As an African Israeli, I find claims of state racism against Falash Mura outrageous

“We are committed to helping ensure that the State of Israel welcomes Jews of all colors.”

“We say, we have black lives that matter in Africa.”

“In America, race has been a central area of Jewish concern historically.”

These are all statements that have been made in the course of a well-orchestrated public relations campaign to hasten the implementation of an Israeli government decision, reached in 2105, allowing the immigration of a number of Ethiopian citizens. These Ethiopians claim Jewish lineage as Falash Mura, descendants of converts to Christianity, and family ties to Ethiopian Jews.

While the Israeli Cabinet decided that members of the community be brought to Israel, and this week sent a senior official to Ethiopia to begin implementing that decision, advocates for the community protest that the process has been delayed.

As the statements cited above clearly show, the campaign has become steeped in the language of the struggle against racism. The dog-whistle message of this language is unmistakable: “Israel is delaying the implementation of this decision because the people in question are black. Had they been white, they would have long been living in Israel.”

In an op-ed for JTA, and in remarks to journalists and community leaders, one of the leaders of the campaign, Dr. David Elcott, left the unequivocal impression that the question is one of racial discrimination.

I also met with Dr. Elcott, who presented his initiative as an heir to the civil rights movement. I was consumed with anger, literally unable to sleep for several days. I was surprised by the intensity of my emotional reaction. After all, having represented Israel in diplomatic missions across the world for over 10 years, I had already become accustomed to hearing many such calumnies against the Jewish state.

So why was I so enraged by this one?

It eventually dawned on me that I was outraged not as an Israeli but as an African. My own father came to Israel from Africa with the Ghana Embassy in 1965, at the height of the “love affair” being rekindled today between the Jewish state and the African continent. On the eve of the Six-Day War of 1967, my father threw in his lot with the embattled Jewish nation and was subsequently witness to its miraculous salvation. He went on to convert to Judaism, join the Israeli army and make Israel his one and only home.

Always having been proud of my African heritage and lineage, I was incensed by the assumption implicit in the racial tenor of this campaign: “If it involves Africans, it’s probably about race. Race is, after all, the essential, defining property of Africans, isn’t it?”

The racial framing of their supporters’ campaign is not only in language but in argument. Advocates have claimed that Israel is applying a standard to black Africans that it did not apply to Europeans who were welcomed as olim even when questions arose about their Jewish lineage. This is simply and factually false. The one and only criterion for making aliyah, which in Israel is a legally binding term, is the Law of Return. It speaks not of being a Jew according to halachah, or rabbinic law, but of having been born to a Jewish grandparent. The law has always applied and will always apply equally and unwaveringly to any human being – of any race and of any persuasion.

The fact that the government of Israel has had to make, and is in the process of implementing, a special ad hoc humanitarian decision to facilitate the immigration of these communities in the first place is precisely because the Africans were found not to meet the criteria for aliyah set out in the Law of Return. Nonetheless, in view of the hardships they face and on account of family ties to Jews in Israel, the Israeli government unanimously decided to facilitate the naturalization of people from these communities and even grant them full benefits as olim.

This demonstrates that Israel is not less sensitive to the community in Ethiopia, but in fact more sensitive to their plight than to that of any other such group in the world. Once this fact is obfuscated, the spotlight turns naturally and unjustly to the question of race.

Moreover, in the public debate in Israel over the Falash Mura and their relations, the staunchest voices against their immigration were often those of Ethiopian Jews. They complained that Ethiopian Christians, who had come to Israel by claiming Jewish lineage, had no intention of identifying as Jews and were even continuing to use the same anti-Semitic slurs against the Ethiopian Jews – “Falasha” and “Buda’” – as they had done in Ethiopia. Some even reported attempts by such groups to convert Ethiopian Jews to Christianity.

One can criticize these voices for holding the many responsible for actions of the few and for bearing longstanding grudges. Indeed, it is to the great credit of the Israeli government that it decided to allow immigration from Gondar and Addis despite the accusations. But the objections of Ethiopian Israelis belie the notion that the question at hand is one of white versus black.

To continue portraying the issue as one of race is symptomatic of a difficulty to see Africans outside the prism of skin color. In the year-and-a-half since I came to the United States, for every day of which I am truly grateful, I have encountered this attitude on numerous occasions, an experience not always pleasant. At so many dinner tables, speaking engagements and social gatherings, I have been met with  incredulous stares and blinking eyes.

“Aren’t you going to talk about your ‘background’?” the question rings time and again.

For some in the U.S., there is something inherently puzzling about an African Jew discussing, say, Middle Eastern geopolitics and not making any reference to race relations. Again, it is assumed, if there is an African involved, it must somehow relate to race.

To be clear, I am not ascribing this attitude to straightforward racism. More often than not, the positions articulated toward me qua “racial issues” are supportive and sympathetic. But that does not make any less alienating the perception that everything I do, everything I am involved in and everything that concerns me must somehow be in the context of race. Even in the case of the current campaign for those claiming to be Falash Mura, one of its advocates, while trying to exhort me to come on board, quoted from the Book of Esther, saying “maybe this is the moment for which you got to where you are.”

Really? I thought to myself.  The culmination of my diplomatic career necessarily predicated on the color of my skin?

The desire of American Jews to see the implementation of a humane and compassionate decision by the government of Israel is a noble one. Their campaign is welcome and praiseworthy. Jews in America are and must always see themselves as stakeholders in the Jewish state and as rightful partners in its decision-making process. This government decision, as well as others, must certainly be followed through with effective and determined action. The 50 rabbis and community leaders who initially attached their names to a petition on the Ethiopians’ behalf, several of whom I know and cherish, were expressing the best of the ethical legacy of Judaism. This campaign could be a true blessing to the community and to the State of Israel.

But wrongly invoking racial conflict, misappropriating the language of the the struggle for racial justice in America and insinuating that the decisions of the Israeli government are informed by racism are harmful, hurtful and unjust. Propagating the perception that Israel is on the wrong side of the fight against racism introduces a toxin into the relations between American and Israeli Jews — a toxin that will take many years to expunge. Who can expect young American Jews to want anything to do with Israel if they are systematically led to believe it is racist?

Moreover, such language threatens to taint and discredit a cause that could otherwise be a beautiful example of the sincere and caring conversation within the Jewish people.

The implementation of the Israeli government’s concerning remnants of the Falash Mura community with family ties to Israel will continue, and so must the campaign supporting it. But for the sake of all of us, let us not make this one a question of race.

Shimon Mercer-Wood is spokesman and consul for media affairs at the Consulate General of Israel in New York.

Netanyahu makes landmark visit to Ethiopia

Benjamin Netanyahu became the first Israeli prime minister to visit Ethiopia.

Netanyahu met Thursday morning at the national palace with Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn. The prime ministers and their delegations discussed ways to increase bilateral cooperation on a series of issues including water, agriculture, communications, tourism and education. Agreements were signed in science, technology and tourism.

In response to a question, Netanyahu said, “I am proud of Ethiopian Jews’ contribution in Israel. They constitute a living link with Ethiopia and Africa. It starts with our ambassador who is here and also the fact that I brought lawmakers [Avraham] Neguise and [Penina] Tamanu-Shata, who represent this link.”


Neguise, of Netanyahu’s Likud party, met Thursday morning with two local Jewish leaders, Melese Sedeto of Addis Ababa and Ambanesh Tekeba of Gondar, at the Israeli delegation’s hotel, and expressed disappointment to The Times of Israel that Netanyahu had not scheduled a tour of Jewish institutions or meetings with representatives of Ethiopia’s Jewish community.

Neguise came to Israel from Ethiopia in 1985 and entered the Knesset last year. He is the chairman of the parliament’s Immigration and Absorption Committee.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu denied reports that that there had been an attempt on his life while visiting Kenya during his five-day, four-nation trip to Africa. He said he heard about the assassination attempt during his news conference in Ethiopia, according to The Associated Press.

Kenyan officials also denied a report of an assassination attempt, AP reported. The report first appeared in a Kuwaiti paper, Al-Jarida, quoting an anonymous source.

Labour court: Ethiopian rabbis suffered salary discrimination

Ethiopian rabbis and religious leaders suffered salary discrimination, an Israeli labor court ruled.

The rabbis and kesim – a traditional Jewish Ethiopian religious leader, will receive $13,000 in compensation from the Israeli government and some plaintiffs also will receive a pension that kicks in the day they retire, the Beersheba Regional Labor Court ruled Monday, according to reports.

The court found that both the government and the local religious councils were discriminatory against the 16 plaintiffs.

Last month, the government’s Religious Affairs Ministry said it would not extend the tenure of the Ethiopian community’s chief rabbi, Yosef Hadane, when he turned 67, the mandatory retirement age, next month. However, other rabbis have been granted automatic extensions once they reach retirement age.  The forced retirement reportedly was over the rabbi’s criticism of racial discrimination by the Chief Rabbinate against Israelis of Ethiopian descent, in particular his protest of their difficulties in registering for marriage in Petach Tikvah. Days later the decision was overturned by the ministry, which extended his tenure by six months, with the explanation that it would ensure uninterrupted service to the Ethiopian community.

Ethiopian chief rabbi in Israel to stay in post following reports of forced retirement

Israel said it would extend the contract of the Ethiopian community’s chief rabbi by six months a day after reports that he would be forced into retirement.

The Religious Affairs Ministry’s CEO, Oded Fluss, wrote to Rabbi Yosef Hadane telling him that his three-decades long tenure would continue until February at the request of Religious Affairs Minister David Azoulay, Army Radio reported Tuesday. Hadane’s contract had been set to expire at the end of July.

The extension is to ensure uninterrupted service to the Ethiopian community, Fluss reportedly wrote.

Army Radio first reported on Monday, citing unnamed senior officials in the Religious Affairs Ministry, that the decision not to extend Hadane’s service came in response to his criticism of racial discrimination by the Chief Rabbinate against Israelis of Ethiopian descent, in particular his protest of their difficulties in registering for marriage in Petach Tikvah.

Hadane will be 67, the mandatory retirement age, next month. However, other rabbis have been granted automatic extensions once they reach retirement age.

The story of Ethiopian Jews in Israel

Within the past two weeks, Ethiopian Jews in Israel have engaged in public protests in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv against racial discrimination. The protests were  ignited by a physical attack on an Ethiopian-Jewish Israeli soldier, who at the time was in uniform, by Israeli police officers. Much misinformation, including the coverage by the media, surrounded the situation. 

In particular, it was misrepresented that racial discrimination against Ethiopian Jews is a recent trend and that Ethiopian Jews are voicing frustration at being unable to assimilate and obtain success in Israeli society after having come to Israel for a better material life. Those story lines are simply untrue. Ethiopian Jews are not in Israel for material considerations, and the very real problem of racial discrimination by Jews against fellow Jews is an old problem, not a recent one. 

What is true is that racial discrimination by Jews against fellow Jews is a problem within Israel — one that Judaism demands be eradicated completely and immediately. 

The means for its eradication are twofold: education and legislation.

How long has the problem of racial discrimination by Jews against fellow Jews existed in Israeli society? The Torah commands that each Jew love all other Jews as equally as him or herself. And our rabbis teach us that the destruction of the Temple, and the long night of exile, were caused by baseless hatred of Jews toward fellow Jews. One would think Jews would have some time ago fully imbibed the need for baseless love of one’s fellow Jew.

Unfortunately, Jewish history disappoints. 

World Jewry became aware of Ethiopian Jewry in the 18th century. Scottish explorer James Bruce traveled the Nile River to locate its source. He arrived in Ethiopia, discovered its Jews and returned to Europe to relate his discoveries. However, instead of Jewish outreach, Ethiopian Jews became inundated with missionaries. World Jewry’s outreach to Ethiopian Jewry commenced only a century later, in the latter half of the 19th century, with Joseph Halevy and then his student, Jacques Faitlovitch, who reunited Ethiopian Jewry with world Jewry in the early 20th century.  However, the aliyah of Ethiopian Jewry was not fully realized until decades later, and only after thousands of Ethiopian Jews had sacrificed their lives en route to and in refugee camps in Sudan, in the effort to make aliyah. (Their righteous memory will be observed on May 17.) In fact, Ethiopian Jewry first began the Zionist effort under the spiritual leadership of the true first Zionist, Abba Mahari, in the 1860s. Why did Ethiopian Jewry’s aliyah occur decades later? Racial discrimination was a significant factor. 

Ethiopian Jews do recognize that American Jewry was strongly supportive in helping to realize Ethiopian Jewry’s dream of aliyah, as well as the joyful and loving welcome Ethiopian Jews received by Israelis upon arriving in Israel. 

But most importantly, the sacrifice of Ethiopian Jewry in its commitment to make aliyah was entirely a deep, spiritual quest, not one for material consideration, as it is often misreported. Such misreporting is a grave insult to Ethiopian Jewry.  The sacrifice paid by Ethiopian Jews to reach Jerusalem is immeasurable. For Ethiopian Jews, making aliyah meant monetary loss, miles of dangerous travel on foot, physical and psychological trauma, loss of human dignity and heritage, and the ultimate sacrifice — the loss of life. 

The racial discrimination problem about which the recent protests were held is, sadly, the same continuing problem of racial discrimination, and not the difficulties presented by immigration. The protesters were overwhelmingly young Israeli Jews of Ethiopian ancestry. The protesters are people who were born in Israel, speak Hebrew as their primary language and are culturally integrated into Israeli society. Many in the Ethiopian-Jewish community in Israel have achieved professional success in various industries, including as lawyers, educators, doctors, artists, journalists, social workers, diplomats, Knesset members and officers throughout each branch of Israel’s military, among other endeavors.

The first steps in solving the problem require public education and legislation. A vigorous public education campaign that accurately enlightens the Israeli public about the Ethiopian-Jewish community, its history, its contributions to society, its survival through strength, faith, bravery and ahavat Yisra’el chinam (unconditional love), needs to be organized and administered by Ethiopian Jews with the government of Israel’s participation.  

This education must be directed at all levels of Israeli society. This will help eliminate the misconception that Ethiopian Jews came to Israel simply for a better material life without offering society anything in exchange. Administrative control of this educational program by Ethiopian Jews will provide the necessary oversight to ensure that the effort is undertaken effectively, resulting in a positive impact in eradicating baseless hatred. 

Legislation would also be helpful to ensure that racial discrimination prevention and remedies are speedily and easily enforced. 

Our enemies make no distinction between us. Baseless hate must be eradicated  among Jews because we are commanded to love one another as ourselves, and we share a common fate and are bound together by Torah.

Habtnesh Ezra is a member of the Ethiopian-Jewish community and a health care consultant in private practice in Beverly Hills. She can be reached at

Gunmen kill 28 in northeast Kenya bus attack

Attackers ambushed a bus and killed 28 people early on Saturday in northeast Kenya, police and the Ministry of Interior said.

It was not immediately clear who the attackers were.

“Bandits ambushed a bus from Mandera that was heading to Nairobi at dawn and killed 28 passengers of the 60 that were in the bus,” the ministry said on its Twitter feed.

Police Spokesman Masoud Mwinyi confirmed the incident.

The government-run National Disaster Operations Centre said on its Twitter feed that the attack took place some 30 km from the town of Mandera.

Tensions have escalated in Mandera County, near the border with Ethiopia and Somalia, in the past year as clashes between clans have displaced hundreds of people.

The region is awash with guns due to its proximity to Somalia, where al Shabaab has been fighting to topple the government, and Ethiopia, from where the armed Oromo Liberation Front has made incursions into Kenya.

The attack underscores fears over the lack of security, especially in the remote parts of northern Kenya.

In early November, gunmen killed 20 police officers and two police reservists in an ambush in Turkana county in the northwest of Kenya.

Ethiopia-born model wins Israel’s ‘Big Brother’

An Ethiopia-born model won the fifth season of Israel’s “Big Brother” reality show.

Tahunia Rubel, 25, won the 1 million shekel prize, worth about $274,000, becoming the second woman to win on the show.

Many conflicts surrounded Rubel, including some dealing with race and ethnic identity. Some of the racial conflict reportedly caused two other contestants, a father and son, to be disqualified.

Earlier this year, an Ethiopian immigrant to Israel, Yityish Titi Aynam, 21, was crowned Miss Israel.

MKI: Mending kids in need

There was a 3 percent chance that the mole on 16-year-old Jacob Rubio’s forehead, which he had had since birth, might turn cancerous. When his mother, Juliann Castillo, noticed some lumps in it, she grew worried and requested a surgery to have it removed.

But Medi-Cal considered the procedure cosmetic and denied it, and Castillo, who is on disability, could not afford to pay for it herself, she said.

Then, on July 20, Jacob received the surgery he needed at no cost, thanks to a collaboration between the Burbank-based nonprofit Mending Kids International (MKI) and Cedars-Sinai. He was one of 18 children who benefited from surgeons who volunteered their time and $50,000 in donations for supplies.

Called a “hometown mission,” because it took place in the United States — MKI usually transports doctors abroad — this event served both domestic and international patients. MKI flew kids in from El Salvador, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guatemala and Kenya to undergo procedures at Cedars. 

MKI Executive Director Marchelle Sellers said the organization, which provides surgeries to children worldwide and has in the past brought foreign children to Cedars for treatment, had been questioned in the past about not helping kids in the United States who also need help.

“When we started looking around, we realized that was true. Kids were falling through the cracks,” she said. 

It’s hard to deny the need, even for some families who have insurance. One family helped by the inaugural hometown mission was unable to pay the $5,000 deductible required before their insurance would cover a procedure.

Children from other countries generally are referred to the program by parents, missionaries or visiting medical professionals. During their time in the Los Angeles area, the children stayed with host families who accompanied them to appointments and cared for them before and after their procedures, which were either cosmetic or urological.

Jacob and his mother, who live in Bell Gardens in Los Angeles County, were driven to the surgery and necessary appointments by an MKI sponsor, who helped them through the entire surgical process.

Dr. David Kulber, director of Cedars’ Center for Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery and a volunteer with the hometown mission, said the event was partly to give MKI donors a chance to see the organization in action. He called his work with MKI and other charitable foundations “the most gratifying thing I have done as a physician.”

Kulber said one of the biggest challenges is gaining the trust of children from other countries who may be experiencing culture shock after coming to the United States to receive their surgeries. 

“That’s the real challenge … to get them to trust you,” he said. “It’s really about building trust with the child.

“The beauty of medicine is we all speak the same language: It’s about the human body and how to fix it. … [This] trumps any other cultural differences we may have.”

Kulber belongs to Valley Beth Shalom in Encino and believes that his Jewish background has affected his medical philosophy.

“Treating everyone equally without any prejudice is a lot of what Judaism is about,” he said.

Although MKI provides all kinds of surgeries, including cardiac and craniofacial, the July 20 event focused on cosmetic and urological outpatient procedures. Performing these surgeries in the context of MKI can present challenges. 

Dr. Andrew Freedman, director of pediatric urology at Cedars, said many urological procedures traditionally depend on having access to a catheter. If those will not be available to children when they return to other countries, then he must arrange for their drainage to be different. 

“You’re relying on people who work in a very different system. … We can’t put them in a situation where, if something goes wrong, they will get really sick right away.” 

Freedman said he is grateful that MKI is generally “very sensitive” to follow-up issues and he looks forward to more such missions in the future.

“Helping complete strangers from the other side of the world … is very consistent with your Jewish values,” he said. “We hope this becomes a recurring event.”

The procedures may be cosmetic, but many of them will have enormous impacts on children’s lives. One patient could not move an arm because of contractures from burn scars. One boy, who is returning for his second surgery with MKI, had tumors removed from his hands so that he could regain some use of his fingers. 

The tumors and lumps removed from patients often were uncomfortable rather than dangerous, but as in Jacob’s case, the lumps must be removed and biopsied to know for sure.

Addelyn Del Cid, a 6-month-old dressed in pink and sparkling dot earrings, was brought by her family to remove a lump on her leg. Follow-up tests determined that she has a rare condition that currently poses no threat. The family said they would have been unable to afford the procedure otherwise.

The benefits of an MKI procedure can transcend the medical results. 

“We have a boy coming in who has a mass growing on [his] ear, but he is going into kindergarten. … His mom is just desperate for someone to remove it so he does not have to face a childhood of bullying,” MKI’s Sellers said. “Literally an hour in the operating room is the difference between having a normal childhood and one that would be filled with constant teasing.”

Such was the case with Jacob.

“He got bullied a lot,” his mother said, remembering classmates and even family members taunting him about his birthmark.

Castillo is glad that she will not have to spend her entire life worrying that her son might be sick — the biopsy found that Jacob’s mole was benign.

“I am just grateful and blessed we [had] this opportunity,” Castillo said.

Study: Ethiopian women in Israel have fewer children

A Knesset study commissioned after accusations that Ethiopian women waiting to come to Israel were given contraceptive injections against their will shows they had far fewer children than the country’s average.

The study conducted by the Knesset Research and Information Center could not, however, confirm that the women were given the contraceptive shot Depo-Provera without their consent, according to Haaretz, as an Israeli television report alleged.

In the past decade, births among Ethiopian women in Israel have fallen by nearly 50 percent, according to the report.

The study reported that the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee provided family planning courses to the women in transit camps prior to their immigration to Israel. The courses were not supervised by the Israeli government, according to the study.

A Dec. 8 report broadcast on the “Vacuum” investigative news program on Israeli Educational Television alleged that Ethiopian immigrants were coerced or coaxed into receiving Depo-Provera, a long-term contraceptive that lasts three months, by Jewish aid officials in transit camps in Gondar before their immigration to Israel and health workers in Israel.

In mid-January, the Health Ministry instructed doctors to stop administering the shots unless women ask for them and understand their ramifications.

Ethiopian aliyah to end Aug. 28, Jewish Agency says

The Jewish Agency is preparing to end mass aliyah from Ethiopia with two final flights consisting of 400 immigrants on Aug. 28.

The Jewish Agency emissary to Ethiopia, Asher Seyum, made the announcement in a brief letter, saying the Jewish Agency will hand over its aid compounds in the Ethiopian city of Gondar to local authorities at the end of August.

For years the compounds — originally established by the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry and only recently taken over by the Jewish Agency — provided thousands of Ethiopians waiting to immigrate to Israel with educational, nutritional and some employment services.

Once the final flights are complete, Ethiopians wishing to immigrate to Israel will be subject to the same rules as potential immigrants from elsewhere in the world and considered on a case-by-case basis, a New York-based spokesman for the Jewish Agency told JTA.

A steady trickle of approximately 200 Ethiopian immigrants per month has been coming to Israel since 2010, when the government decided to check the aliyah eligibility of an additional 8,000 or so Ethiopians.

The petitioners are known as Falash Mura — Ethiopians who claim links to descendants of Jews who converted to Christianity generations ago but who now seek to return to Judaism and immigrate to Israel. They have been accepted to Israel under  different rules than those governing other immigrants.

The Israeli government has declared an official end to mass Ethiopian immigration several times. Each time, however, aliyah from Ethiopia resumed after pressure by advocates.

In August 2008, for example, the Israeli government declared mass Ethiopian immigration over only to reverse course several months later and agree to check the aliyah eligibility of 3,000 additional Ethiopians.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in May 2009 that those would be the last Ethiopians to be checked en masse, but that decision was reversed in 2010, opening the door for this latest group of immigrants.

Calling the decision to end Ethiopian aliyah “sensitive and complex,” Seyum acknowledged pressure from the Ethiopian community in Israel for the aliyah to continue but said he was bound by the government’s decision to end it.

Under his implementation of the government’s 2010 decision, Seyum said, more than 6,500 Ethiopians have immigrated to Israel.

From ‘scared child’ to Miss Israel

When Yitayish “Titi” Ayenew, the first black Miss Israel, was a young orphan who moved from Ethiopia to Israel, it was learning the Hebrew language that turned around her fortunes.

“Then, I was a scared child,” Ayenew, 22, told students at Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County, NJ, this month. “I did not know what would be my future, or that I would do the things I am doing today. For me, an inner change occurred when I overcame the obstacle of learning Hebrew. I am in control of my destiny—everything is possible. My life is entirely different, both because of the things I have done and now, knowing what I want to do.”

Crowned Miss Israel in February, Ayenew, the first woman from Ethiopia to hold the title, said in an interview with, “Being Miss Israel is a responsibility I take seriously.”

Ayenew’s heavily scheduled visit to the U.S. from June 9-14 included speaking engagements, fundraising events, and time with celebrities of the Jewish world. She told her trip was “a wonderful opportunity to meet with many people.”

On June 14 at Solomon Schechter in New Milford, NJ, Ayenew recounted her journey from a small village in Ethiopia to the state of Israel, which she described as “a modern place, with modern schools, where one is expected to be part of a modern society.”

Ayenew grew up in a Zionist family in Ethiopia.

“We always felt we belonged in Israel and were eager to get there,” she told the Solomon Schechter students. Ayenew’s grandparents immigrated to Israel in 2000, and her parents had expected to join them, but both of them died. Ten-year-old Yitayish and her brother were cared for by their aunt, and two years later, they arrived in Israel with the help of the Jewish Agency for Israel. They lived with their grandmother in Netanya.

Asked to recall her thoughts upon arriving in Israel, Ayenew told the students, “The first thing I wanted was to learn Hebrew, and of course to get to my grandmother’s home. It was challenging for me and for all the other olim (immigrants).  Remember, I was speaking Amharic and had to learn Hebrew quickly and well—inside and out!”

In the Israel Defense Forces, Ayenew supervised a unit of army police charged with maintaining border checkpoints outside of Jerusalem. Her soldiers screened Palestinians and Israelis going in and out of the country.

“It’s a very responsible job,” she said. “The safety of Israel is dependent on security inspections. Young people have to learn to check for anything that could be a problem.”  That “wasn’t easy,” she said.

“I recommend that each of you go to the [Israeli] army,” she advised the students. “In addition to serving Israel, it is a place for personal growth. I learned things in the IDF I could not learn in any other place.  By 21, I had faced so many challenges, I am prepared for anything that may come… and now, I have to learn English, too!”

Addressing the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement and those who characterize Israel as an apartheid state, Ayenew said those critics of Israel “speak about things they do not know.”

“They have not been in Israel and think the way we do things is negative,” Ayenew told “I can say what Israel is for me is how Israel accepted me, educated me, gave me all the options to do all that I want to do.”  

“I was without mother, without parents, with nothing,” she added. “We were welcomed, loved, offered every opportunity to dream and to succeed. Without Israel, I would have been in a village somewhere, probably a mother by now, with no education, no dreams.”

Ayenew’s Miss Israel crown was not the first major accomplishment for Ethiopian women who have immigrated to the Jewish state. In a period of three decades, like women from other ethnic communities in Israel, Ethiopian women have reached virtually every level of Israeli society, including the officer corps of the IDF, respected positions in academic institutions, diplomatic roles, and the Knesset.

But not every immigrant in Israel—from whatever origin—is successful in his or her adopted home. To enhance the opportunities for the children of Netanya, the city where she was raised with her grandmother and which is now home to the largest number of Ethiopian immigrants in Israel, Ayenew has partnered with the Netanya Foundation to raise awareness about its Ezorim project, which provides a community center offering after-school activities including sports, music, art, and dance.

“It takes the kids off the streets,” Shlomi Waroner, CEO of the Netanya Foundation, who accompanied Ayenew on her U.S. tour, told

Ayenew has returned to Ethiopia twice. Her first trip, three years ago, was a private family visit. Soon after her triumph in the Miss Israel contest this year, she traveled there again, this time with an Israeli news team that documented her journey. During this second visit, she successfully arranged for the aliyah of her cousin who had been left behind in Ethiopia.

“Part of being Jewish is being in the state of Israel,” she told the Solomon Schechter students, with visible emotion. “To be a Jew is to keep the tradition, to continue to be who we are. I am proud to be a Jew.”

African-Israeli Splash

When Yityish Aynaw emigrated from Ethiopia to Israel at age 12, she was thrust into an Israeli classroom. An orphan lacking Hebrew skills, Aynaw says she relied on other kids and her own sheer ambition to get through.

Ten years later, Aynaw, 22, is the first Ethiopian-Israeli to be crowned Miss Israel — a title she hopes to use to showcase Israel’s diversity.

“Israel really accepts everybody,” she said. “That I was chosen proves it.”

Ethiopian and other African-Israelis have historically struggled with poverty and integration. But recently, several African-Israeli women have made a pop culture splash.

Along with Aynaw, Ethiopian-Israeli actress Ester Rada, 28, has just released her first solo rock record to positive reviews. And Ahtaliyah Pierce, a 17-year-old Black Hebrew Israeli, reached the semifinals on Israel’s edition of “The Voice,” a reality show in which emerging singers compete.

Although their personal stories diverge, each woman has experienced challenges as an African immigrant and wants to use her fame to help other African immigrants better integrate into Israeli society.

“It’s hard for Ethiopians to adapt, but they should be who they are, be the best that they can be,” said Rada, who was born in Jerusalem to Ethiopian parents who spoke Amharic at home. “Don’t let others keep you down or make you feel like we don’t belong.”

Rada’s parents stayed close to their Ethiopian roots, eating traditional foods and listening to traditional music. But Rada rebelled. She refused to speak Amharic and failed to understand why she should feel tied to a country she had never seen and did not understand.

In recent years, the resistance has softened. Ethiopian culture “is a part of me and I can’t run away from it,” Rada said. “I decided to embrace it. And it’s helped me define who I am, in my culture and in my music.”

Aynaw says it’s important for Israelis to see the positive side of the Ethiopian community. She compares the effect of her winning Miss Israel to Barack Obama’s election as president of the United States. The two met at the Israeli president’s residence during Obama’s recent trip to the region.

“There are wonderful things about the [Ethiopian] community, and it’s important that [Israelis] see it,” she said. “Israel is a multicultural state. We’re diverse and we come from different countries, so we need to show that outwardly.”

Rada and Pierce report incidents of racism directed at them because of their skin color. A woman once accused Rada of coming to Israel only for the money. And Pierce says in her hometown of Dimona, she used to be called “kushi,” a Hebrew pejorative used to describe blacks.

“There are many stigmas about the community, and unfortunate stories,” said Hava Tizazu, an Ethiopian-Israeli actress who works with at-risk African youth. “Now there are new personalities who are beautiful and positive. It helps to change the image, but it’s just one step in a longer process.”

Since she advanced to the semifinals on “The Voice,” Pierce says the slurs have all but stopped. She was voted off the show in March, but like Rada she hopes to keep performing after her army service.

“I want to be on stage,” Pierce said. “It doesn’t matter if I’m modeling, singing or acting. I have to be on stage.”

Aynaw also hopes to model and act, and to support youth arts clubs during her year as Miss Israel. She will represent Israel at the Miss World competition in September in Indonesia.

“I feel like a very important person,” Aynaw said. “I don’t usually get up and see myself on all of the TV channels. I’m definitely getting used to it.” 

First Miss Israel of Ethiopian descent to dine with Obama

Yityish Aynaw, the first Miss Israel of Ethiopian descent, has been invited to meet President Obama at a dinner hosted by President Shimon Peres.

Aynaw, 21, who was crowned two weeks ago, reportedly was invited at the behest of Obama's advance team, which is currently in Israel putting the finishing touches on plans for next week's visit.

In interviews with the Israeli media on Wednesday, Aynaw called Obama an inspiration and a role model.

“For me, he is a role model who broke down barriers, a source of inspiration that proves that every person really can reach any height, regardless of their religion, race or gender,” she told the Israeli daily Yediot Acharonot.

She told the Jerusalem Post that she thought she was invited to the dinner because she is “the first black Miss Israel to be chosen and [Obama] is the first black American president. These go together.”

Aynaw, who immigrated to Israel from Ethiopia with her grandparents at the age of 12, said in an interview Wednesday with Israel's Channel 2 that when she meets Obama she will tell him he has been a role model and that he should free Jonathan Pollard.

She told the interviewer that as head of her high school student council she worked on many projects calling for the release of Pollard, who is serving a life sentence in the United States for spying for Israel. “If I have the opportunity, why not?” she said.

East Africans, American clinch six top spots in Jerusalem race

East African runners and a U.S. Air Force captain won the six top spots in the annual Jerusalem marathon, which drew over 20,000 participants from 52 nations.

Abraham Kabeto Ketla of Ethiopia won with a time of 2:16:29.25, a new record for the Jerusalem Winner International Marathon.

In second and third place were Luka Kipkemoi Chelimo of Kenya who finished in 2:19:01.95 and Vincent Kiplagat Kiptoo of Kenya who crossed the finish line with a time of 2:20:12.60. 

In the women’s division, Mihiret Anamo Anotonios of Ethiopia took first place with a time of 2:47:26.40, setting a new record for a woman finisher. 

She was followed by Radiya Mohammed Roba of Ethiopia in second place with a time of 3:05:58.15.

Third place went to Elissa Ballas, a U.S. Air Force Captain and winner of the 2012 women's Armed Forces Marathon, with a time of 3:11:37.70.

Organizers announced they had received 1,750 international applications. 

The event, which was held for the third consecutive year, was promoted by the Jerusalem Development Authority.

There were three competitive courses: the full marathon at 42.2 kilometers (26.22 miles), the half marathon (13.11 miles) and a course of 10 kilometers, or 6.2 miles.  Youth and families enjoyed shorter “fun runs.”

IDF to tackle Ethiopian troops’ adjustment problems

A new IDF unit will work on integrating Ethiopian recruits, who are over-represented in army prisons.

Army Radio reported that Brig.-Gen. Eli Shermeister, who heads the Israel Defense Forces Education and Youth Corps, set up the unit last month after senior IDF officers learned that half of all Ethiopian soldiers were sentenced to prison at some time during their military service.

Though they account for only three percent of the Israeli army, one in every five inmates of army prisons are Ethiopians, the military radio station reported. Immigrants from families from the former Soviet Union accounted for 16 percent of inmates in 2011.

An earlier report from 2012 by Ma'ariv and other Israeli media quoted the IDF Spokesperson as putting the number of jailed Ethiopian soldiers at 10-11 percent.

“Something happens when Ethiopian recruits enlist and encounter army life,” Major Hila Alperin, the commander of the new Education Corps unit, told Army Radio. “Something goes wrong during their process of adjustment and integration.”

Israeli officials order halt to underhanded contraception of Ethiopian women

Following a TV report alleging that Ethiopian Israeli women were being given contraceptive shots against their will, Israel’s Health Ministry has ordered physicians to put a stop to the practice.

The report, broadcast Dec. 8 on the “Vacuum” investigative news program on Israeli Educational Television, alleged that Ethiopian immigrants were coerced or coaxed into receiving Depo Provera, a long-term contraceptive shot that lasts three months, both by Jewish aid officials before their immigration to Israel and by health workers once in Israel.

In the past decade, births among Ethiopian women in Israel have fallen by nearly 50 percent, according to the report.

Last week, the Health Ministry instructed doctors to stop administering the shots unless women ask for them and understand their ramifications.

The ministry’s directive, sent by Director General Ron Gamzu on Jan. 20 in response to a petition filed by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, instructs doctors “not to renew prescriptions of Depo Provera to women of Ethiopian origin or any other women who, for whatever reason, may not understand the treatment’s implications.”

The directive also instructs doctors to ask patients why they want to take the shot before administering it, and to use a translator if necessary. The directive does not confirm the allegations or acknowledge any wrongdoing.

“We didn’t give the shots,” ministry spokeswoman Einav Shimron Greenbaum told JTA. “We didn’t give them to anyone. We still deny it today.”

The allegations extend as far back as the health clinics the women visited in Ethiopia prior to immigrating to Israel, where the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee provides an array of health services to prospective Ethiopians immigrants, including contraception.

“They said, ‘Come, there are vaccinations, gather everyone,” Amawaish Alane, an Ethiopian immigrant to Israel, told “Vacuum” reporter Gal Gabbay in the Dec. 8 broadcast. “We said we wouldn’t receive it. They said, ‘You won’t move to Israel.’ ”

Alana and others on the program charged that workers at the JDC clinic told them it would be hard for them to work, get apartments or survive in Israel with large families.

A woman identified as S. said on the program that she was told at the Jewish aid compound in Gondar, Ethiopia, that she wouldn't get a ticket to Israel if she didn't take the shot.

“I didn’t want to take it. They wanted me to take it. But I didn’t know it was a contraceptive,” she said. “I thought it was an immunization.”

JDC denies the charges.

“At no time did JDC coerce anyone into engaging at family planning at its clinics. Those options were totally voluntary and offered to women who requested it,” a JDC spokesman in New York told JTA in December. “They chose the form of contraceptive based on being fully informed of all the options available to them.”

The “Vacuum” report alleged that the women continued to be coaxed into receiving the shots once they immigrated to Israel, often without their knowledge that what they were getting was contraception.

A spokesman for ACRI, which filed its petition after the Dec. 8 report aired, said ACRI is interested in preventing future unwanted contraceptive shots rather than casting blame.

“Admission of guilt is not what we’re about,” ACRI spokesman Marc Grey told JTA. “It’s more about acknowledging that this occurred and making sure it doesn’t happen again.”

The project coordinator for women and medical technologies at Isha L’Isha, an Israeli feminist group that also signed the petition, praised the Health Ministry’s Gamzu for issuing the new directive.

“What he’s done is different from all the other statements from the Health Ministry, which blamed the women and said that’s what they want,” said Hedva Eyal, the project coordinator. “He said maybe we made a mistake. We need to make sure this never happens to any group with any health issue.”

Report: Coerced contraception behind 50 percent decline in Ethiopian-Israeli birth rate

Israeli and Jewish aid officials are denying an Israeli TV report alleging that Ethiopian immigrant women have been coerced into taking contraceptive shots.

The report, which aired Saturday night on Israeli Educational Television, charged that coercive contraception is behind a 50 percent decline in the Ethiopian birth rate in Israel over the last decade.

Ethiopian women interviewed in the program, called “Vacuum” and hosted by Gal Gabbai, said they were coerced into receiving injections of Depo-Provera, a long-acting birth control drug, both at Jewish-run health clinics in Ethiopia and after their move to Israel.

Rachel Mangoli, executive director of the WIZO chapter in Katz Village, told the TV show that she realized something was amiss when during a full year in her Ethiopian program just one Ethiopian baby was born.

“I went to the health clinic and I was told that Ethiopian immigrants were given the contraception because they couldn’t be relied upon to take the pills every day,” Mangoli said.

In the report, a woman identified as S. said she was told at the Jewish aid compound in Gondar, Ethiopia, “If you don’t get the shot, we won’t give you a ticket.”

She recalled, “I didn’t want to take it. They wanted me to take it. But I didn’t know it was a contraceptive,” she said. “I thought it was an immunization.”

Another Ethiopian interviewed for the program, Amawaish Alane, said, “We said we won’t accept the shot. They told us, ‘You won’t immigrate to Israel. You also won’t come into this clinic. You won’t get help and medical treatment.’ ”

“We had no choice,” Alane said. “That’s why we took the shot. We could only get out with their permission.”

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which runs the health clinics in Ethiopia for prospective immigrants to Israel, says it offers contraception among its array of services but that it is purely voluntary.

“At no time did JDC coerce anyone into engaging at family planning at its clinics. Those options were totally voluntary and offered to women who requested it,” a JDC spokesman in New York said. “They chose the form of contraceptive based on being fully informed of all the options available to them.”

The TV program alleged that coercive contraceptive tactics continued once the Ethiopians immigrated to Israel, where health clinics have been administering the contraceptive shots. The shots, which must be taken every three months, normally are given to women who cannot be relied upon to take daily pills, such as the mentally ill, according to health experts cited in the program.

The TV show sent a hidden camera into an Israeli health clinic, where an employee told the undercover reporter that Ethiopian women are given the contraceptive shots “because they forget,” “explanations are difficult for them” and “they essentially don’t understand anything.”

The Israeli Health Ministry has denied any systematic suppression of Ethiopian pregnancy or coerced contraception.

Watch the show here (Hebrew):

In a single day, Ethiopian immigrants make aliyah—and are thrust into a war zone

The explosion occurred close enough to Stesyahu Alema to shake his apartment, where he sat with his wife and two of his five children.

But he didn’t flinch. None of them did.

“There are a lot of people with me, so I don’t need to worry,” Alema told JTA. “I don’t worry.”

The Alemas were among 91 Ethiopian immigrants who arrived in Israel last week, just a day after Israel’s Operation Pillar of Defense began. The new olim immediately were sent to the Ibim immigrant absorption center, a former aliyah youth village run by the Jewish Agency for Israel about three miles from the Gaza border. Other immigrant absorption centers were full.

During a visit Sunday, two explosions rocked the area in the space of just a few minutes. The first, a rocket launched from Gaza into Israel, had prompted a warning siren, sending the Alema family into the reinforced room that doubled as their children’s bedroom. One of the Alema daughters slept through the echoing impact that followed.

The Alema family knew that bombs were falling all around them, but they didn’t know much about Israel’s 5-day-old operation, not even its name. They didn’t know about the senior Hamas officials that Israel had killed or about the frantic push for a cease-fire that day in Cairo.

What was clear was that their world had been turned upside down, having moved from a subsistent existence in a sleepy town in rural Ethiopia to the epicenter of an escalating conflict. And they knew when the siren sounded to get into the children’s bedroom.

Usually when a planeload of Ethiopian immigrants arrives at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, the Ethiopians go through the same process as any other group of immigrants: They receive some food, temporary identity cards and health insurance, and some cash to see them through the month.

But when the Alemas landed, along with their health insurance, documents and money, they received a security briefing from the Jewish Agency, which helped facilitate their immigration.

Ethiopian families at Ibim this week did not seem preoccupied with the war next door. Children played in a yard outside their apartments, while parents became accustomed to amenities they never had in Ethiopia, like refrigerators and electric stoves. Some had never even slept in beds.

“In Ethiopia, we slept on the floor, on top of each other,” Alema said. His wife, Yikanu, added, “We had no light. We had leeches. That’s why we’re happy here.”

The Ethiopian immigrants didn’t venture far from their apartments in case an alarm sounded and they had to run back inside.

The group also avoided congregating: Instead of a communal Shabbat meal, each family remained in its apartment to eat the traditional meal with flat, thick injara, the pancake-like Ethiopian staple.

“Instead of dealing with them, trying to absorb them, I’m trying to explain the security situation,” said Moshe Bahta, who immigrated to Israel from Ethiopia in 1980 and now runs Ibim. “I told them the Arabs want to throw us into the sea and we’re not ready to acquiesce. Since Israel was established, until today, there’s never been quiet — always war.”

Alemnh Yeshuas, another immigrant, said his apartment feels spacious enough, even if he can’t always leave it.

“We have four rooms in our apartment here, running water and a bathroom,” he said. One of his daughters had a faint blue cross tattooed on her forehead.

Bahta said that to give the immigrants a sense of normalcy, he “broadcasts security to them,” always remaining calm — even as rockets land.

“It’s OK to be scared, but don’t lose control,” he said. “We don’t know what’s going to be tomorrow, but meanwhile we don’t panic. If you go into the reinforced room, nothing will happen.”

Yeshuas said any fear of rockets paled in comparison to the spiritual fulfillment he got from finally living in Israel.

“We’ve dreamed many years of getting to Israel,” he said. “The dream is realized and we’re very happy. I believe in God — God knows.”

Bahta said Ethiopians are used to thinking in terms of survival. “If you have food, good. If not, you die,” he said.

None of them would refuse an opportunity to move to Israel, he said. Many Ethiopians see Israel as a land of plenty and a way out of Africa’s desperate poverty. For many, aliyah is the realization of a lifelong dream.

“Every beginning is hard, but the hardship gets canceled out because of the happiness,” Bahta said. “You realized the dream. What, they shouldn’t come? There’s nothing like that. This will change their lives.”

Ariela’s legacy gives others direction, purpose

Aviva Dese believes that without the Ariela Foundation, she’d probably be back in Nazareth Ilit, the factory town in the Galilee where she grew up, maybe with a low-paying assembly-line job, or maybe still wondering, like so many of her friends, what to do with her life. 

Instead, the 24 year-old Ethiopian Israeli studies at one of the top music schools in Israel, is talking to producers about an album and was the featured singer at a national memorial for Ethiopians who died en route to Israel.

The Israel-based Ariela Foundation, which pays for scholarships, equipment and a mentor for Dese, provides individualized, long-term support for around 60 Israelis of Ethiopian descent who show talent and promise in specific areas or who are highly motivated and above average in school.

“I really love the goals of the foundation because it’s much more than about getting a job or just holding on. The purpose is to bring us to places where we haven’t been yet. You don’t see a lot of Ethiopian people in the government, in music, as doctors … so it’s really important to have Ethiopian people in better places so the young can see that there is no limit to what they can do,” Dese said. 

[Related: As part of their visit to the United States this summer, Ariela Foundation participants Aviva Dese and Nofar Mekonen visited Camp Ramah in Ojai, Calif., where campers participated in a lively discussion about the life of Israelis of Ethiopian origin.

The Ariela Foundation has around 60 young people in two programs, with a budget of around $300,000. 

The Star program provides groups of students with academic enrichment, social experiences and cultural opportunities. The foundation sticks with the same cohort from middle school and high school through the army and university, giving the students a sustained chance for success. A key part of the program is a mentor linked to their areas of interest. Four classes are currently running in Tel Aviv-Jaffa, Gedera and Ness Ziona, with a total of more than 30 students combined.

The Maof program — maof is Hebrew for “soaring” — of which Dese and Mekonen are members, offers mentoring and custom-tailored support also to around 30 young people who excel in academics, athletics or the arts. Fellows are asked to commit fully to achieving their personal goals and to give back to the community.

“I think from all the sectors in Israel, the one that has received the most money with the least results is Ethiopian Jewry,” Eric Goldberg said, pointing to high unemployment, dropout and poverty rates among Ethiopian Jews. Most programs, he said, are short-term and welfare-oriented. “That is not to say these are not important, but at the end of the day they don’t get to the root of the problem. … So we said, let’s take the strongest people in the Ethiopian Jewish community and give them all the tools they in need on a long-term basis, so that they can become role models for their community.” 

Story continues after the jump.