Ethiopian Jews in Israel now number approximately 13,000 - over half of their surviving population. Their immigration is a difficult challenge for Israel.
Israeli government officials are trying to avoid the mistakes they made with the Moroccan and Yemenite Jewish immigrants of the 1950s, whose cultural heritage, identity and values were pushed aside by pressure to adapt to Ashkenasi culture. Yet, according to Yaacov Tsur, Minister of Absorption, there is an inherent contradiction between trying to integrate Ethiopian Jews quickly into Israeli society on the one hand, and maintaining their pride and dignity on the other. "The Ethiopians are eager to adopt Israeli traditions...We are afraid that in a few years they will say that their ways have been lost. No one has the answers to this."
Ethiopian Jews are very religious and messianic. They regard their rescue and arrival in Israel as the very fulfillment of their redemptive vision. Their primary identity is Jewish, not Ethiopian or African. As a result they are very vulnerable to the pressures of assimilation. "Ethiopian Jews are highly motivated to integrate into Israeli society," says Jeffery Halper, an anthropologist from Hebrew University who has worked with the Ethiopians since 1966. They want complete assimilation. They don't want to reconstitute themselves as a community here."
For example, when asked by social workers how they wanted to celebrate the Passover seder, the kesim (priests who are the religious and community leaders of the Ethiopians) replied, "As you do." Ora Danyo, Social Services Director of the Jewish Agency, does not see this as a desire to assimilate. "They want to see how others do it," she says. "In the next year or two they will probably want to keep their own traditions. We cannot push them to do that now. It must come from them. For many things it is too early. It's a process and it's just beginning."
For Ethiopian Jews, physical survival, food, clothing, medical care, vocational training and reuniting families is still the most urgent issue. Social workers involved in the day-to-day process of Ethiopian absorption are aware of the need to strike a delicate balance between the Ethiopians' need to integrate and their need to maintain pride and dignity in their own cultural traditions. Some absorption workers seem to hold the belief that non-industrial, low-technological societies are "primitive," but all of them exhibit a genuine concern for the welfare of these new immigrants.
Social workers receive no special training to deal with the Ethiopians. Nor do they have any decision-making power. "There is a real gap between the decision-makers and the workers in the field," says Jeffery Halper. "The people responsible for the absorption work don't have the authority, and the authorities don't seek the help they need from the experts because they think that asking for help indicates a lack of control. They want to maintain this mask of control, and suggestions are viewed as criticism. There needs to be a better absorption policy and structure."
The best policy," he continued, "would be to give them support but to leave them alone. They will do well. They pick up rapidly what must be done to make it in Israeli society." In his opinion Ethiopians should not remain so long (one to two years) in the absorption centers. "It creates too much dependency: They have a high regard for authority. They become passive and are easily channelled."
Much is said of the Ethiopians being hard-working, well-behaved and uncomplaining. But not everyone would agree that they are passive and submissive to authority. "They are strong fighters," says Shlomo Cohen, director of a youth village in northern Israel which has taken in approximately 250 children who arrived without parents. They submit to authority only if they agree with it. Gracious, well-mannered, polite and respectful - yes, they are all of these things. But they are far from being submissive."
The Ethiopians often arrive in Israel, however, in a state of emotional trauma. They need to be taken care of and, initially, cannot make a lot of decisions themselves. From the airport, they are sent to the Ashkelon transit center where they are given clothes, shoes, citizenship and identity cards. An attempt is made to match them up with family members, a difficult task since they do not have last names but are simply known as, for example, "Chaim, son of Eleazar." Ten percent of the children arrive with no parents; they are either orphans or their families are still in Ethiopia. Many need immediate medical care for diseases which are uncommon in Israel. The most common medical problems have been intestinal parasites, malaria, dysentery, skin diseases and tuberculosis. There is a high rate of Hepatitis B; donations of the vaccine for this are needed from Merck Sharp & Dohme Co. in West Point, Pennsylvania.
In the absorption centers the Ethiopians study Hebrew and learn about various aspects of Israeli society. They begin vocational training programs and are given a subsistence allowance approximately equal to the national minimum wage. Since housing and medical care are free, this allotment is supposed to cover expenses. However, approximately ten percent of Ethiopian fathers have dropped out of the program in order to take jobs which pay 30-40% more. The Jewish Agency is reviewing the sum allotted to families with more than two children in an effort to encourage fathers to complete the program, which would result in their making 150-200% more as skilled workers. Several hundred adults have completed job training programs in such fields as carpentry, metalworking and electronics.
Only 2,000 Ethiopians are in permanent housing at this point. Government officials say they do not want to create black ghettoes by keeping them all together, but spreading them out too much can destroy family ties. Ethiopian women begin bearing children in their early teens, so it is common for one (extended) family to consist of five or six generations, or as many as twenty nuclear families. Officials found that putting eight to ten (nuclear) families together was not enough, and are now going to try putting 30-40 together in a neighborhood. Approximately 5,000 children are already enrolled in Israeli schools.
The kes or priest is the community leader of the Ethiopians, and recognition of his leadership will perhaps be the most important issue in integrating the Ethiopians without totally assimilating them. The kesim are losing status because they are not rabbis. While the rabbinic authorities in Israel do recognize the Ethiopians as Jews, they view their Judaism as partial and incomplete because of the Ethiopians' isolation from the rest of world Jewry all these years.
Ethiopian Jews practice a strict biblical Judaism - they recognize the Torah, or written law. Because they were cut off from other Jews they never developed rabbinic Judaism - the Talmud, or oral law, which consists of commentary upon and modification of biblical law. The rabbinate feels that it is important that the kesim become educated as rabbis, and that the Ethiopians bring their religious practices into line with that of mainstream Judaism.
For example, the Ethiopian Jewish wedding ceremony takes place after the couple has sex, rather than before. Divorce is achieved simply by tearing up the marriage contract. Women live separately from the community during menstruation. Such practices are not viewed as appropriate by the rabbinate, but the Ethiopians often resist changing them. There have been reports, for example, of menstruating women shutting themselves in cupboards, refusing to cook or refusing to move.
Rabbinic authorities are concerned with past intermarriage and adoption of non-Jewish customs by Ethiopian Jews. Because of this they have demanded a symbolic recircumcision of the men and ritual immersion for both men and women in a mikva (bath). The recircumcision requirement has since been eliminated but the requirement for ritual immersion still exists. Refusal to undergo the immersion could result in a ban on marriage, say the chief rabbis.
The first group of Ethiopians who arrived from Tigre province accepted the immersion without question. It seemed no different from their normal practice of ritual immersion in a stream of water every Friday for the sake of cleansing and purification. According to Mati Elias, an Ethiopian who has been in Israel for 17 years, the problem began when politicians began making public statements about the immersion being for conversion.
The newer immigrants, from Gondar province, are refusing to undergo the immersion. It is insulting, they say, that they have suffered all these years to preserve their Judaism and now they are being told they must "reaffirm" it. Peer pressure to refuse the immersion can reach the point of physical violence, according to one report, and most absorption workers stressed the need to pressure the rabbinate to eliminate the requirement.
Ethiopian Jews are very strictly religious, though not in the Ashkenasi Orthodox way. Their religious commitment is so strong that they are often quite shocked by the majority of Israelis who are non-religious, who drive on the Sabbath, and who do not keep kosher. If offered the opportunity to learn about rabbinic Judaism, they would be eager to learn it and incorporate much of it into their own practices. They want to become a part of the overall Jewish world. To insist that they adopt rabbinic Judaism in order to be "complete" Jews is unnecessary and counterproductive.
Ethiopian Jews can trace their heritage back farther than most European Jews can, and it is questionable whether their level of intermarriage and adoption of Ethiopian customs is any greater than the latter's rate of intermarriage and adoption of European customs. Pressures of assimilation have caused many Jews to abandon strict observance of Jewish law. Many secular Israelis and American Jews do not fit the strict religious definition of Jewishness. In recent years the Orthodox religious parties in Israel have gained greater political power, and have tried to enforce religious law as state law. The recent proposal (defeated by the Knesset) to amend the Law of Return, so that only Orthodox conversions are recognized and Conservative and Reform ones are not, is an example of the desire of the Orthodox factions to have complete control over defining who and what is Jewish. The pressure put on Ethiopian Jews by the rabbinate to adapt their Judaism must be viewed in this context.
Yet Israel is still the only country in the world where the Jewish faith prevails. This in itself facilitates life for Ethiopians. The challenges of the Ethiopian immigration to Israel are great, socially and economically. Such in influx of immigrants puts great strain on an economy already suffering from high inflation and unemployment. Towns like Netanya, whose primary industry is tourism, are turning hotels into absorption centers, creating further economic strain. Hospital workers are dealing with twice the amount of patients that they are used to. The cost of absorption of the Ethiopians over the next two years has been estimated at $300 million. Few Israelis speak Amharic, the language spoken by Ethiopians, and efforts are underway to write dictionaries, booklets, and newspapers in Amharic for the new immigrants.
At this point, public opinion is strongly behind the Ethiopians. The sentiments of many Israelis toward the rescue of the Ethiopians was expressed by Moshe Gilboa, Foreign Ministry Director: "This rescue has reconfirmed the raison d'être of Israel, to save Jews. The Ethiopian Jewish issue became an anti-Zionist issue for many. Israel could not say a word, but the attackers could say everything. Those who wanted to prove that 'Zionism is racism' felt they had a strong case, but that was not true. No stone will remain unturned to bring all the Ethiopian Jews here."
Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.
Since 1972 Cultural Survival has been advocating for Indigenous Peoples' rights and supporting Indigenous communities’ self-determination, cultures and political resilience.
To read about Cultural Survival’s work around the world, click here. To read more articles on the subject use our Search function and explore 40 years of information on Indigenous issues.
For ways to take action to help Indigenous communities, click here.
We take on governments and multinational corporations—and they always have more resources than we do—but with the help of people like you, we do win. Your contribution is crucial to that effort. Click here to do your part.
12 Month Calendar featuring Cultural Survival's work advancing Indigenous Peoples' rights around the world
*Free shipping in the United States. $5 for international.