“Your history is part of our history and your future is part of our future,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a gathering of over 1,000 Ethiopian Jews at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem last month. The May 20 event was a memorial ceremony for those Ethiopians who lost their lives during the community’s mass immigration to Israel during the 1980s and 1990s. For the first time in 20 years, a prime minister of Israel formally recognized the Ethiopian memorial by attending.
Just months before, on January 18, over 5,000 young Ethiopian-Israelis and their supporters stormed through central Jerusalem to protest against racism and discrimination. In the midst of the growing awareness of Israel’s disenfranchised Ethiopian community, are those who may be among the country’s future game-changers: young Ethiopian-Israeli women.
Despite the many challenges that Ethiopian immigrants continue to face in Israel, the community’s women are ascending to positions of power and prominence. In March, Pnina Falego Gaday-Agenyahu, an educator who made aliyah with her family at age two, became the first Ethiopian-Israeli to be appointed to Israel’s Council for Higher Education. Yarden Fanta-Vagenshtein, a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, made aliyah in 1985 and is the first Ethiopian woman to earn a doctorate in Israel. Belaynesh Zevadia made aliyah as a teenager and at age 25, she became the first Ethiopian-Israeli diplomat in Israel’s Foreign Service. In February, she was appointed the country’s first Ethiopian-born ambassador. In an ending fit for the history books, Zevadia will represent the State of Israel at its embassy in Ethiopia.
These women inspired me, a Sierra Leone-born American citizen, to go to Jerusalem as a Fulbright Fellow to investigate the lives of young, accomplished women of Ethiopian descent. I wanted to understand how young Ethiopian-Israeli women weathered the difficulties of their lives and became successful. As part of my research I interviewed three remarkable young women — Ester Semu, Shira Shato, and Leah Biteolin — in an attempt to uncover the Ethiopian community’s pride and pain.
As a visiting student at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, I saw a lot more female Ethiopian students than males. Most of my Ethiopian female friends were employed at government agencies and community organizations, whereas the sleepy-eyed security guards posted at Jerusalem shops and restaurants were mostly Ethiopian men. Indeed, according to a 2006 report by the Myers-JDC-Brookdale Institute, Israel’s premier center for applied social research, 12.3 percent of Ethiopian-Israeli women hold academic and management positions as compared to 8.2 percent of Ethiopian-Israeli men.
“I think Ethiopian women are strivers,” says Ester Semu. “They want to get more things and they are more aware about what they can achieve.”
Semu is the first Ethiopian-Israeli to serve as a tour guide in Israel’s national service. A petite beauty whose English accent is indistinguishable from that of the average American student on a Taglit-Birthright trip, Semu worked very hard to get to where she is today. Her parents made aliyah through Operation Moses in 1985, and she is the only child out of 10 children to be born in Israel. Like many other Ethiopian-Israeli families, members of Semu’s family died in Sudan during the journey to Israel.
The immigration experience itself may be part of what gives young Ethiopian-Israeli women the chutzpah to become successful. The Ethiopian Jews were rural villagers and their emigration to a modern, industrialized country such as Israel was deeply traumatic.
For centuries, the Beta Israel, which means “From the House of Israel,” suffered relentless persecution as the Jewish minority in Ethiopia. Beginning in the 1980s, the American Jewish Diaspora lobbied the U.S. government and the State of Israel to rescue the Ethiopian community through a series of clandestine airlifts out of Ethiopia and into the Promised Land. The community was placed in absorption centers where they received Hebrew lessons and basic social services. Decades have passed and millions of shekels have been poured into their integration, but still, the Ethiopian Jewish community in Israel has deteriorated. Over 50 percent of Ethiopian families live below the poverty line, and thousands continue to face discrimination in housing, education, and employment.
‘Growing up in Afula, I knew we were different. It became clear very quickly — in school, at the market, everywhere’
Often unable to read and write their own native languages, let alone Hebrew, the elders faced numerous difficulties and had to rely upon their young children.
Leah Biteolin was three years old when her family made aliyah after months of waiting at the refugee camps in Sudan. “It was incredibly exciting,” she says. Once in Israel, she soon shouldered adult responsibilities. “The three of us — me, my sister, and my brother — knew that we had a responsibility to help our parents. We translated the news for them, we wrote letters to government offices, and we scheduled medical appointments. We did things that the average 10 year old is not concerned with,” says Biteolin.
From an early age, the young women I interviewed faced the kind of stigma that is common for the over 116,000 Ethiopian Jewish immigrants and their children currently living in Israel, of whom about 32 percent are Israeli-born. “Growing up in Afula, I knew we were different. It became clear very quickly — in school, at the market, everywhere,” says Semu. In primary school the other Israeli kids called her kushi, an epithet commonly compared to the N-word, though it derives from Cush, the biblical name for modern-day Sudan.
Yet each woman I interviewed managed to escape the fate of poverty and marginalization partly because of her university education and international travels — crucial experiences that gave them self-confidence and pride in their cultural heritage. Semu speaks Spanish, a language she picked up from watching telenovelas, and she has traveled to Cyprus. She also spent a year in the United States because Bnei Akiva, a religious youth organization, sent her there to teach at a Jewish day school in New York.
During the Sigd, the biblical festival celebrated by the Ethiopian Jewish Diaspora, Semu lectured to a roomful of American Jews about her Ethiopian culture. Her year abroad was the typical coming-of-age experience where she went out into the world, wrestled with the elements, and discovered her authentic self. “I finally became happy with my family’s culture. I realized that you have to know who you are and where you come from in order to do something in the future, in order to become somebody,” she says.
The soft bigotry of low expectations does in fact exist: ‘People are amazed whenever I start speaking English…their mouths drop open,’ Ester says. ‘I have to think it’s funny otherwise it would make me sad.’
Travel and army service gave Shira Shato, whose family came from a small village near Gondar in 1984, the confidence to thrive. As the feisty renegade in a family of 14 children, she broke with family tradition by enlisting in the IDF instead of the alternative national service for religious Jews. During her army service she was responsible for training her cohort on how to become a medic. Most of her colleagues came from wealthy families in Tel Aviv so having them see a competent, confident Ethiopian in a position of authority bolstered Shato’s pride in her ethnic identity. Shato also spent a year in America at Ohio State University, as an Israeli Fellow at the university’s Hillel center.
As a young executive at the Jewish Agency, Leah Biteolin had an opportunity to travel to Canada and Switzerland for projects that built important bridges between different communities. Biteolin, an accomplished legal trainee who has also been to Croatia and Australia, is the subject of an eponymous documentary about her life by filmmaker Daniel Remer.
Yet for all their enviable accomplishments, all three women continue to taste the bitter herb of prejudice. As a fellow young African immigrant who is often the only Black person represented in prestigious programs such as the Fulbright fellowship to Israel, I can attest that the pathology of “soft bigotry of low expectations” does in fact exist.
“People are amazed whenever I start speaking English…their mouths drop open,” Semu says. “I have to think it’s funny otherwise it would make me sad. People still think that Ethiopians are ignorant and are unable to do anything,” she says.
Shato’s brush with racism happened in the army, during training with a non-Ethiopian colleague and an Israeli doctor. “We started making small talk and the doctor asked my partner about his role on our team. He then looked and me and said, “You too?” with a surprised look on his face” says Shato. “Skin color says nothing about someone’s ability,” Shato kindly informed him. The doctor quickly apologized and said he ‘misspoke.’
The women have battled negative stereotypes based not only on their race, but also on their gender. “We live in a chauvinistic society and I think all people talk about is how beautiful Ethiopian women are, and not about their brains or what they are achieving,” says Shato.
“It’s perceived that Ethiopian women want to get married to non-Ethiopians,” Semu remarks with clear annoyance. Perhaps this stereotype is rooted in a bit of truth since a Central Bureau of Statistics report showed twice as many Ethiopian women marry non-Ethiopians as compared to Ethiopian men. But then again, since Ethiopian-Israeli men are scarce at universities and professional workplaces, it is only natural for Ethiopian-Israeli women to marry their educational and professional peers.
Ethiopian women do in fact face a lot of pressure to marry within their culture. After Shato completed her first university degree, her father pulled her aside and whispered, “You have to settle down and find yourself someone, and it would be much better if he is one of us.” She ended up with an Israeli of Moroccan descent.
When Semu got engaged to her French-Israeli fiancé, her non-Ethiopian classmates insinuated that they saw it coming because she is ‘educated and cultured.’ “It offended me because they thought they were giving me a compliment. They were basically saying that I’m too high-class for an Ethiopian guy. It was insulting. I didn’t set out to marry a non-Ethiopian. I just wanted someone who matches me,” says Semu. Like Shato, Semu’s father was also deeply concerned that the man she married is non-Ethiopian. “Many people in the community think, “Why do you want to go out [of the community] and marry someone who is not Ethiopian? Are we not good enough for you?” says Semu.
As evidenced by the mass demonstrations in January, young Ethiopian-Israelis are very angry that even though they chucked their ancestral traditions off the Masada, even though they speak Hebrew as a mother tongue, or are Israeli-born, they have not escaped the stigma of the poor African villager who Israel had to go rescue and introduce to a flushing toilet.
The two fathers’ reservations about interracial marriages is based on old hurts that have never healed. After the Ethiopian aliyah to Israel, the rabbinic establishment struck a fatal blow to the elders of the Beta Israel when they rejected the community’s biblical brand of Judaism, which did not include the Oral Torah. Moreover, the kessim, the community’s traditional priests, have had their powers quartered and quarantined by the religious establishment. In January, Haaretz reported that Israeli rabbis are working to “phase out” these gatekeepers who have guarded the community’s Jewish traditions for thousands of years. The elegant kessim — with their white turbans, dignified strut, and colorful ceremonial umbrellas — will soon disappear into history.
Despite the fact that they are educated, well-traveled, and have acculturated into modern Israeli society, all three women feel a strong reverence for their traditional Ethiopian culture. Like me, a lot of Ethiopian-Israelis are 1.5 generation immigrants — they left the country of their birth before age 12 for a new country. Unlike first-generation immigrants, 1.5s occupy a strange space as cultural chameleons. Our adopted societies expect us to pledge cultural loyalties, but the act of reclaiming our ancestral heritage is like a soothing balm to the wounds of racism, discrimination, injustice, and bigotry.
All three women agreed that the biggest issue plaguing young Beta Israel is the failure of integration. “Children nowadays are very much separated from their parent’s heritage. They wanted so badly to be accepted [into Israeli society], so they threw out their culture and customs,” says Semu. As evidenced by the mass demonstrations in January, young Ethiopian-Israelis are very angry that even though they chucked their ancestral traditions off the Masada, even though they speak Hebrew as a mother tongue, or are Israeli-born, they have not escaped the stigma of the poor African villager who Israel had to go rescue and introduce to a flushing toilet.
As a result, many young Ethiopian-Israelis have sought empowerment by appropriating the most bombastic elements of urban African American culture. “I really don’t understand all the hip hop music, rap fashions, and all the gang things. Why do we have to adopt someone else’s culture? Why don’t we dig for our own roots instead?” says Shato.
According to data by the Myers-JDC-Brookdale Institute, risky behavior has indeed increased dramatically among first and second generation Ethiopian-Israeli youth.
Reflecting upon this tragic situation, Shira further adds, “Young people have to understand the story of what their parents went through to come to Israel. The decision to leave everything behind and walk to Sudan, not knowing where they were going, not knowing if they will succeed, it was a brave thing. I believe if they learn more about their own community, the sacrifices that their families made to come to Israel, they will understand their roots and will be motivated to build themselves up, break the cycle of poverty, go for education, and reach for more opportunities.”
The State of Israel has made small steps in continuing to address the plight of its Ethiopian Jews. In March 2012 the Knesset approved a bill that calls for the establishment of an Ethiopian Jewry Heritage Center which will serve as an archival institute for historical and genealogical research, academic conferences, and seminars. In 2008, the Ethiopian Sigd was declared an official State holiday. Due to the advocacy work of the Israel Association of Ethiopian Jews (IAEJ), the Knesset extended an affirmative action policy that will help Ethiopians gain positions in the government, civil, and private sector. The IAEJ also spearheaded a campaign that led to the repealing of a discriminatory mortgage grant policy that confined Ethiopian-Israeli couples to terrible neighborhoods. Institutions such as Nishmat, a private women’s seminary in Jerusalem, has a wonderful program that offers young Ethiopian-Israeli women an opportunity to learn and grow in a supportive environment. As a student at this seminary, I was delighted to see the amount of camaraderie that the faculty and administrators encouraged between the Ethiopian-Israelis and foreign students from North America, Europe, and Latin America.
Leah Biteolin, Ester Semu, and Shira Shato all have bright aspirations for the Ethiopian Jewish future in Israel. “I really want to be involved in politics because that’s how you can truly influence the entire society,” says Shato, who, with her dynamic charisma and strong personal convictions, can surely wrestle down any opposition on the floors of the Knesset. “I hope that we continue to improve as a community so that it wouldn’t be strange to see an Ethiopian at a university, at the theatre, or in cultural places,” adds Ester. “When I think of my life since high school, I am proud of everything. I am helping people, changing their lives, and I feel that I am helping to create the next generation of Jewish people,” says Leah.
Without a doubt, these three young women are glowing jewels in the crown of the biblical Queen Sheba. But even though their stories are a source of inspiration, thousands of other young Ethiopian-Israelis do not have the opportunity to get a university education or embark on enriching international experiences.
Netanyahu concluded his speech by adding, “I hope that our new plan for improving immigration and integration will help you all to go beyond that glass ceiling.”
As a young African immigrant who grew up in a Westernized country, and has navigated around the sinkholes that some young minorities unfortunately fall into, I offer a toolbox of ideas to help crack that glass ceiling: An exposure to the world — to people, to places, to ideas — has a magical effect on a young immigrant’s bi-cultural identity, self-confidence, and intellectual growth; participation in structured, well-funded programs that provides heartfelt mentorship and guided access to universities and professional opportunities will level the playing field for those who have to overcome Olympian hurdles before the race even begins; being immersed in a vibrant social environment where one can express their unique ethnic identity and cultural heritage without shame or ridicule, offers the perfect stage for multicultural friendships, and even marriages, to bloom and grow. If the State of Israel fulfills its promise to its Ethiopian Jews, what new chapter will the next generation add to the history of the Jewish people?
Rama Musa emigrated from Sierra Leone to the United States at age 11. She was a Fulbright Fellow to Israel, and her research mentor was Professor Steven Kaplan at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. While based in Jerusalem, she also wrote about the infamous Swiss watch heist at the L.A. Mayer Museum for Islamic Art.