Without fanfare or fuss, Dr. Anbessa Teferra, an expert in Semitic linguistics at Tel Aviv University, last month became the first Ethiopian Israeli to be appointed a senior lecturer at an Israeli university.
Teferra’s a soft-spoken, modest academic in his early fifties, quick to laugh and with a talent for languages. He immigrated to Israel in 1990 after completing his master’s degree in linguistics in Addis Ababa and has taught Ethiopian languages in various capacities in Israel since 1993. He earned the rank of senior lecturer, the equivalent of associate professor in the US, in June.
“This is one kind of advancement for Ethiopians” in Israel, he said in an interview with The Times of Israel, in his office overlooking the northeast corner of the campus in Ramat Aviv. “It’s really a great achievement for Ethiopian-Israelis.” He called it a “first step” for the integration of the community in Israeli society.
His appointment came during a spate of Ethiopian-Israeli protests against perceived discrimination following the beating of an Israeli soldier of Ethiopian descent by Israeli police officers. Thousands took to the streets in Tel Aviv in May to demonstrate against police brutality and were met with tear gas.
Professor Eyal Zisser, dean of the Faculty of the Humanities at Tel Aviv University, said he was “very proud of being the first faculty of the first university to have an Ethiopian on staff.” He insisted, however, that the decision “had nothing to do with the fact that he’s Ethiopian” and was entirely based on Teferra’s academic merit as an expert of Semitic languages.
Teferra teaches Ethiopian languages — Amharic, Ge’ez and Sidama, specifically — at Tel Aviv University. Most Ethiopian Israelis speak Amharic, a very distant cousin on the Semitic language family tree. Although Amharic’s structure is completely different, and the writing system antique and unique, there are some cognates, he explained: the words for blood — dam — and for eye — ayin — are identical in both Hebrew and Amharic.
The name Anbessa, Teferra explained, means lion in Amharic — the same as Assad in Arabic and Aryeh in Hebrew or Leo in Spanish.
“Swahili speakers call me Simba,” he said with a chuckle.
Teferra’s one of the few academics in Israel to teach Ethiopian languages at the university level. “All the Ethiopian stuff is on my small shoulders,” he said. While his language courses tend to be small, he said that there’s greater interest in his class on Ethiopian history, culture and language, which attracts between 20 and 30 students each semester.
“Mostly, I don’t have Ethiopian students,” he said, “most of them are ferenjiz… an Amharic expression for a white person.” The term, he said, derived from the Arabic term il-franj, the word denoting European Crusaders, or Franks.
For Teferra, the road to professorship was long. He taught for years at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where he did his PhD, as an external lecturer, before leaving for Tel Aviv.
“I should have been a lecturer, even a professor, a long time ago, to tell you the truth,” Teferra said, but didn’t attribute it definitively to race.
“Sometimes also I feel there is, how do you say, insensitivity,” Teferra said. Academic advancement must be based on merit and accomplishment, not because of skin color, he said, but scholars from less advantaged backgrounds should be given an opportunity so that there’s a more equitable representation of Israel’s diversity. Likewise, he said, the government should do more to assist Ethiopian-Israeli students with after-school education, and promote educational diversity in higher education.
As of the end of 2013, the country was home to 135,500 citizens of Ethiopian origin, making up 1.5% of the population, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics. Only 50% of Israeli high school students of Ethiopian ancestry that year qualified to take the matriculation exams, compared to 63% among the general population. (The CBS didn’t provide statistics on passing rates.)
In the 2013 academic year, only 0.9% of Israel’s 312,000 university students were Ethiopian-Israelis. Of the 12,480 doctoral students enrolled that year, only 14 were of Ethiopian descent.
Ultimately, however, he argued the solution to the inequality in higher education, and society as a whole, must come from the bottom up. “Integration must start from the kindergarten level” and work its way up to universities, he said.
The sole Ethiopian-Israeli lawmaker in the 20th Knesset, elected earlier this year, hailed Teferra’s appointment. Likud party MK Avraham Neguise told the Times of Israel that Teferra “is a model for emulation for members of the community in order to strengthen their integration in academia and higher education.”
“This is what will advance our integration into Israeli society,” Neguise said.
When he’s not teaching at TAU, Teferra works to keep Ethiopian language and culture alive among the community. Like Yiddish, Ladino and so many other languages spoken by first generation immigrants to Israel, the mother tongue has been supplanted by Hebrew among young Ethiopian-Israelis.
Teferra works as a supervisor for Amharic with the Israeli education system, helping develop the curriculum for the 40 high schools nationwide that teach Amharic. The education system offers an Amharic matriculation exam in the language, which he said helps many Ethiopian immigrants get high school diplomas who may have otherwise struggled with Hebrew-language examinations.
Teferra is the editor of the only newspaper in Israel catering to the Ethiopian population. Yedioth Negat, a bi-monthly paper with perhaps 20,000 readers, features articles in Amharic and Hebrew touching on subjects relevant to the community. He has also translated and edited an Amharic-Hebrew pictorial dictionary.
“From my experience, the children are losing fast their language,” Teferra said. His own daughter spoke Amharic when she first arrived in Israel at age six and now regrets having focused on Hebrew and lost it.
“Sometimes I feel that I’m fighting a lost battle concerning Amharic,” he said. “But I also want to preserve the language, the culture, although it’s very difficult.”
He said Ethiopian Israelis should embrace and preserve their language and promote Amharic education among the younger generation.
“We really encourage youngsters to learn Amharic and Ethiopian culture, because Hebrew is obligatory. You can’t run away from it,” Teferra said.
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