Black Among Blacks
The Teddy Club was the only place my friend Sharis and I could find open, late-night in Haifa. Ethiopian music was pumping from the red-lit restaurant into a deserted back street. Inside, we sat at a plastic table behind a group of four guys. One was wearing a kippah.
We motioned towards our cameras. The waitress nodded, and we began taking snapshops. One of the men sitting at the table in front of us shot me a glare. Abraham Amirha, a 45-year-old Ethiopian resident of Haifa, didn’t want his picture taken. His friends asked to see my photos, and I handed over the camera. Passing it around, they smiled and pointed; all the while, Amirha scowled. Pantomiming and over-enunciating, I tried to explain to the others that I’m a journalist from California. “California!” they yelled in recognition. Seconds later, one of the guys called the waitress over to make a music request, and 2Pac’s “All Eyes On Me” came through the speakers. I smiled and recited a few lyrics. All of a sudden I was one of the guys.
Amirha had had enough. “Why you come here to show everything is good for Ethiopians?” he asked, slicing through the music with his grave tone: “We live in Israel in a situation that is not correct.” To him I was a journalist, there to exploit his culture. Over the next hour, Amirha told me of the discrimination against Ethiopians in Israel.
“Israel is not my country, Ethiopia is my country,” he said looking off. He told me that his brother was an Israeli Defense Forces soldier killed in Gaza, but Ethiopians are not given due respect in Israel, despite their service.
At one point, he struggled to find English words to describe the problems Ethiopians face in Israel. So he quoted Martin Luther King, Jr. “Mankind’s survival depends on his ability to solve the problems of racial injustice and poverty in the world,” he said, slightly revising a statement made by Dr. King during a 1964 Nobel speech. Leaning forward, he gave me a look as if to say “you know what I’m talking about.” In the context of Israel, I didn’t, but as an African American, I do.
I was born decades after the civil rights era in America, but I can still feel the legacy of slavery and racism. Sometimes when I walk into an interview or even a bar, I can feel all eyes on me, as if I’m wearing my race. Regardless of how people respond to me, I wonder how I’m being perceived based on my skin color—an occurrence W.E.B. Du Bois famously called ‘double consciousness’. “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness,” he says in The Souls of Black Folk, “this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others….”
Being black helped me fit in at the Teddy Club. I thought I would stick out in Israel. But, in many instances, my skin color represented a shared understanding with Ethiopian Israelis, or in Amirha’s case, a shared struggle. I too felt camaraderie, even as I discovered how different our cultural histories are.
In 1983, Noa Enverem’s family fled Ethiopia on foot, heading west for Sudan. After walking hundreds of miles through the Sahara Desert, the Enverems would hop a plane to Israel. The 26-year-old nursing student told me her family hid during the day and advanced at night, shielding themselves from Ethiopian authorities and Sudanese robbers.
In the ’80s, Ethiopian Jews had few friends in their region of Africa. Ethiopia was mostly Christian, and the native Jewish population had been persecuted for years. The government, and many civilians, threatened to imprison or kill Jews who tried to emigrate. Sudan had little sympathy for the Jews, but in exchange for money and weapons, it served as a meet-up point for the Israeli government and Ethiopian Jewish emigrants.
In Khartoum, Sudan, a plane awaited Enverem’s family, and thousands of others, to bring them to Israel. Operation Moses, a covert airlift evacuation of roughly 8,000 Ethiopian Jews, was organized by the Israeli army and the American CIA. This marked the beginning of the immigration of Ethiopian Jews to Israel.
Enverem wasn’t born yet, but she tells the story as if she too braved the desert. Many young Ethiopian Israelis tell secondhand stories of their families’ perilous migration like campfire tales, passed down year after year. I found that for Ethiopians in Israel, the not-so-distant past is entangled in the present.
More recent Ethiopian immigrants to Israel don’t have exodus stories of treks through the desert to tell. Many catch flights directly from Ethiopia to Israel and come from Christian cities, not small Jewish villages.
Ethiopian immigration may soon end altogether. Last November, the Israeli government decided that, after 30 years, the country plans to stop government-sponsored Ethiopian immigration. Some 8,000 more Ethiopians will be brought to Israel over the next four years, but then, immigration efforts, and funding, will end. With over 100,000 Ethiopian Jews living in Israel today, this recent legislation spotlights the minority that is often left out of the Israeli picture.
“At this point, it’s kind of a tightrope that they’re walking,” says Len Lyons, an American Jew from Boston, who’s been researching and interviewing Ethiopian Jews throughout Israel since 2004. He is author of The Ethiopian Jews of Israel: Personal Stories of Life in the Promised Land. Lyons says today’s Ethiopian Israelis struggle “between the desire to integrate fully—another word for that being ‘assimilate’—as opposed to keeping their ethnic identity intact and remaining somewhat apart in Israeli society.”
Tzahaynesh Adel-Krut, a programs director at a community center in Jerusalem, balances this “tightrope” gracefully. “Tzahaynesh means ‘sunshine’ in Amharic,” says the cheerful 25-year-old, seated inside the hallway of the small center. She has a round, coffee-brown face, and small spirals of olive black hair peek out from under her gold head scarf. Behind her, flyers and children’s drawings decorate bright, blue and yellow walls. Here, Adel-Krut oversees programming for newly immigrated Ethiopian families. Many immigrants change their Amharic names into Hebrew to assimilate easier into Israel, but not Adel-Krut. “I’m really proud to be Ethiopian and Israeli,” she says.
Adel-Krut was six years old when her family came to Israel in 1991 as part of the second wave of Ethiopian immigration, Operation Solomon. “When I made aliyah [Jewish return to Israel] and walked through Sudan, it was really Zionism,” says Adel-Krut, “I realized my dream here.” Like Enverem, Adel-Krut says religious persecution and the belief that Israel is the Jewish Holy Land were the main motivations for early Ethiopian immigrants.
There were other, more urgent motivations than Zionism. During the early ’80s, famine swept through much of Ethiopia, and the Jews, who were largely subsistence farmers, were in danger of starvation. This crisis came on top of the Ethiopian government’s discriminatory policies towards Jews at the time. Migration to Israel was quite possibly a means of survival.
But for present-day Ethiopian Jews, whose families have struggled for religious recognition and respect from white Israelis, the Zionist narrative prevails. Adel-Krut’s family was not welcomed when they arrived. “A lot of Israelis here, they didn’t accept them,” she says, “They say ‘you black Jewish, we don’t know that, no, we don’t think so.’” Now, she says, people rarely question her Judaism.
“I am religious, that is why I cover my head,” the bright-eyed newlywed says, motioning towards her metallic gold scarf. A year ago, Adel-Krut married Doron Krut, a white, South African-American Jew. In the tradition of married Orthodox Jewish women, she began to cover her hair. The couple’s large, multi-cultural ceremony was headed by both a rabbi and a kess, the Ethiopian equivalent, though the latter had no officiating authority.
“The ministry of religion in Israel does not support the kess as a religious authority,” explains Len Lyons, “They respect them, but officially they have no authority to conduct Jewish marriages or funerals.” Lyons says this is just one example of how Ethiopian culture, particularly religious practice, is threatened by Israeli integration.
Purim, for instance, the Jewish holiday that commemorates a deliverance story in the biblical book of Esther, is much different in Ethiopia. “In Ethiopia you fast three days, you don’t do any partying or drinking,” says Adel-Krut, “In Israel you fast one day, and the other days you have costumes, and partying and dancing.” She shakes her head and blinks her smoky-shadowed eyelids. “It’s so different, you know.”
Lyons heard of similar dissonance. “One Ethiopian woman mentioned to me that, in Ethiopia, there was no such thing as a secular Jew … that didn’t exist.” In Ethiopia’s Jewish villages, the community lived and prayed together. “There weren’t the types of choices that people have in Israel,” says Lyons.
Lyons asked immigrants what surprised them most about Israel. He expected answers like computers or running water, things that the rural population had rarely, if ever, come in contact with. But instead, “When they got here, they were amazed to see people driving on the Sabbath,” says Lyons. Today, nearly 30 percent of Ethiopian Jews are secular and do not observe traditional Jewish practices, according to Lyons. He estimates the number to be 80 percent for native Israelis.
“At home we keep Shabbat and eat Kosher, but I’m not religious,” says Enverem. “I go out with my boyfriend on the weekends.” Like Adel-Krut’s husband, Enverem’s boyfriend is an Ashkenazi Jew. A 2009 report by Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics says that, while interracial marriage is not commonplace in Israel, it is becoming more frequent among Ethiopian women and Ashkenazi men.
“I feel absolutely Israeli,” Enverem says. “My identity is also fundamentally Ethiopian; it’s a part of me.”
Her words hearken to Du Bois: “One ever feels his twoness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body…” African-American and American are not the same to me, but I am both. The disconnect is unspoken, taboo even, but clear nonetheless.
When it comes to Israel’s debate over continued immigration from Ethiopia, Enverem’s loyalties are to Ethiopian emigrants. “I’m all for Ethiopians rising to Israel,” she says, “I know some left the Jewish religion, but they are still Jews and deserve to come.”
Born in Ethiopia, Adel-Krut has an even stronger reverence for her country of origin. At the community center, she’s created classes to teach children Amharic, the Ethiopian tongue that often dies out in younger generations. But in spite of her cultural connection, Adel-Krut’s conservative religiosity makes her question the recent immigration. “A lot of people who made aliyah recently have a Christian background,” says Adel-Krut. An active member of the Ethiopian Jewish community, she knows that many Ethiopians claiming Jewish lineage in order to come to Israel in recent years have not been practicing Jews. “I’m not fighting, saying let’s go bring all of the Ethiopians [to Israel] because I know what is true.”
Religion is at the center of the debate over continued Ethiopian immigration. “I don’t think Israelis mind if secular Jews come to Israel,” says Len Lyons, “but what they’re concerned about is that there are people who are actually Christians.” The Falash-Mura, Ethiopian Jews believed to have converted to Christianity under duress, are the point of contention. Some Israelis feel that they deserve Jewish immigration rights based on their lineage and relations; others say they are just poor Christians seeking better lives for themselves in Israel.
“There’s a lot of skepticism—honestly, mixed up with some racism—in questioning all of these people based on their Jewishness,” says communications professor Dr. Jonathan Cohen of Haifa University. “[The Falash-Mura] are relatives of the ones who have already come, but they have been determined by someone, and this determination is in contention, that they were not part of the Jewish community,” says Dr. Cohen.
Quotas are the political obstacles facing recent Ethiopian immigrants. The Israeli government has repeatedly placed limits on the number of Ethiopian Jews or Ethiopians claiming Jewish lineage who are allowed to immigrate to Israel. Len Lyons says this barrier to entry did not exist for white Jewish immigrants.
“Everybody believes that a very large percentage of the people who came from the former Soviet Union were not Jews,” says Lyons, speaking of over one million Russian immigrants who have poured into Israel in recent years, without restrictions or in-depth religious background verifications.
Just as religion may not have been the sole motivator for early Ethiopian immigrants seeking Israel, religion is probably not the only reason the Israeli government restricts current Ethiopian immigration. “The Russians had skills,” explains Lyons, “whereas the Ethiopians are largely uneducated, with a different culture.”
Dr. Cohen says “The immigration of Ethiopian Jews is very expensive.” Unemployed new immigrants are given the equivalent of $10,000 to start their lives in Israel.
Because of their linguistic, phenotypic, and cultural difference, discrimination is a continual hurdle for Ethiopians in Israel. For some who are Israeli-born and thoroughly integrated like Enverem, Israel feels like home, despite these challenges. “I think I feel more Israeli than other young people who were born in Ethiopia,” she says, “In many ways it’s easier for me to feel that I really belong in every way.” She has faced discrimination from white Israelis but simply says “I ignore them.”
In 1996 there was a major controversy when Israeli blood banks secretly disposed of blood donated by Ethiopian Israelis. “It was really wrong,” Adel-Krut told me, “the government knew it.” Because of this, she still refuses to donate blood.
It wasn’t that long ago that America had its own blood issue. In Birmingham, Alabama, in the early ’50s, white and black blood was segregated just like everything else. Blood banks went as far as to designate certain days when blacks could donate.
In a way, Israel and the story of Ethiopian Jews gave me a kind of triple consciousness. Not only am I an American and an African-American, but I am also a representative of the global black experience. Now when I walk into a room full of Afro-Brazilians or Black Germans or Ethiopian Jews, I know Martin Luther King, Jr. and W.E.B. Du Bois are somewhere in that room as well.
Janine Rayford is a freelance writer and recent graduate of the University of Southern California, Annenberg School for Journalism. Originally from San Francisco, Rayford obtained her bachelor’s degree in English from UC Berkeley. Her writings on news and popular culture have appeared in Essence magazine, 944 magazine, LAmag.com, Krista Tippett’s Onbeing.org and the Cape Times of South Africa.