The cast of Nebsu. Photo courtesy of Yosi Vasa.

Groundbreaking TV comedy introduces Israelis to their Ethiopian neighbors


TEL AVIV (JTA) – Last week, Israelis for the first time saw a black lead character on a homegrown, primetime television show.

Nebsu,” a half-hour comedy, focuses on an Ethiopian man who is married to an Ashkenazi Jewish woman. Misunderstanding ensues.

“There is definitely a lot of cultural confusion in the show,” Yosi Vasa, the star and co-creator of the show, told JTA. “But the great thing about comedy is when the audience laughs, that means they get it. So that’s progress.”

Following a series of sometimes violent protests between Ethiopian Israelis and police in recent years, the creators of the new show think comedy is called for. They hope that by making light of the frictions between Ethiopian immigrants and the broader society, they can promote mutual understanding.

“People went out to [the highway] Ayalon South and demonstrated with anger. People wrote columns,” co-creator Shai Ben-Atar said in a promotional video, referring to 2015 demonstrations protesting police brutality against Ethiopians. “Our demonstration is a demonstration of love. We come to the audience with love. We come with characters full of love.”

In the March 9 premiere, Vasa’s character, Gili, steps out of his suburban house to run an errand. A police officer driving by stops and demand his ID, which he has left inside the house. Moments later the officer is aggressively frisking Gili against the trunk of his car.

Vasa, 41, said such incidents are part of his reality, which many Israelis find difficult to believe. But one evening last year, the show’s third co-creator, Liat Shavi, had a firsthand look. After saying goodnight to Vasa, who had stopped outside the office in Tel Aviv to smoke a cigarette, her cellphone rang.

“Suddenly he’s calling me, and I don’t understand. He’s speaking unclearly, and he says, ‘Come here for a second,’” Shavit recalled in the promotional video. “So I look across the street and I see him standing there with a police officer.”

Ben-Atar adds: “He didn’t care about the fact that he was arrested. He just really wanted us to see that it actually happens, and that was really comedic.”

Roni Akale, the director-general of the Ethiopian National Project, said most Israelis don’t get where Ethiopians are coming from because they live largely separate lives.

Ethiopians, who make up just 1.5 percent of the population, tend to be clustered in poor areas of the country, with many living on the periphery. They have the highest poverty rate among Jews in Israel, and are stopped, arrested and incarcerated at much higher rates. Their children perform worse in school and finish fewer years than the general population.

“Nebsu” co-creators Yosi Vasa, left, and Shai Ben-Atar. (Reshet)

“Israeli society doesn’t know us because we are not in their environment. They don’t see how we live,” Akane said. “Maybe this show can highlight the good things that happen in the Ethiopian community.”

What Israelis have seen in recent years is Ethiopians protesting in the streets alleging widespread discrimination. The April 2015 demonstrations were a response to video footage showing a seemingly unprovoked police assault on an Ethiopian Israeli soldier. Thousands of members of the community joined demonstrations across the country, sometimes clashing with police officers.

“Nebsu” brings Ethiopian culture into Israeli living rooms, and mashes it up against mainstream culture to comedic effect. Gili has had the kind of life that taught him how to pick locks and hot-wire cars while his blond wife, Tamar, played by Merav Feldman, comes from a privileged background.

Although Gili and Tamar are simpatico, their families and the rest of society are another story. Tamar cannot believe that Gili’s mother wants to slaughter a goat that her daughter has adopted as a pet. And Gili struggles to eat his mother-in-law’s bland Ashkenazi cooking.

Tamar is often outraged by the injustices Gili faces and wants to set them right, whereas he has learned to keep his head down. An exception in the first episode is when Gili explodes at the neighbors, accusing them of changing the locks on their doors because they fear him. Worn out after a racially charged day, Gili turns out to have misjudged the situation.

“There are a lot of times you find yourself in a very white environment, so you see things you would probably see differently if you were surrounded by Ethiopians,” Vasa said.

Vasa’s family came to Israel from a remote Ethiopian village as part of Operation Moses in 1985, one of several daring government operations to rescue Ethiopian Jews. The eight of them settled in coastal Netanya, and he bounced between government boarding schools for Ethiopians. As a theater and education student at the University of Haifa, he and a classmate created a series of videos that went viral in the Ethiopian community.

“All they had for media was some videotapes of TV from Ethiopia, which were sold at grocery stores,” Vasa said. “So we started selling our tapes at the same stores. The tapes started getting copied and passed around, so they didn’t show us the money, but it was a great thing to do for us and for our community.”

Reversing the usual Israeli order, Vasa joined the army after university, performing in the storied theater unit that entertains troops. After his three years of service, he developed a one-man comedy show with Ben-Atar called “It Sounds Better in Amharic,” which he still performs. He met his now-wife at an English-languge  version of the show in San Francisco. Like Tamar, she is a non-Ethiopian Israeli, but her ethnic background is half Ashkenazi and half Mizrahi Jewish.

Vasa sees the Ethiopians as just “another Israeli immigration story,” and thinks racism toward his community will fade, as it has toward Mizrahi Israelis. Attitudes toward Arabs, he said, is a separate issue.

“Arab Labor,” a comedy that ran for three seasons between 2007 and 2012, similarly broke down cultural barriers in Israel, in its case between Jews and Arabs. Nevertheless, its Arab-Israeli creator, Sayed Kashua, eventually left the country, despairing that “an absolute majority in the country does not recognize the rights of an Arab to live.”

Vasa started working on “Nebus” in 2012. After he shopped the show to production companies for several years. Reshet picked it up two years ago. Tamar Morom, who heads the Israeli production company’s scripted series department, said the pitch immediately struck everyone as a “good idea.”

She also said the timing was right.

“Probably it wouldn’t have worked five years ago,” Morom told JTA. “There were a lot of demonstrations and not very pleasant issues between Ethiopians and police in the last two years. So it’s not that it’s calm now. I think it’s just the right time to criticize our society.”

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.”

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.