Over the past several weeks, protests have spread throughout Israel calling for a response to racism targeting the country’s Ethiopian community. Sparked by a Channel 2 story on discrimination in Kiryat Malachi, citizens have taken to the streets to show their outrage at the status quo. Though the despicable slurs and actions that triggered these protests are blatant examples of these grievances, they conceal a deeper issue.
Beyond more overt examples, Ethiopian Israelis frequently have a harder time finding a job. They are perceived as a poor, underprivileged community and face the stigma of lacking the capability to contribute equally, even if this myth is belied by reality.
Perhaps even more difficult is the challenge of looking for housing. Homeowners are less likely to rent or sell to Ethiopians, whether as a result of exaggerated stereotypes or outright racism. While some of this is blatant bigotry, the rest is symptomatic of a deeper and far more widespread prejudice – indirect or concealed racism.
This sentiment is dramatized even in circles that would never admit to harboring prejudice. Well-intentioned statements about constructive activity, such as “I volunteer with Ethiopians” or “I donate to Ethiopians,” cast them on the other side of an imaginary but very real fence.
The primary vehicle to overcoming these obstacles is exposing reality through education, gaining knowledge of the range of personal stories.
The lack of education becomes abundantly clear when we consider the breadth of the average Israeli’s knowledge of the Ethiopian Aliyah consists of an ability to name Operations Moses and Solomon and to recite the lyrics to “Hayareach Mashgiach Me’al“, set to music by Shlomo Gronich. At best, this speaks of a widespread ignorance of the Ethiopian communal experience, and at worst to an active attempt to sideline a narrative that is deemed less important.
How many of us know that more than 4,000 Ethiopian Jews lost their lives on the way to Israel? How many know that nearly every family lost at least one loved one? How many know it was not only the Mossad that worked to save the Ethiopian Jews, but an enormous amount of activism from local members of the Ethiopian Jewish community as well?
Emphasizing these truths is critical to developing a true sense of equality, where the imposed image of the Ethiopian charity case is banished for good.
An even stronger tool than speaking of the wider community, however, is exposing Israeli society to the personal accounts of these same Ethiopian immigrants. Each Ethiopian family has its own story of aliyah, uplifting and inspiring for its own reasons. But hearing these stories and gaining entrance to them is something that takes initiative from the public – to ask, to take interest and to invite speakers to schools and communities.
At the same time, it asks the Ethiopian community to share it experiences, which often are buried deep inside. Yet it is precisely this process of mutual effort that offers the potential to reach the equally powerful goal of mutual respect.
One coordinated effort that strives to create tolerance on the basis of these stories is Project Abrah, which sheds light on the stories of Prisoners of Zion – individuals jailed in Ethiopia or neighboring countries as a result of their Zionist activity. As opposed to similar activists coming from Eastern Europe, these individuals, so influential in the modern Zionist project, have been largely unheralded for their actions.
In Project Abrah, both Israeli Ethiopian and non-Ethiopian youth work together to make films on the little known stories of these remarkable individuals. The films emphasize the struggles, sacrifices and ultimate successes of the Ethiopian aliyah, and those people who were instrumental in its achievements.
For Israeli Ethiopians, it is a way to promote intergenerational dialogue, and to utilize the heroic actions of their own community as a foundation for developing communal pride.
For non-Ethiopians, it is a means to understand the community, break down walls and shatter stigmas. By listening to the stories of others, they begin to internalize the legacy of this community. This, in turn, impacts their interaction with the wider Ethiopian population, changing a relationship based on distance and preconceptions to one of mutual respect and admiration.
As participant Ettie Shimshilashvili from Beersheba said: “I was amazed to find out that people who I see on the bus, around the neighborhood, buying produce at the local market, and parents of my schoolmates are heroes who are responsible for bringing their fellow Ethiopian Jews to Israel. The project made me feel more comfortable speaking with my Ethiopian schoolmates and helped me understand our community better.”
Education – with emphasis on programs that involve personal stories – is the key to bridging cultural gaps in Israeli society. In this way, someone who began as an “other” becomes “another” – a fellow member of a wonderfully diverse community.Yael Rosen