I’m Proud to Be a Black Jew

The Village of Beta Israel in Kiryat Gat is an educational initiative of the Hanani AssociationIlan Assayag

There’s a straight line connecting the Chief Rabbinate’s treatment of members of the Ethiopian community, as we saw in the case of the Barkan Winery, and the cabinet’s ignoring of government resolution no. 716, which was accepted in 2015 and called for allowing the remaining Ethiopian Jews, who had been waiting for the past 20 years, to immigrate to Israel and reunite with their families.

At the end of 2017 the Israeli chief rabbi of Ethiopian Jewry, Rabbi Reuven Wabashat, visited the Jewish community in Ethiopia. In an opinion he published afterwards, Wabashat emphasized the strict adherence to halakha (religious law) and to the commandments of Judaism by those waiting to immigrate. He recommended speeding up the immigration of the remaining members of two Jewish communities, in Gondar and in Addis Ababa.

Last June there was a cabinet meeting in which the ministers were supposed to decide to bring in 8,000 Jews who are waiting in the camps of Addis and Gondar. But they made no such decision and set no date for further discussion of the subject. Why? The cabinet still believes that the Jewish identity of our families waiting in the camps is in doubt, just as the ultra-Orthodox rabbis believe.

Does it surprise anyone that the cabinet and Chief Rabbinate are in lock step with each other? That’s despite the fact that over 70 percent of the families in the camps in Ethiopia have first-degree relatives in Israel, despite the fact that these are people who lead a religious lifestyle, and despite the opinion of the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of Shas, who didn’t doubt their Jewishness. That’s despite the fact that people have been on the lists of the Jewish community since 1999, and despite the fact that these are the same people who left their villages 20 years ago in order to move to Israel, like me. But for some reason I was allowed to immigrate and they were not.

We are Ethiopian Jewry and we represent it with pride, despite the anti-Semitism we experienced for generations, and despite the racism that we are experiencing here in Israel. We counted seven generations back in order to marry Jews and in order to preserve our Jewishness. Nobody can erase our Jewish identity. I’m writing this with great anger. I’m not angry only for myself, but in general – nobody is allowed to decide which Jew is more Jewish and which one is less so.

I’m proud to be a black Jew. When I was a young boy, the children of the village called us names like “Kayla” and “Falasha” just because we were Jews. These epithets mean “a stranger without a country.” Yes, we were strangers for 2,000 years, Jews without Jerusalem and without the Land of Israel. Sometimes, because of the names they called us, we would fight with the other children. When the adults found out they would get angry at the children and the entire village would embark on a battle with the Christian neighbors. Nobody can take these memories away from me.

Each year the State of Israel absorbs thousands of Jews from all over the world. Each year the country invests money on public diplomacy and tries to persuade Jews from Europe and the United States to come to live in Israel. So why doesn’t it allow 8,000 black Jews, who have been torn away from their families for over 20 years, to reunite with their relatives? The answer is clear – racism, on the part of both the cabinet and the religious establishment.

I demand of the Israeli government – Interior Minister Arye Dery and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – to stop delaying the fulfillment of the government’s promises and to enable my relatives to immigrate to Israel. I call on them, in the name of all the suffering families, to implement Government Resolution no. 716 and in doing so to put an end to the tears of thousands of Israeli mothers, who cannot live with their sons and daughters.

Kassahun Shiferaw is a social activist and a field worker in the struggle to bring Ethiopian Jews to Israel.

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