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Violence rips Ethiopian Israeli families

Alametu Sukul holds a photo of her murdered mother, Sukula, as she stands next to her aunt Nagasia Yalo at the family house in Rishon Lezion on Sept. 10, 2007.  (Brian Hendler)

Alametu Sukul holds a photo of her murdered mother, Sukula, as she stands next to her aunt Nagasia Yalo at the family house in Rishon Lezion on Sept. 10, 2007. (Brian Hendler)

RISHON LE ZION, Israel (JTA) – In a dusty courtyard filled with yellowing grass and weeds, the day’s mourners gather, still shocked by the death of Sukula Sukul, killed when her husband took a kitchen knife and stabbed her as their children slept. 

The Sukuls and their 11 children immigrated to Israel from Ethiopia two years ago. Now the mother is dead, the father is in jail for her murder and the children must sort out the pieces.

Sitting on a plastic chair with the other mourners grieving for his mother on Oct. 10, 18-year-old Ambaye Sukul says his father never really found his place in Israel. 

“In Israel he did not know how to get by. He would just do nothing, sitting at home all day,” he says. “For him, Israel was a world where everything seemed upside down.”

“In Ethiopia,” where his father was a farmer that raised potatoes, tomatoes, corn and other vegetables, “it was all so different,” Ambaye adds softly.

Disturbing as the Sukuls’ story is, it is not unique in Israel’s Ethiopian community. It is but the latest in a gruesome series of murders of Ethiopian women by their male partners.

The numbers of spousal murders among Ethiopian Israelis are grossly disproportionate to the size of their small community. In 2006, four out of the 10 women murdered in Israel by their domestic partners were Ethiopian immigrants. Four more have been killed this year.

Some Ethiopians say the magnitude of violence is an anomaly previously unknown in their community. 

They blame the often devastating and disorienting transition to Israeli life, which is especially difficult for Ethiopian men accustomed to Ethiopia’s patriarchal society. They say this challenge, coupled with a lack of social services to help ease their path and intervene when disputes turn violent, has led to the current crisis.

In Ethiopia, men were the undisputed heads of their families. In Israel, however, they often are slower than their wives and children to adapt and learn Hebrew, and in turn they have trouble finding work. Often they find themselves adrift in a modern society they find alien and in which their own families begin to see them as weak and unimportant. 

“We never heard of women being murdered like this in Ethiopia,” says Negist Mengesha, director general of the Ethiopian National Project.. “In Ethiopia there were traditional tools for dealing with conflicts.”

Mengesha blames a severe lack of Ethiopian social workers fluent in Amharic who can navigate the community’s cultural codes and traditions.

“All of this could have been prevented,” she says. “It really is a scandal that it is not being dealt with.” 

Tzipi Nachshon Glick, the welfare ministry’s national coordinator for the treatment of domestic violence, says the government understands the need for Amharic-speaking social workers, but there is an acute shortage of funding for social services across the board in Israel. At present the ministry has 15 Amharic-speaking social workers.

“We understand that the social workers have to have the cultural sensitivity to deal with the population, for example to understand that the man feels his status is threatened,” Glick says. “If they don’t get the culture, they will fail.” 

In many cases, Ethiopian families are resistant to the idea of outside help, Glick notes. One of the ministry’s strategies is to have the Amharic-speaking social workers they do have draft community support in the battle against domestic violence, enlisting schools and community leaders in the process.

The challenge of access to social services is not isolated to domestic violence cases. 

Welfare ministry data show that two-thirds of all Ethiopian immigrants need social-service assistance. Of the 17,000 families currently receiving aid from the ministry, more than half reported problems between the parents, Ha’aretz reported, citing ministry data.

Most Ethiopian women will not seek help outside the family because they fear repercussions in the community and at home, where public exposure could lead to more beatings, according to a research report published by the Ethiopian National Project. 

Mengesha’s organization, sponsored by the United Jewish Communities federation umbrella group, is training Ethiopian social workers in family counseling through a program at Bar-Ilan University.

The rate of domestic violence, and specifically the murder of women, has surged since the arrival of the Falash Mura, according to several community members. 

The Falash Mura, Ethiopians of Jewish descent whose ancestors converted to Christianity generations ago, tend to have a more difficult landing in Isral than the earlier waves of Ethiopian immigrants. They often feel less connected to Israel, struggle with a rigorous conversion process and feel more marginalized in Israeli society, veteran Ethiopian Israelis said in interviews.

The Jewish Agency for Israel, which is responsible for helping the immigrants acclimate, has set up workshops at absorption centers where the recent Ethiopian immigrants, all from the Falash Mura community, are first housed that address how to handle conflict within families. 

“These are well structured programs that address how to get along as couples,” says Mira Keidar, who is responsible for social welfare services at the Jewish Agency.

In the transition to Israel, the lack of traditional leadership has emerged as a key problem. So the Jewish Agency has created a course for training traditional-style mediators – “shmagle” in Amharic – to help re-create the system of mediation familiar to families in Ethiopia. 

The organization Fidel runs support groups for immigrant parents across the country. The discussion groups usually focus on communication and connection between parents and children. Recently, however, discussions have turned to the rash of domestic violence, and Fidel is trying to bring more men into the fold.

“It’s been taboo,” Michal Avera, Fidel’s deputy director and an Ethiopian immigrant herself, says of the domestic violence topic. “But now people are asking why, why is this happening?”

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