Waiting to be loved back: Ethiopian-Israelis continue struggle for equality

Waiting to be loved back: Ethiopian-Israelis continue struggle for equality

Brought to Israel en masse in the 1980s and 90s, Ethiopian-Israelis continue to find themselves marginalized by Israeli society.


Just the Basics

  • The Israeli government transported tens of thousands of Ethiopian Jews to Israel in the 1980s and 1990s

  • Despite the initial welcome, Ethiopian-Israelis soon became a marginalized community which continues to face prejudice and discrimination today

  • Some signs of improvement are visible but the ongoing saga surrounding family reunification and immigration continues to fray relations with the government


Israeli see protests by vocal minority groups at regular intervals, with demonstrators demanding greater equality and an end to discrimination by the Israeli government and wider society as a whole. These protesters are not in Gaza or the West Bank, but rather in the heart of Israel’s largest cities. Instead of the hues of the Pan-Arab tricolour and the flag of Palestine, the marchers hold two other flags - one with a six pointed star, and another with a five pointed one. Beginning in the 1970s, Ethiopian Jews were welcomed on mass to Israel yet what started as an audacious reunion of the lost tribes of Israel quickly became a bungled attempt to graft an entire new population into Israeli society.

Comprising some 135,000 individuals, Ethiopian-Israeli constitute the most underprivileged segment of Israeli Jewry. Despite the rhetoric of reuniting scattered Jewish communities with Israel, the plight of Ethiopian-Israelis demonstrates that this reunion has not been orchestrated as well as it should have been. Writing in 2015, Yossi Mekelberg, international relations professor at Regent’s University London, argues that “only 30 years after the arrival of the first Ethiopian Jews to Israel, and following recent violent clashes with the police, there is a broad acknowledgement that the state failed appallingly in absorbing the Jewish Ethiopian community.”

The very efforts to bring Ethiopian Jews to Israel are themselves so thoroughly entwined with political baggage; baggage that has both informed and hindered the return or aliyah process. The contrast between the trickle of Ethiopian immigrants (or olim) to Israel prior to the mid-1970s and the torrent which materialized in the following years demonstrates that external events, rather than an organic domestic call for the return of Ethiopian Jews (also known as Beta Israel) spurred their emigration to Israel.

Having had to fight for its very existence on several occasions in the late 1960s and 1970s, concerns about Israel’s ability to maintain its existence as a Jewish state invariably arose. At home, efforts to further tip the demographic balance in their favour were facing headwinds, as the number of immigrants (primarily from Europe) had dropped significantly from the peak of the immediate post-war years. These changing migration patterns and the threat posed by Israel’s Arab neighbours helped lay the groundwork for a more receptive attitude within the Israeli government about expanding their aliyah efforts to previously overlooked regions.

Number of Immigrants to Israel (1948-2017)

Sources: Central Bureau of Statistics, Jerusalem Post

These changes in turn coincided with events in Ethiopia, where a coup in 1974 by Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam overthrew the monarchy headed by Emperor Haile Selassie, establishing a one-party Communist state in its stead. Mengistu initiated policies preventing Ethiopian Jews from owning property, with many forcibly evicted from their lands. By the 1980s, Mengistu’s government had also forbidden the practice of Judaism as well as the teaching of Hebrew. Ethiopia’s oppression of its Jewish population provided a textbook case of a repetition of the very kind of deprivation that Jews had sought to avoid by the creation of Israel in 1948.

As opposed to the conflicts with its Arab neighbours - conflicts as much as (if not more) about geopolitics than religion - the situation in Ethiopia presented the Israel government with a clear cut ethical dilemma. Failing to act would only undermine claims that Israel’s existence was necessary to protect world Jewry, whereas coming to the aid of Ethiopia’s Jews would invoke the kind of moral high-ground that had informed the best intentions behind Israel’s foundation in the first place. To this end, following Halakhic and constitutional discussions, in 1977 the Israeli government decided that Israel’s Law of Return applied to Beta Israel.

When Mossad taught tourists how to windsurf

One of the earliest operations to relocate Ethiopian Jews to Israel is also one of the most bizarre. Due to violence in Ethiopia, many Ethiopians found themselves in refugee camps in neighbouring Sudan: some 4,000 died on the arduous journey. In order to facilitate the extraction of Beta Israel refugees from Sudan - a declared enemy of Israel - the Israeli government needed to come up with a sufficiently convincing ruse to allow their operatives to carry out their work in the country without arousing suspicion. With Mossad, Israel’s intelligence service, on the lookout for a base of operations, it unexpectedly stumbled upon the perfect location: an abandoned tourist resort on the Red Sea coast. Originally built by a Sudanese company in 1972, the resort had been abandoned due infrastructure shortcomings. Posing as a Swiss company, Mossad purchased the resort for $320,000 in the late 1970s.

Mengistu Haile Mariam, dictator of Ethiopia from 1977 to 1991 | WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Having refurbished the facility, the resort; now replete with all the amenities any tourist could want, Mossad began promoting the location, welcoming the first guest soon thereafter. Surrounded by unwitting tourists and local staff, Mossad agents posed as hotel employees. “We introduced windsurfing to Sudan,” recalls Gad Shimron, a former Mossad agent who worked at the resort. “The first board was brought in - I knew how to windsurf, so I taught the guests. Other Mossad agents posed as professional diving instructors.”

Agents would regularly leave the resort for days at a time and make contact with Ethiopian Jews in refugee camps before smuggling them to the resort during the night. Once there, Israeli SEAL teams waiting on the beach ferried the refugees from the shore to waiting Israeli navy vessels further out to sea. The resort operated until 1985, during which time some 7,000 Ethiopians were extracted to Israel. After one operation was almost discovered, Israel decided to focus on airlifting Ethiopian Jews instead, a decision which - combined with mounting Sudanese efforts to ferret out Israeli spies in the country - meant that the resort’s days were numbered.

Just as mysteriously as the resort appeared, so too did it vanish, with Mossad agents quickly abandoning the vacation spot, all while there were still guests present. According to another agent who worked at the resort “[The tourists] would have woken up and found themselves alone in the desert. The local staff were there but no-one else - the diving instructor, the lobby manager and so-on: all the Caucasians had disappeared.”

 

Operation Solomon: Line of Ethiopian immigrants streaming out of Israeli military aircraft, 1991 | GOVERNMENT PRESS OFFICE

 

By the mid-1980s, Israel was looking to use airlifts as the primary means to extract Ethiopian Jews. In cooperation with the United States and Sudanese security forces, Israel launched Operation Moses in late 1984, in which some thirty flights left Sudan, each carrying hundreds of Ethiopian Jews to Israel by way of Brussels. After news of the operation was leaked by the press, pressure from other Arab nations forced Sudan to withdraw its support for the operation, but not before some 8,000 Ethiopians were airlifted from the country. In order to rescue those left behind by the abrupt end of Operation Moses, the United States began Operation Joshua, which enabled it to fly a further 500 individuals out of Sudan in 1985.

The second major operation conducted by Israel occurred in 1991. Taking advantage of Mengistu’s weakening hold on power, Israel - together with help from the United States - initiated Operation Solomon, managing to airlift 14,325 Ethiopians within thirty-six hours between May 24th and 25th. Israeli military transports and civilian El Al passenger planes were stripped of their seats in order to maximize the number of passengers, with one El Al 747 setting the world record for the most passengers on a single aircraft at 1,122. In an ironic twist of fate, the effects of famine and general deprivation on the Ethiopians in question made it possible for the operation to airlift as many as it did, due to their lighter weight. Further efforts were made in the following years to facilitate immigration, and by the end of the 1990s some 90,000 Ethiopian Jews had arrived in Israel.

Once in Israel, Ethiopian Jews experience harsh reality check

In the wake of the success of the rescue operations and the collective feeling of excitement within Israel about Ethiopian aliyah, it became increasingly clear that there was no framework in place to effectively manage this new population. From the beginning many Israelis expressed concern about living next to the Ethiopians, and many were settled on Israel’s periphery - a telling symbol of the community’s marginalization.

 

An Ethiopian-Israeli man celebrates the Ethiopian Jewish holiday of Sigd, which is reminiscent of Shavuot | WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

 

For all the talk of kinship, soon after their arrival Israeli blood banks began to secretly destroy all blood donated by Ethiopian Jews for fear of AIDS. In 2013, Pnina Tamano-Shata, a member of the Knesset, was turned away from a special blood drive held at the Knesset, even though she had lived in Israel since the age of three. This occurred despite a lack of evidence for dangerous levels of HIV infection within the population. Ethiopian-Israelis were finally allowed to donate blood in late 2016, after years of protests and anger among the Ethiopian-Israeli community.

A further scandal which has damaged relations between Ethiopian-Israelis and the government emerged in 2013, when the Israeli government admitted for the first time to administering birth control to Ethiopian Jewish immigrants, often without their knowledge or consent. Suspicions were raised after investigative journalist Gal Gabbay began looking into why birth rates in the community had fallen so dramatically. The fact that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was also minister of health from 2009 to 2013, severely undermines claims that the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) was not aware of what the health ministry was doing; nor does this do much to endear Netanyahu to the Ethiopian community.

Ethiopian immigrants have experienced discrimination from the establishment and Israeli society
— Reuven Rivlin, 10th President of Israel

While the situation remains far from ideal, it should be noted that some progress has been made in redressing the legacy of discrimination faced by Ethiopian Jews. Alongside the aforementioned reversal on blood donations, efforts are being made to address systemic discrimination affecting Ethiopian-Israelis, notably in law enforcement.

The Ethiopian-Israeli community is over-represented in incarceration statistics, with many arrests the result of altercations following ID requests and stop-and-search activities, processes which disproportionately target Ethiopian-Israelis. In an attempt to redress this the Israeli government adopted the recommendations of the Committee for Eradicating Racism Against Ethiopian Immigrants, offering pardons for disturbance of public order offenses in honour of the Sigd holiday, which is now celebrated in Israel as a result of Ethiopian immigration.

 

Israeli television footage of Eden Alene’s X Factor performances and victory in 2018.

 

Other developments include the naming of more Ethiopian-Israelis to the judiciary and Knesset, with Israel appointing its first ambassador (unsurprisingly to Ethiopia) of Ethiopian descent in 2012. In 2013, Yityish Aynaw, who emigrated to Israel in 2003, won the 2013 Miss Israel beauty pageant. Touching on her victory, Aynaw stated that “there are many different communities of many different colours in Israel, and it’s important to show that to the world.” In 2016, Avi Yitzhak became the first Ethiopian-Israeli to attain the rank of Colonel in the IDF, and Major Yaros Shigot lit the torch at Israel’s national Independence Day celebrations in 2017. The new year also saw Ethiopian-Israeli, Eden Alene (17) win Israel’s edition of the X Factor talent show. In an interview with Israel Hayom, Alene said she hopes her participation in the contest will make people think more favourably about Israel’s Ethiopian community.

2018 also saw another victory for the Ethiopian community after Israel officially recognized the kesim (traditional Ethiopian religious leaders) after a mass hunger strike was threatened in February. This recognition ends a thirty year struggle for the kesim to be accorded official status, despite having served as Beta Israel’s religious leaders for centuries. Similar to the role filled by rabbis, the kesim are also sometimes called kahens which in turn is derived from the Semitic root for priest or kohen. The keshim will now be able to exercise formal religious authority and practices and their halachic rulings will be accepted as legitimate by Israel’s religious establishment.

“[The kesim] were and remained a magnificent religious leadership across the generations,” explains Knesset member Pnina Tamano-Shata. “But to my sorrow, until today their respected place was being undermined here in Israel. It’s better late than never to admit to a mistake and correct the injustice.”

 

Ethiopian Israelis protesting police brutality in Tel Aviv, May 3rd, 2015 | LILACH DANIEL

 

Ethiopian-Israelis continue to be marginalized

Nevertheless, whereas negative attitudes are slowly changing, a 2008 poll by the Centre for Academic Studies found that fifty-seven percent of respondents considered it unacceptable for their daughter to marry an Ethiopian: thirty-nine percent voiced similar opinions regarding their sons. Similarly, conservative elements within the Ethiopian community combined with the pressures from wider Israeli society means that ninety percent of Ethiopian-Israelis continue to marry within their community.

Furthermore, the household incomes of Ethiopian-Israelis are on average thirty-five percent lower than the general population and thirty-five percent of Ethiopian-Israelis live below the poverty line, compared to the population average of 18.6 percent. With regards to education, only twenty percent of Ethiopian-Israelis attain a university education, compared to forty percent of the general population. This disparity is also seen in graduation rates with fifty-three versus seventy-three percent respectively. A further impediment is the fact that even those of Ethiopian descent born in Israel still fall under the purview of the Ministry of Absorption, not Education. Consequently, Ethiopian-Israeli critics of the status quo complain that their history is not being taught with the same diligence as those of other migrant groups.

“Ethiopian immigrants have experienced discrimination from the establishment and Israeli society,” notes President of Israel, Reuven Rivlin - “they suffer from stigmas and negative stereotypes and are exposed to exclusion and prejudice and even from physical and verbal violence.” This violence experienced by the Ethiopian community came to a head in 2015 following the beating of a uniformed Ethiopian-Israeli soldier by police. Thousands of protestors took to the streets as demonstrations turned violent: “we are not prepared to wait any longer to be recognized as equal citizens,” one protestor told the BBC.

Similar protests occurred in 2012 after it emerged that some Israeli landlords were refusing to rent to Ethiopians Jews. As recently as March 2018, Israel’s chief Sephardic rabbi referred to black people as ‘monkeys’ in his weekly sermon. Few Beta Israelites would have imagined - given Israeli efforts at the time to bring them to the Holy Land - that they would have faced such tribulations upon arrival.

 

Ethiopian-Israeli soldier around Nablus, April 2006 | DAVID BICCHETTI

 

During the first trip by an Israeli president to Ethiopia, Rivlin proclaimed that “we are brothers and sisters, and anyone who tries to undermine that has no place amongst the tribes of Israel.” Nevertheless, many in Israel’s religious establishment have questioned the ‘Jewishness’ of Ethiopian-Israelis. The long period of isolation from other Jewish communities experienced by Beta Israel combined with the fact that Israel’s Law of Return had to be discussed and interpreted in order to accord Ethiopian Jews return status, play large roles in fuelling this scepticism.

Family reunification and the Falash Mura

The grey area regarding the exact status of the Ethiopian Jewish community in Ethiopia has continued to erect obstacles to the continued migration of Ethiopians to Israel. Whereas most of Beta Israel now resides in Israel, the question of their relatives remains. Many Ethiopians in Israel are separated from the non-Jewish members their families due to restriction on non-Jewish immigrants. Among these are the so-called Falash Mura, a group of Ethiopians who claim to be the descendants of Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity but who now seek a return to Judaism. This group’s uncertain Jewish status has caused many a heated debate in Israel as to whether they should be allowed to come to Israel. Detractors argue that by broadening the entry criteria, Israel risks being flooded with tens of thousands of Ethiopians exploiting dubious claims about their Jewishness to enter Israel.

If this isn’t discrimination, what do you call it?
— Avraham Neguise, chair of the Knesset's Absorption and Diaspora Committee

Whereas the Law of Return also permits the non-Jewish relatives of Jews to come to Israel, the Ethiopian community continues to face problems with family reunification. Avraham Neguise, Israeli lawmaker and chair of the Knesset’s Absorption and Diaspora Committee accuses the government of discrimination. “You cannot find any other communities where the parent is here and the children are there and the children are here and the parents are there and are forced to be separated. It is only the Ethiopian Jewish community, not the Americans, not the Russians, not Europeans. If this isn’t discrimination, what do you call it?”

 

Reuven Rivlin, 10th President of Israel | AVI OHAYON, GOVERNMENT PRESS OFFICE

 

Part of the reasoning behind the the government’s foot dragging regarding the Falash Mura and family reunification is that facilitating this kind of immigration undermines Israel’s efforts to control the intake of non-Jewish populations. Specifically, Israeli attorney-general Avichai Mendelblit warned that government plans to approve the entry of 1,000 Ethiopians undermines the legal rationale for denying the family reunification requests of Palestinians. “The more decisions made on the Ethiopian communities [...] the more the difference between their treatment and that of similar groups stands out, and the harder the legal justification becomes,” noted Mendelblit.

The Citizenship and Entry Law puts limits on granting Israeli citizenship or residency to Palestinian family members of Israeli citizens. Consequently, bringing in more Ethiopians (especially non-Jewish ones) is not in the government’s interest when it comes to its dealings with Palestinians. What this does show is that by placing the two groups together, their mutual status as undesirables becomes apparent.

 
 

Part of the problem appears to be that Israel is unable to conclusively announce ‘mission accomplished’ in Ethiopia, as every pronouncement to date of the “last batch” of Ethiopians has led to backpedaling further down the line. In August 2013, the government announced that all Jews had left Ethiopia, with the Jewish Agency cancelling aid programs, ending funding for the synagogue in Gondar (used as a transition centre) and at one point even taking the town’s Torah scrolls. This in turn led to protests, with the government deciding in November 2015 to allow an additional 2,100 Ethiopians to come to Israel. Further plans were made in 2016, with Israel agreeing to absorb 10,000 Falash Mura Ethiopians (and pay for their Judaism conversion program) between 2016-2020.

Small groups have trickled in since then, but the government remains far behind on its own schedule, a state of affairs not helped by the unwillingness of the powers that be to allocate appropriate funding. The November 2015 deal was not implemented by the PMO because the $284 million required had not been earmarked in the state budget. This led two Likud party members - Avraham Neguise (who we met earlier) and David Amsalem to rebel against PM Netanyahu in 2016. By abstaining during votes, the two Knesset members hindered the government’s efforts to pass legislation, resulting in the 2016 compromise mentioned above.

 
 The Israeli parliament, or Knesset, chamber in Jerusalem

The Israeli parliament, or Knesset, chamber in Jerusalem

 

Accusing the government of failing to live up to its own promises, Neguise led a protest of 1,500 Ethiopians outside the Knesset during this time, while Amsalem argued that “this was a Zionist struggle. I thought all along that these people need to come home, and I am glad the Prime Minister realized it. They won’t be here for this Passover, but as we say at the Seder: ‘Next year in Jerusalem.’

Despite this apparent compromise and Amsalem’s optimism, 2017 saw delays of up to six months for flights for Ethiopians and representatives for thousands of Ethiopians staged a mass hunger strike in protest against funding cuts in early 2018. As in 2015, government plans to allow 1,300 Ethiopians entry came to nought after the promised $57 million was not allocated. Similarly, in October 2018 plans were made to reunite some 1,000 Ethiopians with their children in Israel, but the 2019 budget has not allocated any funds for Ethiopian immigration.

Such is the state of affairs that eighteen year old Jintayehu Shafrao and his family, (who are from Gondar, the very town Israel deemed empty of potential immigrants back in 2013) became the only Ethiopians allowed to immigrate to Israel in 2018. A finalist in the International Bible Quiz which is held annually on Israel’s independence day, Shafrao was initially forced to deposit thousands of shekels in order to ensure that he would leave the country after the competition.

 
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The family only managed to stay after the organization Heart of Israel raised funds to bring them to Israel after months of lobbying. The pro-settlement organization has even touted the controversial idea of bringing all the 8,000 or so Ethiopian Jews remaining Ethiopia to Israel and relocating them to West Bank settlements upon arrival. Not only does this proposal once again seek to place Ethiopian Jews (literally) on the periphery of Israeli society, but it also once again politizes Ethiopian immigration. Focusing on the aliyah of Ethiopian Jews primarily as a means to shore up the Zionist project at home did a great disservice the first time, doing so again would only repeat the mistakes of the past.

The Bottom Line

Concerns about dwindling olim from Europe and Russia, combined with recent threats to Israel’s existence motivated Israel’s leadership to apply the Law of Return to the hitherto isolated Beta Israel community. What began as a series of daring missions to rescue Ethiopian Jews from persecution soon evolved into a perennial quandary for Israel, as the country was ill-prepared to integrate the new arrivals.

Arriving with nothing and approached with wariness by wider Israeli society, Ethiopian-Israeli soon became an underprivileged minority facing systemic discrimination. Relegated to the periphery of Israeli Jewry, Ethiopians in Israel on average perform worse on a host of socio-economic indicators than non-Ethiopian Israelis. Protests again prejudice and demands for greater equality and the recognition of their culture has strained relations between the community and the state in recent decades. Government interventions have done little to ease this tensions, as thousands remain separated from their families by byzantine immigration rules.

Whereas some progress had been made in the fight for equality - notably in the rising representation of Ethiopians in prominent / public positions - the community continues to be politicized by Israeli legislators. The initial enthusiasm to bring Beta Israel to the Holy Land has now morphed into a cycle of foot dragging and a spate of broken promises as the government repeatedly refuses to fund its own commitments.

Jeremy Luedi is the editor of Asia by Africa. His writing has been featured in Business Insider, Courrier International, The Japan Times, The Diplomat, and FACTA Magazine. His insights have also been quoted by TIME, OZY, and the Washington Times, among others.