Scholars estimate that the Ethiopian Jewish community also known as Falasha (a pejorative term meaning “wanderer”), or Beta Israel (as they prefer to be called),
has existed since the second and third centuries. Various Israeli and Jewish organizations had consistently provided education and welfare to them for many years. In 1975, the official Israeli rabbinate approved the legitimate Jewish status of the Beta Israelis. This opened the door for them to enter Israel under the ‘Law of Return’, which grants Israeli citizenship to any person with at least one Jewish grandparent.
As a result, like their Jewish compatriots in the Diaspora, with “Operation Moses” in 1985, and then with “Operation Solomon” in 1991, around 48,000 Beta Israelis were airlifted from refugee camps in the Sudan and in the temporary assembling and waiting camps in Gondar and Addis to the nation which they considered to be their true homeland, Israel. The Beta Israelis fulfilled their centuries’ old dream of Aliyah through these two dramatic operations carried out by the Israeli and American governments. “Operation Dove’s Wings” heralded the official conclusion of the Aliyah of the Beta Israelis by transporting 600 of them to Israel in last November 2012. However, their arrival in Israel was quite different than what they had expected of their return to what they believed to be their historical homeland. Upon arrival in Israel, the Beta Israel have had more trouble than any other immigrant group in their ardent attempts at assimilating into the general Israeli population. While the operations that brought about Beta Israel’s exodus were dramatic and swift, integration into Israeli society has been painstakingly slow and they are grappling with problems. Israelis were not always quick to help make the transition easier. They are marginalized socially, religiously, geographically, and professionally.
Despite the government’s mission to bring the Ethiopian community to Israel and attempts to combat racism both in the workplace and at large, discrimination continues to be an issue.
The case, however, is not the same for the Israeli government. Israel’s minister for immigration and integration, on the other hand, denies that a problem exists. The Russian-born Minister, Sofa Landver, said the Falashas would be well advised to keep quiet. “They should be grateful to the State for everything that has been done for them,” she said.
For the government of Israel to assert its position, there is no lack of poster children for the Ethiopian Beta Israel community. Compared with their pre-Aliyah living conditions, indeed certain aspects of their life have definitely improved. Ethiopian culture is becoming increasingly understood and cherished in Israel. Ethiopian restaurants are now more common, and Ethiopian music has become more influential, helped by bands such as the hugely successful “Idan Rachel Project” that has incorporated Ethiopian vocals, rhythms, and lyrics.
Organizations such as The Israel Association for Beta Israelis have been working to empower the community through grassroots efforts and political lobbying. Thanks to their involvement, the Beta Israel festival of “Sigd” became an official State holiday in July 2008. As in Ethiopia, the community celebrates this festival by fasting, reading from the Tanakh, and feasting in celebration of their renewed acceptance of Jewish law.
Moreover, there is a Beta Israeli Knesset member. A Beta Israeli Colonel serves in the Israeli Defence Force’s ranks. There are a handful of Beta Israeli doctors, lawyers, diplomats, academics and fashion-models. The Israeli Foreign Ministry appointed the first Beta Israeli ambassador to Ethiopia, Belaynesh Zevadia.
However, all these Beta Israeli poster children are hardly representative of the Beta Israeli community. Since their arrival in Israel some twenty seven years ago, the Beta Israel community became victims of multi-pronged and intense problems mainly emanating from racism both by the people and government of Israel. For them, the hardest pain is the fact that all of their hopes and promises have been lost in their “beloved and promised land”, Israel. After decades of Discrimination, the Beta Israelis are finally starting to speak out and said enough is enough. The following are some pieces of evidence from international media. “Don’t look at me like a savage,” declares the 26-year-old physical education student Molat Araro. “When our parents emigrated en masse at the start of the 1980s, they thought they were escaping to paradise. But all they have found is contempt. Not a day goes by without someone treating me like a cockroach because of the colour of my skin,” says Adissu Mohal, a 40-year-old supermarket employee.
The Beta Israeli’s discontent spilled over three weeks ago when the white inhabitants of Kiryat Malachi agreed in writing not to rent or sell any goods to the blacks. The town hall supported the agreement. “We don’t want these shits in our buildings,” town residents told television reporters. In response, the Beta Israelis, who hadn’t protested since 1995, took to the streets. “We are just like you, listen to us!” the protestors shouted.
“In Israel, you don’t get anywhere if you don’t shout. The time has come to act, because our situation is unbearable. We have had enough of not being good enough for anything except emptying bins for a meager wage or begging for welfare,” says Kfissa, a single mother whose two daughters, aged 8 and 11, remain at home because no school will accept them.
Yishayahu Degu who arrived in Israel in 1984 summarizes the situation as follows; “One day rabbis came and told us that we weren’t 100 percent Jewish. I was very offended. Previously, I would pray every day and go to synagogue. Now I am secular. There are many people like me.” These people discovered that the “Promised Land” was not the land of milk and honey, but a different country. The black versus white discrimination discourse goes so far as using the slogan of “Apartheid.”
A disturbing sign of just how desperate conditions are for some Beta Israelis are the numerous murder-suicide cases that have occurred over the past decade. There have been at least 30 cases of unemployed and depressed Beta Israeli men killing their wives and children before taking their own lives. Dozens of others have attempted, unsuccessfully, to do the same.
The recent investigative report made by the feminist and activist, Sebba Reuven and aired on the Israel Educational Television program “Vacuum” two weeks ago revealed that Israel made a “racist sterilization” of Beta Israel women by coaxing them into agreeing to injections of long-acting birth control drugs. According to the report, Beta Israel women who emigrated from Ethiopia
eight years ago said that while waiting in transit camps in Ethiopia, they were told they would not be allowed into Israel unless they agreed to be injected with the long-acting birth control drug Depo Provera. The report sheds some light of reason for the Israeli government’s report on the demography of the Beta Israel community which revealed their birth rate has dropped nearly 20 percent in the last 10 years.
Aware of the seriousness of the problem, the Ministry of Immigration commissioned a study in 2009, but the results were so damning for the State’s integration policies that the most sensitive chapters were never released.
The Beta Israel’s identity as the only black immigrant group in a majority white, Ashkenazi Jewish nation, as well as their religious identity, which in some aspects differs widely from traditional Judaism because of the Beta Israel’s historical isolation from world Jewry, have lead to difficulties in assimilation which are manifested and can be measured through such factors as government housing projects, grade school education, disparities in income between the Beta Israel and the rest of the Israeli population, and job performance expectations for the Beta Israel. When the racism that Beta Israelis face in social life and the education system as well as being prevented from living in certain housing projects or from getting on buses is taken into consideration, it is evident that the Beta Israelis are third-class citizens, after the Mizrahim, the Jews of the Middle East. In their living standards, the Beta Israelis are found in the extreme bottom of the strata. The bottom strata, however, is understatement. It doesn’t show the real situation. The question here is how bottom are the Beta Israelis in the bottom strata of the Israeli living standards. The next article will attempt to explain in more detail.