provide alternative role models for the younger kids, and already it's working. It's really working."


Grassroots vs. Political Change

Yuvi doesn't consider herself ‘political.' She doesn't vote, and, although she identifies more with leftist elements within Israeli society than any other, she has little faith or interest in party-politics as an agent of social change. Although the community's evolution wasn't exactly an ideologically-motivated process, the various initiatives established by the group came into being as part of a calculated attempt to bring local organizing away from local government and back to the grassroots.

"In the neighbourhood that we're talking about," Yuvi tells me, "people just don't feel like it's their own. As an example, about a year ago a group of soldiers from a nearby army base wanted to do community work in Gedera, so they came to Shapira. Without bothering to ask anybody from the neighborhood what they needed, they decided to paint the buildings. So they come to the neighbourhood at 10AM, and when their two hours was up, they just stopped painting, dropped everything and went. The neighbourhood looked like trash.

"About a week later, there was a huge picture of those soldiers with their brushes in one of the newspapers, with the caption "Ten soldiers giving back to the community" or something like that. I was so angry! Apart from anything else, how could someone have the nerve to come and paint my house without asking me?!

"So I asked the people living there why they would do something like that, and they say ‘oh, it's like that all the time here. If the mayor says it's OK, then there's nothing we can do. We don't have any power to resist that. A few people just have to go and clean everything up.' So we started thinking about ways of dealing with this. The first thing we did was to create a parents' group who wanted change, as a way of fighting against this tendency to just accept everything that anybody in authority said. If, for example, a teacher in the local school said ‘your child is not allowed to do this, this and this,' and because of that the child ends up quitting school and dropping out, all too often the parents would just say ‘oh OK,' roll over and accept it. NO! You don't need to say ‘oh OK' if you don't agree with it! There are a lot of other solutions!"

When Ethiopian immigrants began to settle in Israel during the early 1980s, their dream was to integrate and become accepted in their new homeland while at the same time retaining their own unique character, identity and values. It's a sad but very real indictment of Israeli society that they've been rewarded for their unparalleled devotion to this country with the racism, prejudice and discrimination that their communities continue to face to this day. The work being done by Yuvi and her friends in Gedera not only betrays ongoing concerns about the disempowerment of the Ethiopian community in Israel, but highlights the importance of grassroots action and local community involvement in creating meaningful and lasting political change in the face of a government and state unwilling, and often unable, to take care of its own people.


Cover Photograph : Children of the Beta Israel Community. Wallaka, Gondar District, Ethiopia, 1984. Photographer: Doron Bacher. Beth Hatefutsoth Visual Documentation Center.

Ricki Rosen's book, Transformations, is accompanied by an informative text by Micha Odenheimer. The book largely celebrates the journey of Ethiopiann Jews to Israel. The images depict, in a generally positive way, the urge to assimilate into Israeli society.

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