Ethiopian Jews in Israel

Ancient traditions in a new Jewish State.

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When they first arrived, housing was often provided in mobile homes located in Israel’s peripheral areas. Housing conditions were regularly squalid, inadequately heated in the winter or cooled in the summer. Ethiopians were isolated and disempowered, with children far from decent schools. Life in an industrialized, modern society baffled many of the older community members, and adjusting to simple things like electricity was often difficult. 

Beta Israel Women at the Kotel

Israelis were not always quick to help make the transition easier. For example, Yehuda Dominitz, then Director General of the Jewish Agency's Department of Immigration and Absorption, declared in 1980 that, “[taking] a Falasha out of his village, it's like taking a fish out of water...I'm not in favor of bringing them [to Israel].”Religiously, life was also complicated. Although their Jewish status had been affirmed back in the 16th century by North African scholar Radbaz and again by leading Jewish figures of the 20th century, there were still many who doubted the authenticity of the community's Jewish status and practice.

When the first waves of immigrants arrived, the Beta Israel were forced by the Israeli Rabbinate to undergo a symbolic renewal of their Jewish identity by immersion in a mikveh (ritual bath).Although no one argued that this was undertaken in order to convert the community, this practice, known as hidush hayihud, literally the "renewal of the unique," was seen by many Beta Israel community members as humiliating and unnecessary. The practice was eventually abolished in 1985 following a month-long strike of the Ethiopian Jewish workforce in Israel.

Integrating into Israeli Life

Slowly, change began to take place.In 1993, a program created by the Ministry of Absorption encouraged immigrants to buy housing in more central areas such as Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Although it happened gradually, by 2001, more than 10,000 Ethiopian immigrants had taken advantage of the program and purchased homes, although mostly not in the areas the government originally intended. Still, temporary housing has become largely a thing of the past.

The government also worked to cut unemployment.In 1999, 53% of Ethiopian immigrants aged 25-54 were employed, compared with 76% in the general Israeli population. Today unemployment rates are still significantly higher in this community than among any other Jewish Israeli group, but the statistics are beginning to look better. This improvement has been achieved by introducing back-to-work training schemes tailored to suit the community, improving education for Ethiopian school-age children, and moving Ethiopian families to centers of employment.

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Atira Winchester

Atira Winchester is a journalist who worked for many years as an editor for The Jerusalem Post. She currently lives in London, England where she works as a freelance writer, specializing in arts, culture and contemporary Israeli life.