Put Ethiopian Jewry High On Our Agenda


Ten years ago, I woke up with a terrible pain in my arm that I could not eliminate with over-the-counter medicines. After going through a full battery of tests and consulting with a number of specialists, I was told, “Although we could give you medicine to alleviate the pain, what you really need is surgery on your spine — because that is the really the source of the problem. The pain in the arm is only a symptom. If we cure only the symptom, the disease will continue to spread.” 

Most of us have learned that lesson when it comes to our health. I could not help but reflect on this point when I heard the responses of the Israeli government to the beating of an Israeli soldier of Ethiopian descent. I assume this is not the first such act of bigoted brutality by Israeli police against Ethiopian Jews. This event, however, caught our attention because it was captured on video.

I am proud of the reaction of Israel’s leadership, which was swift and passionate in condemning this despicable behavior. The Israeli public also responded in solidarity with the Ethiopian community in soundly rejecting this type of hateful action. Many people were shocked when the Ethiopian Jewish community began public demonstrations, some of which became ugly. There were tense encounters with police. Pushing, shoving and wars of words chanted in anger stimulated the use of tear gas and other weapons against the crowd. 

I am pleased that the Israeli government has set meetings with the Ethiopian community. Police need to learn how to better engage with civilians. Respect for all citizens can be learned. And perhaps this crisis will end. But the pain of Ethiopian Jews will continue to simmer. The anger they feel because of discrimination will continue to boil. The tension due to not having adequate housing, clothing or food for their families will continue to pound in their chests. And, eventually, like an unattended pressure cooker, there will be an explosion. Unless we use this event as a stimulus to cure the illness rather than just treat the symptom, the crisis will not only continue. It will become worse.

Although Israel is not inherently a racist country, as in any country there is a manifestation of racism among some of its citizens. Many Ethiopians are unemployed. Others are underemployed simply because of the color of their skin. Housing is denied because of how they look. It is vital that the government not only deal with the bigoted actions of the police but also initiate programs to eradicate racism in the society.

Israelis of Ethiopian descent are suffering due to the lack of adequate housing and finances. Families often reside in cramped apartments; many are forced to seek housing in ghettos in which the social ambience is a negative factor. To compound the problem, the rental allocation ends after five years. After that time, many must seek alternative, and often worse, housing. A solution would be to provide each family with an acceptable mortgage or bank guarantee with the expectation that they would be responsible for paying their debt. 

Hunger is an issue for parents and their children. I have been impressed with afterschool programs such as Limudiah, operated by the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry. They offer lunch programs to Ethiopian children, many of whom would otherwise go hungry during the day. I have been pained to see children receiving their lunch, devouring half and wrapping the other half to take home for dinner. These programs must be expanded. As a new government in Israel takes office, it should make this a priority — if it wants to reduce the explosive tension.

Many families are still separated as a result of policies that do not permit individuals to come to Israel from Ethiopia, though they registered to make aliyah in 2003 and 2010. A committee was established well over a year ago by the government to resolve this matter. But as the government dissolved after new elections, so did the committee — without issuing any report. As long as parents are not with their children and siblings remain separated, the wound will fester. It is time to draw this painful issue to a close.

These are multiple and complex issues that must be dealt with in Israel. But they are also concerns to which the worldwide Jewish community must turn its attention. The case of the Ethiopian Jewish community must be high on the agenda of Israel and the diaspora. If Jewish federations and other diaspora institutions want to play a role in remediating the tension in Israel, funds must be allocated to help reduce the pressure on those of Ethiopian descent.

At this moment the immediate issue of police brutality must be dealt with and peace must be restored. But we dare not rest until we treat and correct all the roots of the problem.

Rabbi Jerome Epstein, who lives in Israel, is executive vice president and CEO emeritus of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.