Jewish Tribune Article: "Ethiopian Jews In Israel"

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Jewish Tribune - Ethiopian Jews

Written by Arthur Wolak
Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Steven KaplanVANCOUVER – Professor Steven Kaplan discussed Ethiopian Jews: A Part of the People or Apart from the People to an enthusiastic audience recently during The Best of Hebrew U’s Stretch Your Mind weekend sponsored by the Canadian Friends of Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

An expert on Ethiopia and its various communities, Kaplan considered housing, education and religious issues facing Ethiopians in Israel.

Jewish influence on Ethiopian culture is irrefutable, claims Kaplan, who mentioned that the days of the week in Amharic (Ethiopia’s official language) uses numbers for its days, just like in Hebrew, except for Friday, which is "Arb" in Amharic, like "Erev,” which is “evening” in Hebrew, in this case before Shabbat. He also pointed out similar cultural characteristics among the Ethiopian Christians, including circumcision of boys on about the eighth day, resting on Saturday, and avoiding eating pork.

Most Ethiopian Jews came to Israel as part of the government’s rescue efforts in 1984-85’s Operation Moses and 1991’s Operation Solomon. About 40,000 Ethiopian Jews arrived during these major airlifts. Since 1991 another 45,000 Ethiopians settled in Israel. During this period another 45,000 Ethiopian Israelis were born in Israel. At 130,000 out of a general population of 7 million citizens, Ethiopians remain numerically small.

Nonetheless, Kaplan maintains, what happens to this small minority community will prove “disproportionately important,” because they are a visible minority so any failures in their aliyah and settlement process will “reverberate in Israeli society.” Hence, how the Ethiopians are absorbed, he says, “is a major test” for Israel “beyond what the numbers would indicate.”  

Housing was a major challenge. The Israeli government gradually initiated housing programs – with housing grants covering roughly 90 per cent, and mortgage plans to be paid for the rest – and wanted to avoid placing new immigrants along the periphery of the country or in any single town or neighbourhood, encouraging quicker acculturation. However, the ’84-’85 immigration plan was based on 30,000 immigrants, so when the number nearly tripled, the plan proved unsuccessful.

Ethiopians wanted to reside near family, which meant more densely populated communities such as Kiryat Malachi near Ashkelon and the Kiryat Moshe neighbourhood in Rehovot.  

Education was another challenge. The Israeli government decided to put Ethiopian immigrant students into the national religious school system because young immigrants could get a better sense of Hebrew and Judaism and help make their integration easier.

However, the national religious schools were told in the last minute to absorb largely illiterate immigrants. Operation Solomon, for example, occurred at the end of May so schools had to be ready just a few months later to absorb 7,000 new students, “most of whom don’t know how to read and write, certainly most of whom don’t know any Hebrew.” Kaplan concedes, “Tremendous credit should go to the national religious schools, which tried to deal with this very difficult situation.”

Considering religion, marriage was less of a concern than divorce. According to rabbinic law, if Ethiopians had not divorced properly, then a key issue was mamzerim (questionable offspring).

“The rabbis came up with two very creative solutions," notes Kaplan, either not recognizing the marriages or accept that divorce was rare in Ethiopia. They favoured the latter reducing the potential for mamzerim. This largely resolved the Jewish status issue, while those who came to Israel after 1991 had to undergo full conversions because of questions surrounding their current Jewish status.

In Kaplan’s view, one question determines whether Ethiopians are part of Israeli society or not. “Who do they marry? If they marry other Israelis, then they are part of [Israeli] society” because, in Israel, there are no intermarriages between religious groups. Jews marry Jews. Christians marry Christians. Muslims marry Muslims.

According to Kaplan, about 5 per cent of Ethiopians marry non-Ethiopians. However, the current trend is for educated Ethiopian Jewish women to marry non-Ethiopian Jewish men. “If that’s the test,” suggests Kaplan, “then there are very positive trends taking place” in Israeli society.

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