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August 12, 2016  RSS feed
Rabbinically Speaking

Text: T T T

Nothing is simple. Everything is complicated

By Rabbi Lyn Goldstein Congregation B’nai Emmunah

I took Ethiopian Jewish teens to the Kotel (Western Wall) for the first time. They were thrilled to “touch Jerusalem.” For them, all Israel is Jerusalem. Touching the Kotel, the center of Jerusalem, was the highlight of their lives. These teens risked their very lives to make it to Israel. They were either orphans or teens whose parents could not make the difficult and dangerous journey out of Ethiopia on foot. At the Kotel, the teens were surrounded by nasty radical Jews who shouted: “Kushi, go home. We don’t want you here. You don’t belong here.”

Ethiopian culture encourages individuals to bury things that happen to them that cause pain, that hurt deeply, that wound their pride. They call it “burying it in the belly.” And there it remains, hidden from others, but throbbing in pain. They hide their pain in the belly and move forward.

A short while ago, something happened that broke through the buried belly pains. Two policemen beat Corporal Demas Fikadey for no reason. Fikadey was an Israeli soldier of Ethiopian descent. He described his feelings at the time: “There’s no way to explain the feeling … only God and I know how I felt. First of all, it’s degrading because you’re a soldier – a soldier who is serving the country. You’re giving all of yourself, and it’s degrading.” (CNN)

Someone videoed and posted the beating. And the floodgates opened. Ethiopians began sharing their buried belly pains. They began telling stories of discrimination and hateful speech. Even those who had known and worked with Ethiopians for years were shocked at the stories, horrified at the pain.

Protests erupted all over Israel. Fikadey and community leaders met with Netanyahu, after which the prime minister described how stunned he was by the video. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described Fikadey as a leader and model soldier and told CNN: “We also need to act in the realm of education in order to change the norms of society. There is a deep problem here that needs to be solved … We are fighting against it.” Discriminati on is not a part of our Jewish ethic.

President Rivlin called it a terrible wound on the body of our state. We haven’t listened closely enough.

Even before this hateful incident, Israel was moving forward to stop the hate speech and discrimination via the courts. Laws were passed saying if one was found guilty of such acts, they would be fined heavily, and the money would be given directly to the wounded soul. It is working. A number of people have been found guilty, fined significantly, and the funds have been given to the injured.

A small town put together a restrictive covenant declaring properties could not be sold or rented to Ethiopians. As soon as it was made public by a television station, there was a tremendous march including Israelis of all colors and the town mayor. The mayor forcefully declared: “This is not legal. This is not what we do or who we are.”

An Ethiopian Israeli musician entered a store to make a purchase. The shopkeeper would not sell to her. She was both astonished and tremendously hurt. Later, she indicated she had grown up in Israel – this her first experience with racism.

Most Israelis are not racist. Israel is working hard to further unity and tolerance. Ethiopian culture is now taught in schools. Seged, a crucial Ethiopian Jewish holiday, is now a national holiday. Ethiopians are not only hired in government positions, they are advancing and doing well. Many thousands of Ethiopians are in college on government scholarships. Ethiopians today are scientists, teachers, ambassadors, Knesset members, social workers, artists, ministry officials, and more.

Israel remains the only country in the world that ever entered Africa to rescue large scale groups of Africans and take them home as citizens. It is amazing how quickly Ethiopians have made the leap into Israeli society. Imagine living in a straw and mud hut with a cook fire in the middle, hooking an ox to a handmade plow, and suddenly living in the technological wonder of Israel. Despite the vast chasm between Ethiopia and Israel, Ethiopian Jews have put their intelligence, work ethic, industriousness, pride and love of Israel to work. And Israel has provided the opportunity, housing, education, and many other tools that were needed. The Ethiopians are flourishing. Sure there are problems. But there is great progress, and incredible promise.

The task is not complete. There are still 9,000 Jews languishing in Ethiopia, hoping to be reunited with their families in the near future. There are still many changes to be made in Israel. We pray an ancient Ethiopian prayer, together with the Ethiopian community:

Do not separate me O Lord,
From the Chosen,
From the joy,
From the light,
From the splendor.
Let me see O Lord,
the light of Israel
Abandon me not.

We need to be God’s hands on earth and do what we can to help answer that prayer.

The Rabbinically Speaking column is provided as a public service by the Jewish Press in cooperation with the Pinellas County Board of Rabbis. Columns are assigned on a rotating basis by the board. The views expressed in the column are those of the rabbi and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Jewish Press or the Board of Rabbis.

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