The Berhanu family at the absorption center in Mevaseret Zion, Israel Photos above and below by Ilan Ossendryer from The Ethiopian Jews of Israel.
February 21, 2008
While integrating Ethiopians into Israeli society has proven difficult, Len Lyons is convinced “there are no villains” in the complex process.
Lyons based that assessment on almost three years of interviewing olim from Ethiopia. He compiled their stories in a book, The Ethiopian Jews of Israel: Personal Stories of Life in the Promised Land.
In a talk he gave Feb. 10 in New Brunswick, Lyons spoke about the more than 50 people he interviewed and their struggles to adjust to life in Israel. They included religious leaders, musicians, soldiers, and even a member of the Knesset.
In their interviews in the book and elsewhere, the Ethiopians point to the high rates of poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, and school dropouts within the immigrant community.
“I think people on both sides are trying to do the right thing,” said Lyons to his audience at Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple. He showed photos from the book of dozens of the 110,000 Ethiopians who have come to Israel since 1977. “Trying to integrate them — that’s the only villain.”
Kess Hadane, center, an Ethiopian-Jewish spiritual leader, with two of his sons, Emanuel Hadane, left, a captain in the Israel Defense Forces, and Rabbi Yosef Hadane, chief rabbi of the Ethiopian community in Israel.
Lyons became fascinated with their cause after hosting two Ethiopian students in his Newton, Mass., home in 2004. The author of three books on jazz and two on computers, he serves on the Ethiopian Committee of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Boston.
Lyons denied assumptions that racism plays a part in the Ethiopians’ struggles and the lack of acceptance among Israelis.
The majority of Ethiopians came to Israel uneducated and illiterate even in their native language, Amharic. Their practice of Judaism — which is pre-talmudic and has no rabbinic tradition — is alien to Israel, and they needed to master their new country’s modern social, health, and welfare systems.
Adjusting to Western society has left the traditional Ethiopian family structure in disarray.
“Now they have been moved to apartment buildings in Israel that are crowded, and they don’t know their neighbors,” Lyons said. “There was a lot of culture shock. They didn’t know most Jews were white.”
An Ethiopian boy with two of his classmates in Bet Shemesh
Ethiopian women — because they are more involved with the larger society through their children’s schools — have had more success integrating and finding jobs.
Some Ethiopians have become part of mainstream society or are well on their way, said Lyons, who showed pictures of smiling children with Israeli classmates and of two religious Ethiopian boys in traditional garb reading Ethiopian holy texts.
“The Ethiopian population forces us to look at our Jewish identity,” said Lyons. “It brings up issues of Israeli pluralism and tolerance because Ethiopian Judaism is not the Judaism of you and me.”
Lyons found that for the most part, the Beta Israel, as the Ethiopians are known, are trying to fit into Israeli society. Few have regrets about coming.
“They really do care about each other. They want to stay on track for succeeding…,” said Lyons. “I have great reason for optimism.”
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