November 16, 2018

Photographing Ethiopian immigrants in Israel and L.A.

In the 1980s, when photojournalist Irene Fertik learned that Ethiopian Jews were being airlifted to Israel, she wondered how they would be treated in their new country. She’d lived on a kibbutz in Israel for a few months in 1967, right after the Six-Day War, but had never returned. She worried the Ethiopians might face discrimination and racism in Israel, as they had in other countries. 

So began Fertik’s journey of documenting the Ethiopian immigrants, a project she continues today. Many of her images from Israel are on display in the exhibition titled “Toward Freedom” at the California African American Museum in Exposition Park through Jan. 3, along with a series of photographs she made of Little Ethiopia in Los Angeles.

Fertik, 72, is now semi-retired and based in Albuquerque, N.M. She lived in Los Angeles for many years, working as a staff photographer at USC. Before that, she was a photojournalist at the Burlington Free Press in Vermont. But consistent throughout her career has been a dedication to documenting social justice activism and disenfranchised communities. From 1967 to 1977, she shot photos in New York City of Black construction workers, actors, dancers, musicians and activists. In the 1980s, she documented the Sanctuary Movement that assisted Central American refugees fleeing civil conflict.

“Operation Solomon Anniversary” (Jerusalem, 1996) Photos by Irene Fertik

But it is the immigrants from the Beta Israel communities of Ethiopia that have truly captured her attention. Most of the community’s members made aliyah in two waves of mass immigration: Operation Moses (1984) and Operation Solomon (1991). Currently, Israel is home to about 125,000 citizens of Ethiopian descent. The largest population lives in Beersheba, in the Negev desert of southern Israel, and another large population lives in the northern city of Haifa.

Fertik began to help raise money and awareness during the late 1980s. After the second round of airlifts, she decided to fly to Israel to see how the new residents were coping in their new and strange surroundings.

“I just wanted to see if my people would be any different than any other country in the world when it came to accepting Africans in their midst,” Fertik said in a phone interview. 

“Middle-class Africans are one thing. But [these] Ethiopians not only traveled about 800 miles, they really traveled three centuries between their simple agrarian life and the high-tech, extremely competitive, in-your-face Israel. It was so dislocating and traumatic for them.”

Fertik’s sepia-toned images show Ethiopian Jews as they build new lives in their adopted land. One striking picture taken in 1992 shows a 5-year-old girl, Shlomit Imanu, staring directly into the camera. Her family arrived in Israel as immigrants in 1984, but Shlomit is a true sabra, a native-born Israeli. Another picture taken in the same year shows two children playing in front of a tukel, or Ethiopian-style house, at an absorption center outside Acco. The structure was used for Shabbat services and as a community center, and a Star of David graces its roof. 

“Picture Perfect” (Jerusalem, 1992) 

Other images show young immigrants finding their roles in Israeli society. One shows two young Ethiopian women wearing the olive green uniforms of the Israeli Defense Forces. Another shows a young Ethiopian-Israeli soldier teaching Russian immigrants their new language — Hebrew.

There also are intimate photographs of personal milestones: a wedding, the circumcision of a baby boy and the first ballot cast in an Israeli election. Such images show the hope and promise that Israel extended to the immigrants. But there also are some that reveal tensions underlying their new reality. In one picture, taken at a demonstration outside the Knesset in Jerusalem in 2002, Ethiopians hold up photographs of relatives still in Ethiopia. They were protesting the long delay in bringing their family members to Israel. Some waited five to 10 years in compounds in Addis Ababa and Gondar before being flown to Israel and reunited with family.

“When I look at her photos, it’s so beautiful, and sometimes I feel that I can see myself developing in Israel,” Shai Fredo, a celebrated Ethiopian-Israeli actor, said in a phone interview. He first met Fertik in 1999, and the two became close friends. “It’s very interesting to see someone from outside find a new way to tell my story.”

Fredo is caught in one image, from 2006, looking directly at the camera while his then-girlfriend, Etti, an accountant, looks off into the distance. Both came to Israel as children during Operation Moses and grew up there. Fredo lost his grandfather and Etti lost her mother and sister during their long journey. 

The other half of the photographs in the exhibition depict a stretch of Fairfax Avenue once occupied by Jewish businesses, but now lined mostly by Ethiopian businesses and restaurants. In 2004, then-Mayor James K. Hahn officially renamed the neighborhood “Little Ethiopia.”

These images are shot in vivid color, rather than the sepia-tones of the Israeli photos, and show people gathered for major community events such as Ethiopian New Year, Timkat (the Ethiopian Orthodox celebration of Epiphany), a neighborhood cleanup event on Fairfax Avenue, a Christmas pageant and a human rights demonstration. They were taken between 2002 and 2009 and offer snapshots of a vibrant community.

“The Ethiopian community in Los Angeles is very diverse in cultural background, education, economic status, religion and political affiliation,” Negest “Nikki” Legesse, executive director of the Little Ethiopia Cultural & Resource Center, said in an email. “It is definitely a very tight-knit community as a whole. It is strong in communal lifestyle [and has a] very strong sense of identity and pride.”

Fertik’s photojournalism background comes through strongly in her images, both in her choice of subjects and the way she relates to the people — as an outsider documenting a group of outsiders. But what also comes across is her genuine affection for those she’s documenting. After all, the photos span two decades, long enough to see children grow up and have children of their own. She estimates that since 1991, she has visited Israel 16 times to photograph the Ethiopian community there.

“There’s a saying, ‘You can’t parachute in and parachute out and expect to get a good story.’ And I knew that was true,” Fertik said.

“Toward Freedom” is on display through Jan. 3 at the California African American Museum. For more information,