By Solomon A Getahun (PhD), October 7, 2015
Since the altercation between the Israeli police and an Ethiopian-born Jew, also known as the Beta Israel, Israeli media outlets, print or otherwise, have been talking about issues of racism. They are not alone. Media outlets from all over the world have reported and continue to do so on the incident and the prevalence of racism against the Beta Israel. Even the Israeli PM, Benjamin Netanyahu, and other high-ranking government officials openly expressed their concern at the mistreatment of the Beta Israel and pledged to make amends. As of June 1st, PM has announced the creation of a government portfolio at a ministerial level that is solely tasked in dealing with racial issues and the Beta Israel.
In this piece, I argue that the kernel issue for the plight of the Beta Israel in Israel is more than racism and that to view the problem in binary vision, White vis-a-vis Black, will lead to wrong assumptions and faulty conclusions. While the issue of race difference is one, there are others that warrant attention and hence analysis. There is a mismatch between the Master Narrative of the Jewish Homeland and the Beta Israel’s alya to Israel. The circumstance of the Beta Israel migration to Israel sets them apart from other Jews. While most Jews left Europe and Northern Africa for the Promised Land because of persecution, the Beta Israel migration does not fit the master narrative—a Jew who fled his country for the Promised Land due to anti-Semitism.
From the start, the Beta Israel’s alya was shrouded in controversy. This is despite the existence of thousands of Ethiopians who safeguarded their Jewish faith for centuries against all odds. The reluctance to recognize these Ethiopians continued in spite of the many documented reports of 19th and 20th century Euro-American travelers, adventurers and diplomats who set foot in Ethiopia and attested to the existence of people who practice Judaism. However, the Israeli government and the rabbis continued to reject recognition of the Beta Israel as Jews. It was only in the 1970s after the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef attested to the fact that the Beta Israel were members of one of the lost tribes, the Dan, that Israel began extending the alya privilege to the Beta Israel. Even then, because of the amicable relations that Israel had with Haile Selassie I, King of Kings of Ethiopia and the Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, there was not a meaningful migration of the Beta Israel to the Promised Land until after the monarch was overthrown. Had Israel began accepting the Beta Israel during the relatively tranquil and prosperous times of Haile Selassie, as it did during the period of the Dergue, the military junta that ruled the country between 1974 and 1991, the shadow of doubt that was cast on the Jewishness of the Beta Israel might probably have been less and their plight even lesser. The Israeli society would have regarded the Beta Israel as people who came to Israel as Jews than as multitudes who left their country due to famine and instability than a desire to practice their faith openly without any fear and ostracizing. The Beta Israel of Ethiopia were pejoratively known among Ethiopians as Felasha, “rootless” people. Operation Mosses and other operations that followed, such as Operation Solomon, all have one thing in common: they have the flavor of saving people from a terrible hunger than saving fellow Jews from anti-Semitism.
The arrival of the Beta Israel in Israel after a series of operations was a shock for both, the Beta Israel and the Israeli society. What the Israelis witnessed was a multitude of downtrodden masses that were famished and dazed. For the first time in the history of the Jewish state, the new arrivals were Black! Neither the lay people nor their rabbis, the Qes (Kahin), spoke or understood Hebrew. For the Beta Israelis, too, it was a shock. Though they knew about the Promised Land and were longing for it, they never thought they would find themselves amidst Whites. For that matter, not only the Beta Israel but the majority of Ethiopians have no clue about Whites. The only recollection these Ethiopians had about an encounter with a relatively large number of Whites was during the brief Italian occupation (1936- 1941)— and this was too long ago to have a meaningful impression on Ethiopians. Therefore, both were at a loss, it seems, on how to deal with each other. As if this was not enough, the new arrivals had neither capital nor skill that could be marketed in their new home.
The Beta Israel, a nomenclature by which Ethiopian Jews prefer to identify themselves, by and large, were drawn from the remotest parts of northern Ethiopia. Many of their localities such as Quara, Belessa, Aikael, Shere, Jan Amora etc. were inaccessible to the outside world. There were neither roads nor airports. Communication between these places and the nearby major towns was on foot or with the help of horses and donkeys. For centuries, the Beta Israel depended on subsistence farming supplemented with cattle raising, pottery making and other crafts. Their localities were devoid of schools and hospitals. So much so they were illiterate even in their own language, Amharic and Tigrigna.
The “richest” among them might have a transistor radio while television is unknown. Many have never seen a car or travelled by one until their arrival in Israel. Though this is unusual for a person in the First World, the Beta Israel truly reflects the socio-economic conditions in their country of origin, Ethiopia, and probably for the majority of Africa. Therefore, the Beta Israel’s absorption into mainstream society became difficult. This was partly due to the language barrier and partly, as one observer noted, due to the enormity of transplanting a 19th century community into the 21st century. This coupled with the initial lack of recognition of the “Jewishness” of the Beta Israel further compounded the problem for both parties.
Despite the shock, the Beta Israelis were very grateful to their new country. Partly because of the overwhelming compassion that the Israeli society accorded to them and partly because they had no clue what paternalism and “racism” meant. In order to express their appreciation, they joined the IDF in droves. Besides, soldering is a noble profession in their country of origin. Some even have changed their name so that it sounds Hebrew. Solomon became Shlomo . . . etc. Because of their feeling of gratitude, the Beta Israelis were known among the Israeli society as people who say “thank you” too much. Other Israelis identified them as “little nice people” as a consequence of their polite demeanor and short and skinny stature.
However, the larger society did not notice or failed to note the growing sense of dislocation behind this seemingly meek façade. The Beta Israel lacked the community based institutions and leaders that could
have helped them to softly land and transition into Israeli society. Whatever cultural assets they had either did not fit in the new mould or were encouraged, by host society actors, to forget them in favor of the new cultural milieu. Their former rabbis (qes), who could have provided some sort of family counseling and leadership, were not recognized. The newly minted rabbis, though some of them were Ethiopians, were too young to understand the intricacies of the cultural norms that were brought from Ethiopia. They were less helpful and sometimes a source of consternations for the elders of the community— how can one take advice form a kutara, children that have no manners.
One major consequence of this sense of alienation was an increasing divorce rate and other social ills among the Beta Israel. As an innate reaction, the Beta Israel began to retreat into themselves despite efforts to integrate them with the wider community. Of course, the recoil was part of the rejection by some real-estate owners and neighborhood communities who refused to rent houses or accept the Beta Israel. Although the recoil gave the Beta Israel a sense of their own community, it had its own drawbacks. The neighborhoods became miniature ghettos that prevented integration.
Furthermore, the Beta Israelis are the only Jews in Israel who are still referred by the derogatory name, Felasha! As if this is not enough, the Beta Israelis are the only Jews who are, knowingly or unknowingly, divided into two categories by Israeli resettlement/absorption authorities as “Felasha” and “Felasha Mura.” The latter are Beta Israelis who had been “converted to Christianity” though they were Jews. If one brings this seemingly innocent classification into the Ashkenazi and Sephardim stratification of the Israeli society, the stratum would look like the following: Ashkenazi, Sephardic, Felasha and then comes the Felash Mura!
The fact that the Beta Israelis came from a society which is hierarchical and patriarchal where the best behavior was to be meek, obedient and not to speak unless spoken to; and where the state is supreme, they were not accustomed to questioning authority. Thus, in the absence of their own agency that can bridge the gap between them and the host society the Beta Israel kept on trudging. Now and then, however, there were violent outbursts either amongst themselves or against the misgivings of the society. The larger society noticed these sporadic outbursts but did very little to alleviate their suffering.
As time went on, however, the new second generation of Beta Israelis came of age. Unlike their parents’ generation, they were born, raised and educated in Israel. Whatever achievement they had, they owed it to no one but to themselves. They neither accept patronage nor tolerate discrimination. If they see any, they do not hesitate—they fight back. In short, they became Israelis. It is these Israelis who caught the Israeli society by surprise. The meek and respectful Beta Israel, the pro-Likud Beta Israel, had given way to the “violent,” aggressive/assertive and the “left” leaning Israeli. PM Netanyahu’s government recognition of the plight of the Beta Israel and its willingness to do something about it is half of the solution. There remains the other half—a solution trickier and tougher to devise and implement. An American-style of “affirmative action” appears an easy and handy solution. However, lessons from the American experience and the very nature of the Beta Israel’s alya preempts such a solution. Such help from the government will continue to project the Beta Israelis as “helpless” and a “burden” on society.
Instead, engaging the Beta Israel community directly and indirectly will produce better results. For instance, making them aware of their rights, privileges and obligations as Israeli citizens should be the first step. Empowering the Beta Israel is essential: they should be engaged in the decision making process before any top-down measures are taken. Allowing them to elect their own representatives might be key to dealing with their grievances appropriately. Helping and even encouraging the Beta Israel to have their own agency such as establishing Beta Israel community centers whose main task, in addition to providing culturally sensitive solutions to some of familial issues and other problems, is to solicit the help of successful Beta Israelis (actors, diplomats, models, educators, military and police officers etc) to participate in community issues and serve as role models for the younger generation. Opening community based media outlets that primarily cater to concerns of the Beta Israel in Israel rather than the politics of the country of origin is a vital part of the recovery process. Educating the larger society about the history of the Beta Israel by making the history of the Beta Israel part of the Israeli curriculum is a step in the right direction. This, while heightening awareness about the Beta Israel among the Israeli society, assures the Beta Israel that they are indeed a part of the Israeli Society and hence the master narrative. And finally, ratifying laws that make discrimination against a Beta Israel crime that is punishable by law could help to alleviate some of the ill-treatment the Beta Israel have experienced and deter similar instances from occurring.
Solomon A. Getahun (PhD) Associate Professor of History