What Went Wrong With The Ethiopian Aliyah?

Ethiopian Women by Harnik Nati, Government Press Office of Israel [CC BY-NC-SA 2.0] via Flickr

Recently there was a large demonstration in Tel Aviv in which many angry Ethiopian Jews gathered to protest police brutality.

It is true, there have been a number of high profile cases and who knows how many unreported ones. The Israeli police, like cops everywhere, are not chosen from among the most sensitive souls. We have witnessed their “skills” in Gush Katif protests and expulsions, the Amona destruction and brutalization, the Oslo demonstrations, and on and on. I have seen it.

It is likely that when cops have a chance to show their supremacy over the "lower rung " on the social ladder, they do it with relish. It asserts their feeling of worth.

Having observed that, it is worth recognizing that the young Ethiopian Jews who tend to get in trouble with the authorities beyond their numbers in society are acting in a way that they never did in Ethiopia. It seems being transferred from a simpler society to the pressure cooker of highly competitive modern Israel is not easy.

Their parents no longer are the steady hand they once were — the pressures on every side must be great. Domestic violence is a real problem. This is a classic sociological/psychological case study in radical adjustment.

I don't believe it has to be this way. A few years ago I was at the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem, where they were preparing a display on the dramatic rescue of Ethiopian Jewry and their return home to Zion. From time immemorial, the Jews of Ethiopia turned towards the Holy Land and, like Jews the world over, longed for “Next year in Jerusalem!" Now they are finally home. Many walked for weeks; not all made it as wild animals, slave traders, and deprivation took their toll. No family made it intact — truly a modern Exodus story.

Is there anything more dramatic or inspiring? A particular picture caught my eye; it captured the moment as a young Ethiopian mother with her baby on her back took her first steps off the plane into the Promised Land. The traditional, colored, modest clothing and the wonder in her eyes was truly a scene worthy of a poster.

Next to that picture was another one, depicting another young Ethiopian woman. This poster represented “successful integration” into Israel. Gone was the simple modest clothing; this young woman had tight fitting jeans and the rest of the get-up. What a happy young lady she was! She was now part of the global village, as Israel was her a portal to the “real” world. She looked like any other Western young “chick” — how liberating. She fulfilled the dream of millennia, thanks to the Israeli government.

When I shared my thoughts with a young employee of the Jewish Agency, she could not understand my concern. Indeed, this was exactly the success that was hoped for: Ethiopian Jews have made it. They were finally "Israelis," like "regular" people.

I was struck by how many light years away this was from what her parents must have imagined for her when she finally came home to Israel. To instantly evaporate into the world village and perhaps be mistaken for a young African American in New York or Los Angeles was undoubtedly not what her ancestors had in mind, or how they would have measured Jewish liberation. Something just did not seem right, but the Jewish Agency worker did not know what I was talking about.

I had occasion to witness the yearly mass gathering of the Ethiopian Jewish community as they celebrate Sigd, their ancient holiday commemorating Jerusalem above all things in this world. In Ethiopia, they would gather once a year on a hill and face towards Jerusalem with prayer and praise, longing for the day they would arrive — as did Moses on Mount Moab, where he longed for, but could not enter, the Holy Land. Today in Jerusalem they gather in their tens of thousands in Jerusalem overlooking the Temple Mount.

How wonderful to see our brothers at home together with us and fulfilling their dream! Hundreds of elders and rabbis, called kes, gather in their traditional festive best. Thousands of their flock gather from all over Israel, facing the Temple Mount together. Is there anything more heart-warming for a Jew?

Unfortunately, large parts of the flock have wandered from the path and are floundering in dangerous fields. I witnessed these lost sheep. The bus I was riding in was targeted as we drove by, as threatening looks and less than friendly words were yelled at us by throngs of teenagers strolling slowly across the street, showing us who owned the road. Was I in Jerusalem, or in a no-go neighborhood in Brooklyn? They looked and dressed like they were denizens of the “hood,” they walked like them — these were their role models.

Was it supposed to be this way? Were they saved from the long Exile for this? The young Jewish Agency lady probably sees this as the price of “progress.”

On the other hand, I saw other young Ethiopians that day who were calm, disciplined, and dressed in a respectable fashion. They were part of a Bnei Akiva religious youth group — some were group leaders and were engaged in organized, constructive activities appropriate for the occasions. The look on their faces was one of purpose and respect for others and for themselves; what a difference. I wonder if they would rate a Jewish Agency poster?

The same grave mistakes being made with so many Ethiopian Jewish youths have been made before with Jewish immigrants expelled from Arab lands in the 1950s. Yes, then too a “new Jew” was created by secular Israel; there were excited Jewish Agency posters then too.

Their sad story endures. From them come a major supply of the insensitive cops today stepping on those with less power and station than them. Their identity as Jews was taken from them and replaced with a bastardized culture based on "getting ahead."

The common missing ingredient to all the above is one word — identity. Do we appreciate who we are and why we are here? Is it taught? It seems that many of our problems, both internal and external, can be linked to identity: our sense of identity in this land, our sense of identity as fellow Jews — Jews, not just fellow citizens.

What brings an American like me and an Ethiopian Jew together in the land of Israel? Identity, common Jewish identity. That, and only that, is what makes us brothers. Not a passport or the Hebrew language.

Jews always knew why they prayed and longed to come home. They were not coming to the global village. We need a reminder, and that begins with leadership — real Jewish leadership, not power brokers.

We can solve our internal problems, as well as our external ones, but the answer does not lie in science or technology, nor is it in military strength or high finance. It starts with something that cannot be measured: a sense of common purpose, of being right and unapologetically so.

Identity. If we repossess it, we are invincible.

Contact Shalom Pollack, veteran licensed tour guide, for upcoming tours at Shalom Pollack Tours: Personalized Tours in Israel. Click here to read more of this writer’s work in The Jerusalem Herald.

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...הָרִימִי בַכֹּחַ קוֹלֵךְ מְבַשֶּׂרֶת יְרוּשָׁלִָם הָרִימִי אַל תִּירָאִי אִמְרִי לְעָרֵי יְהוּדָה הִנֵּה אֱלֹקֵיכֶם! (ישעיה  מ:ט)

...Raise your voice with strength, herald of Jerusalem; raise it, do not be afraid; say to the cities of Judah, "Here is your G-d!"

(Isaiah 40:9)

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