Justice, Equality and Opportunity for Ethiopian Jews: A Test for Israel

By: Barry Shrage, President of CJP

The events of the past few days in Israel have left many of us deeply troubled. An act of violence committed by police against an Ethiopian IDF soldier and the resulting days of protest in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv have left more than 60 injured and revealed a long-festering wound in Israel’s society that must be healed.

For me, the story of Ethiopian Jewry has always been larger than life. It’s an epic of survival and hope and an inspirational story about an ancient part of the Jewish people who never lost faith or forgot their connection to our ancient story. Their story has been part me since I first heard it as a teenager.

I first learned about the plight of Ethiopian Jewry and their long struggle to return to Jerusalem year later in 1978 from Graenum Berger (z”l) an amazing communal professional and visionary. In 1965, he traveled to Ethiopia and found the community of Jews living in gripping poverty. By 1978, he had been pleading the case for Ethiopian Jews for over 10 years.

The years between 1978 and the first round of liberation in 1984 (Operation Moses) were frustrating, exciting and ultimately successful. When Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin became prime minister, he opened his heart to this brave, oppressed and isolated part of our Jewish people who had kept the dream of Zion alive for millennia. Throughout those years I had played only the tiniest part in the movement that Graenum began but the fulfillment of the dream was shattering and glorious and filled with hope and meaning for Jews in Israel and around the world. 

I'll never forget the scenes of joy when the Ethiopian Jews came off their planes into the arms of loving relatives and joyous Israelis.  One picture of an Israeli Ethiopian soldier embracing his elderly Father, a Kes (priest of the Ethiopian Jews) dressed in his white robes still makes me cry. 

The idea that this dream might end in a nightmare of racism and violence was literally inconceivable at that time. It was unimaginable that we could turn a kiddish Hashem, a sanctification of God's name – and the ultimate proof that Zionism is anything but racism – into a chillul Hashem, a desecration of God’s name, giving aid and comfort to our worst enemies and all those who wish to delegitimize and destroy the State of Israel. 

In 1984 and now, the Ethiopian community has been a source of incredible pride and hope for  the Jewish people, both in Israel and in the United States; a living repudiation of the slanderous lie equating Zionism with racism. That makes this desecration all the more appalling. 

Justice and equality are crucial. The state of Israel and the American Jewish community have a responsibility, not just in fighting overt racism, but ensuring equality of opportunity.

Injustice committed by those in power against the disenfranchised and the poor destroy the bonds of a society, whether it’s in Baltimore, Ferguson, Tel Aviv or Jerusalem.

In Israel, a tiny country bound together by a sense of mutual responsibility, it’s urgent that this rift is addressed.

Both Israeli President Rivlin and Prime Minister Netanyahu today spoke about this urgency. Netanyahu said it was Israel’s “duty to fight racism and discrimination in any way possible,” while Rivlin said “we are brothers and we mustn't slide to a place we'll regret."

It pains me to think of a society where the dream-come-true of Operation Moses devolves into a nightmare. We all have too much at stake to allow that to happen.

Injustice and inequality are disastrous for any society, but I’m heartened to hear from voices including Yosef Abramowitz, a long-time Ethiopian rights activist, who provides a sharp and important analysis of the problem. Yosef said there are some differences between the racial tensions in the United States and Israel; in the U.S., this is a “multi-generational systemic challenge.” In Israel, “There are only about 130,000 Ethiopian Israelis, with thousands of college graduates, near universal military service and now a whole generation that is empowered.”

“There is not a single issue facing the Ethiopian community in Israel that can’t be resolved through enlightened philanthropy and government action,” Abramowitz wrote. That also means an immediate end to discrimination and increased government and philanthropic support for groups that are offering opportunity, education and jobs for Ethiopian Jews.

When CJP first started the Boston-Haifa project, it was clear that the Aliyah of Ethiopian Jews had become troubled. We made the integration of Ethiopian Jews our highest priority and we have sought, through our programming, to address the most urgent needs – jobs, education and mutual understanding.

While we haven’t solved the problem of economic and racial inequality in Haifa, I think CJP’s Boston-Haifa Connection has taken serious steps to address it. 

Most crucially we created a full partnership with the Haifa municipality who made Ethiopian Jewry its own priority, provided significant funding  and joined with us in creating a program run by and for the Ethiopian community by members of the community itself.

Vered Israely, director of the Boston-Haifa Connection in Israel, pointed to the Shiluvim program – which helps Ethiopian immigrants to become self-sufficient in Israel – as a model of the kind of government- philanthropic partnership that can lift up disaffected Ethiopians in Israel.

The program has to date invested more than $10 million in employment training and education for young Ethiopians. And it’s working. Employment has nearly doubled to over 84 percent among Haifa’s Ethiopian population while eligibility for high school matriculation has more than doubled to over 75 percent. In addition, workshops in multi-cultural sensitivity are helping communities become more familiar with one another and fostering closeness.

But there is much more to do. I’ll close with a note from Meni Eshatu, the coordinator of our Boston-Haifa Netivim program which helps prepare Ethiopian Israelis to serve in the IDF, a key to successful integration in Israeli society.  He also assists soldiers after they are discharged, connecting them to employment opportunities and help from the Shiluvim program. Meni participated in the protest demonstrations and sent us this reflection:

The protest took place not because of one incident, but rather due to a continuous state of deprivation prevailing over a period of 30 years.

This was a genuine and authentic protest, originating in ongoing pain. As I understand it, the protest comes from real pain. I am trying to understand. How could a significant proportion of young Israelis from the Ethiopian community have criminal records? How could 40 percent young people be incarcerated in Ofek Prison? Why is it that when a young Israeli of Ethiopian origin sees a police officer, he has to cross over to the other side of the sidewalk? How is it that most elected governmental officials are suddenly saying that they did not know that this was the situation?

In this protest, I saw a new generation of mostly younger people, mostly children living in the country who said: “Enough is enough.” I saw them standing in the front lines, some of them prior to their army enlistment, some of them still serving in the army. The vast majority are young people who have served their country and were released as civilians. I stood at times on the sidelines with a sense of pride, and sometimes walked hand in hand with them. Nevertheless, I feared that this justified protest would lead to violence. Of course, violence will not achieve our goals; as citizens of this country, we are obliged to obey the law.

I asked one of the young men wearing half of an IDF uniform why he came to the demonstration. He said, “Listen, this video made me realize that tomorrow it could happen to me. Ethiopian Israelis have reached the lowest rung in Israeli society from which they no longer have much to lose.”

This protest was very popular, with each demonstrator expressing his personal pain. This is the first time that the Israeli public was really exposed to the plight of the Ethiopian community and particularly to the fact that the country is failing to address properly the problems of the community. You could see that there was no leadership willing to take the reins and lead the protest; what was actually leading the protest was anger and rage. Although you could see the seeds of leaders growing in the social networks, in fact, there was no leadership seen in the field.

I ask myself, where do things go from here? This depends on two main things. The first is how the story ends of the two policemen who had beaten the soldier and whether an indictment is likely that could reduce the size of the flames.

If not, the flames could catch fire and spread.

The second is that a long-term solution must be real; it’s not enough just to talk - we must take more action.


Barry Shrage

About the Author

A passionate advocate for Jews in Greater Boston and around the world, CJP President Barry Shrage has worked tirelessly to create an inclusive community and drive positive change.

CJP welcomes an open dialogue!  Please refer to our policy for more information.


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