Ethiopian Jews in Israel

Ancient traditions in a new Jewish State.

Print this page Print this page

Despite the government's mission to bring the Ethiopian community to Israel and attempts to combat racism both in the workplace and at large, discrimination continues to be an issue. .One event, known in Israel simply as the "blood scandal," revealed that Israel’s Emergency Ambulance Services, Magen David Adom, had routinely been dumping donations of Ethiopian blood on the assumption that it was likely to be tainted with HIV. When the Israeli newspaper Maariv broke the story in 1996, there was national outrage and the policy, ongoing for a number of years, was overturned.

Although there have been many improvements to their quality of life, many Ethiopians still feel that the Israeli government has let them down by denying mass immigration to the Falasha Mura community still in Ethiopia.

With all of these issues, certain aspects of Ethiopian life have definitely improved. Ethiopian culture is becoming increasingly understood and cherished in Israel. Ethiopian restaurants are now more common, and Ethiopian music has become more influential, helped by bands such as the hugely successful Idan Raichel Project that has incorporated Ethiopian vocals, rhythms, and lyrics.

Organizations such as The Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews have been working to empower the community through grassroots efforts and political lobbying.

Thanks to their involvement, the Ethiopian Jewish festival of Sigd became an official State holiday in July 2008. As in Ethiopia, the community celebrates this festival by fasting, reading from the Tanakh, and feasting in celebration of their renewed acceptance of Jewish law.

Although all Israelis do not celebrate Sigd, those who do must be given the day off by their employers. The recognition of this holiday by the Israeli Knesset is a sign of improving attitudes towards the Ethiopian community and their Jewish practices.

Although the place of the Ethiopian community in Israel is becoming more established, full integration is far from complete. Like with any immigrant group, the older generation has found integration more difficult.

The gap between the generations has also meant that youth often need to guide their parents and grandparents through everyday life in Israel. This overthrows the accepted model of family life in Ethiopia, where elders were always revered and consulted. Inter-generational breakdown continues to be a huge challenge to this fragile community, and rising levels of crime among youth might be, partially, a by-product of this collapse.

And yet, there's great hope in Israel that through continued lobbying, specialized government training and education programs, and sensitivity within individual communities, the Ethiopian community, an estimated 120,000 strong in 2011, will feel increasingly confident and at home in the Jewish state. This, while simultaneously retaining the unique heritage they brought from centuries of Jewish life in Ethiopia.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

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.