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Israel Turns Its Back On Its Black Citizens:
Even Though They Are Jews





Ashkelon, Israel


Israel is closing the books on a rare millennia-old Jewish tradition.

Nearly three decades after Israel began airlifting Ethiopia's ancient Jewish community out of the Horn of Africa, Israel's rabbis are now working to phase out the community's white-turbaned clergy, the kessoch, whose unusual religious practices are at odds with the rabbinate's Orthodox Judaism.

The effort has added to the sense of discrimination felt by Israel's 120,000 Ethiopian citizens. These sentiments boiled over this month after a group of landlords in the southern town of Kiryat Malachi refused to accept Ethiopians as tenants.The move has prompted large protests, including a gathering outside parliament last week that drew more than 1,000 young immigrants and other supporters.

Kess Semai Elias, 42, said the recent reports of discrimination add to his and other Ethiopian Jewish spiritual leaders' dismay and feelings that they are not welcome.

"We are just like all the other Jews. We don't have any other religion," he said.

Descendants of the lost Israelite tribe of Dan, according to Jewish lore, Ethiopian Jews spent millennia isolated from the rest of the Jewish world. In most Jewish communities, the priesthood of the Bible was replaced by rabbis who emphasized text study and prayer. Ethiopia's Jewish kessoch continued the traditions of Biblical-era priests, sacrificing animals and collecting the first fruits of the harvest.

The two traditions diverged so much that the first trickle of Ethiopian Jewish immigrants to Israel were asked to undergo a quickened conversion ceremony to appease rabbis who were dubious about their religious pedigree.

When Israeli clandestine operations rescued large groups of Ethiopian Jews from war and famine in the 1980s and early 1990s, a rabbinic consensus was reached and the newcomers did not have to convert - except for a group known as the Falash Mura, whose ancestors were forcibly converted to Christianity generations before.

The 58 kessoch who arrived in Israel in those early days maintained their leadership role in the Ethiopian Jewish community, and in 1992 successfully lobbied the Israeli government to grant them salaries and status similar to those of government rabbis. But as the aging clergy began ordaining a new generation of kessoch over the past decade, and those new leaders also wanted recognition, Israel's rabbinate objected.

After public demonstrations and a brief hunger strike, the newly ordained kessoch struck a bittersweet deal last month with Israel's ministry of religious services.

The ministry would finally implement a 2010 government resolution to recognize 13 of them and give them state salaries. But Israel's state rabbis made it very clear to the new kessoch: They would be the last.

"It's for the best," said Rabbi Yosef Hadana, 63, of the Israeli rabbinate.

Himself the son of a respected kess, Hadana long ago traded the shash, the white turban of his father's tradition, for the black suit and fedora of ultra-Orthodox Jews.

"After 2,500 years of isolation from the nation of Israel, we have returned. Now we need to find a way to be one people," Rabbi Hadana said.

Hadana says he holds great respect for the kessoch. They were the ones who once spun tales of Jerusalem's splendor at evening storytelling sessions, keeping alive the Ethiopian Jews' religious tradition. But anyone in Israel who wants to continue that tradition, he said, must get rabbinic training. Streamlining their religious practice can help integrate Ethiopian immigrants into Israeli society, he said.

Ethiopian-Israelis have long struggled in Israel, with literacy rates relatively low, the culture gap wide and rates of poverty and domestic violence well above the national average.

Many of the older generation work menial jobs, men as security guards and women as cleaners. Their children, most of whom grew up in Israel's Orthodox Jewish religious schools, speak fluent Hebrew, serve in the army alongside native Israelis and are increasingly studying engineering and sciences in Israel's universities.

Despite these gains, the younger generation is still struggling compared to other Israelis.

The immigrants have also long complained of discrimination. In the late 90s it was discovered that Israel's health services were throwing out Ethiopian-Israelis' blood donations over fears of diseases contracted in Africa.

This is not the first time in history that Ethiopian Jews have been asked to reform. Jacques Faitlovitch, one of the first Jewish outsiders to meet the community, told the kessoch in 1904 they would have to stop antiquated paschal sacrifices if they wanted acceptance in the wider Jewish world.

Polish-born Faitlovitch also pushed them to stop Judaism's last existing monastic tradition. Ethiopia's last Jewish monk spent his final days in Israel, secluded in a synagogue annex and preparing his own food for reasons of purity. He died about 10 years ago.

Other traditions, like priestly tithes and huts for menstruating women, were also given up upon moving to Israel.

Still, the kessoch, easily recognized by their ceremonial fly-swatting tassels and rainbow-colored sunbrellas, are not ready to be relegated to history. First-generation Ethiopian immigrants still call on them to adjudicate family conflicts, lead funeral prayers, and slaughter meat according to tradition.

Israel only recently allowed kessoch into butcheries to slaughter their own animals - even though it is not considered kosher by rabbinic standards.

But the rabbis still put their foot down when it comes to marriage. To be legal, weddings must be presided by state-recognized rabbis and include mainstream Jewish practices, like exchanging rings and stomping on a glass.

Despite the country's secular majority, its Orthodox rabbis strictly govern Jewish weddings. Israel does not recognize civil marriages, intermarriages or marriages performed by rabbis from the more liberal Reform and Conservative branches of Judaism - unless they took place abroad.

Israeli rabbis have now agreed to train the 13 new kessoch to perform marriages the mainstream Jewish way. Nevertheless, for most of the kessoch, the prohibition on marrying is such a slap in the face that they cannot bear to show up at the weddings of their own community members.

Instead, they perform their own pirate wedding ceremonies for the newlyweds a few days later - a modest reenactment of the weeklong marriage celebrations they used to hold back in Africa.

At one nighttime ceremony in seaside Ashkelon, women in embroidered cotton robes bounced their shoulders to African beats. Family and friends greeted the couple with the toot of a golden horn. Honey beer flowed from a steel kettle, and an army of men scooped curried lamb - slaughtered by the presiding kess - onto flat injera bread.

Newly ordained Kess Abiyu Azariya, 44, pushed his way to the head of the dance floor. Wearing a white turban and shawl, he recited wedding blessings in the ancient Ethiopian tongue, Geez. "I am singing these prayers to remind the young people what a wedding was like in Ethiopia," he told the crowd in spoken Amharic.

But the young people were nowhere in sight. Most of the 300 revelers in the room were of the older generation. The dozen young Ethiopian-Israelis who showed up that evening were outside drinking cheap Israeli beer and fiddling with their smartphones. When asked about the practice, they were ambivalent.

"I hope it continues, but it probably won't," said David Nadou, 24, shrugging.

The newly ordained kessoch are trying to work against that tide. Kess Semai says they're close to ordaining yet another group of 30 kessoch - even though Israel vows not to recognize any more.

"We kept this tradition for more than 2,500 years," Kess Semai said. "Our community won't allow in the span of 30 years for this tradition to be erased completely." 


[Courtesy: Seattlepi]

January 26, 2012



Conversation about this article

1: Harinder (Uttar Pradesh, India), January 26, 2012, 12:58 PM.

It is unfair on the part of Israel not to accommodate the religious practices of its citizens of Ethiopian descent.

2: Baldev Singh (Bradford, United Kingdom), January 26, 2012, 2:29 PM.

Once the cancer of mindless, senseless dogma infects the minds of superstitious, rigid people, then the result is more extremism, discrimination and hatred ... and then, violence.

3: Aryeh Leib (Israel), January 26, 2012, 2:35 PM.

Harinder ji, it is unfair of you to condemn Israel. Israel does accommodate their practices - it just doesn't call them Judaism.

4: Kieran Edwards  (London, England), January 26, 2012, 2:54 PM.

Well, Mr. Leib, you've zeroed in on the crux of the matter. Jewry in Israel and elsewhere consists of a whole range of practices, many having nothing to do with each other - the gamut runs from ultra-conservative to 'modern' and 'reformed'! - and all of them are easily accommodated. But if you are a black Jew and refuse to conform to some extreme and rigid sect, then it isn't Judaism? There is no religion on earth which is more fragmented within itself than the Jews, yet they have the same difficulty in dealing with people of colour and people of other faiths as every other intolerant group! Sorry ... they may be the "chosen people" in their own estimation but they ain't any better than the rest of God's creation, I tell ya.

5: Gurinder Singh (Stockton, California, U.S.A.), January 26, 2012, 11:05 PM.

I lived in Israel for some time in the late 1990s. I was in Beersheba. The group of Ethiopian Jews I saw then were part and parcel of Israeli society - or, at least, they appeared to be. They were serving in the Israeli army in uniform with their guns slung by their sides, and were happily interacting with their colleagues. 12% of the country is Arab. I think I was the only Sikh. I had a very pleasant stay.

6: Roger Mangat (Merced, California, U.S.A.), January 27, 2012, 12:30 PM.

Like every other organized religion, Jews also discriminate against their own and against others. When you call yourself the "chosen people" and have a derogatory name or negative reference for those you disagree with and/or the rest of humanity, you know they have left the realm of God.

7: Sunny Grewal (Abbotsford, British Columbia, Canada), January 28, 2012, 8:31 PM.

Not many people are aware that in Israel there is a divide between the Ashkenzi European Jews and the Sephardic Jews who came from other parts of the world. Really hard to address all the issues in a single comment but basically you have a European legal, economic, social, political and educational system which caters to those from European backgrounds whereas the other Jews cannot benefit from it.

8: Aryeh Leib (Israel), January 29, 2012, 6:06 AM.

Their Jewish identity has been a matter of opinion among various authorities of Halacha (Torah Law) over the ages, as the community lacked many features basic to Judaism (Hebrew language being just one). Those wishing to put to rest any such question have the option of giur l'chumra - a type of conversion performed where a doubt exists. Many take advantage of that option, and their Jewish identity is unquestioned, regardless of their color. I've lived here for many years, and presently reside in an area with a large population of immigrants from Ethiopia. The situation I see on the ground is very much as #5 Gurinder Singh ji has described it - once again, based on personal observation. That bumps in the road exist is not to be wondered at, considering the fact that these immigrants have had to leap many centuries in a single generation. To call Israel a racist society doesn't jibe with the question of why Israel expended great effort and capital to airlift this entire community from Ethiopia in the first place - as if there weren't enough social problems in this, arguably the most multicultural society on earth. As for Jewish practice, this is also something determined by Halacha - as it has been since Jewish Law was given on Mount Sinai, according to the tradition accepted by the three Abrahamic religions. That there are differences of opinion within the Jewish world is nothing new. Indeed, one wag has noted that Judaism is not so much a religion, but the world's longest running debating society! It's an "internal affair" that affects you in no way. Let the Israelis solve it.

9: Jasmine Kaur (New Delhi, India), January 30, 2012, 1:21 PM.

Hm-mm-m. So let me see ... When the Germans were murdering Jews in their country's gas chambers, it was not an "INTERNAL MATTER", and it was okay to beg for and get outside help. But if Jews in Israel start messing around with their black citizens - or for that matter, spitting on their girls and women, or brutalizing their Arab and Palestinian population, it's suddenly hands off for the rest of the world? What hypocrites you are, Mr Leib! And so selfish and self-centred!

10: Zed Goldblum (Israel), January 30, 2012, 1:42 PM.

A few years ago, our agencies here in Israel boasted endlessly how they had so magnificently rescued the black Jews from Ethiopia against the heaviest of odds, and greedily basked in the self-blown glory that flowed from it ad nauseum. And now we are telling the world that these same black Israeli citizens are not Jews and need to convert to Judaism? It's amazing how, publicly, many of our people still wallow in their ever-perpetuated victimhood based on the terrible things done to us seven decades ago, but we are so blind to our persecuting others in our own country TODAY. Oh, we're so-o good with propaganda and public relations and controlling media reports, and this wonderful nonchalance we show when asked about our own atrocities! "Bumps in the road", Aryeh Leib? Shame on you, shame on us.

11: David Leith (Wales), January 31, 2012, 4:44 AM.

Comment # 9 suggests Israel may be the "most multicultural society in the world". Never heard of this one before ... amazing what the human mind can come up with! If there's ANY truth in this claim, it lies in the fact that Israeli bigotry brutalizes a wide swath of people, while promoting euro-centric annd american-centric Jewry. For a state that proclaims only one religion, and unabashedly discriminates against, inter alia, blacks and Palestinians - calling it multi-cultural requires a lot of chutzpah!

12: Jane H. (Perth, Australia), January 31, 2012, 4:55 AM.

It can be argued with considerable weight that Ethiopian Jews practice a Judaism which is closer to its pristine origins than any another form of the faith today. It had the advantage of not being distorted through the centuries of persecution suffered by Europe's Jews or by the recent decades of American pampering and resulting arrogance. To suggest that Ethiopian Jews should conform to the practices of other Jews - why not the reverse? - is an abomination. If this isn't racism, it certainly isn't civilized behaviour either, if you ask me.

13: Arjan Singh (London, England), January 31, 2012, 11:11 AM.

I think it would be trite to observe that Israel wouldn't last more than 5 minutes if it didn't have the backing of a number of nations around the world. External help, I would call it. But when it oppresses its own people, it appears it wants to be left alone to its mischief and machinations. They need to learn, if they can cut through the headiness of the power they currently hold over the weak in their land: nothing lasts forever. And in this day and age, 'forever' has a life-span of no more than a few decades, at best.

14: Sunny Grewal (Abbotsford, British Columbia, Canada), February 02, 2012, 1:14 AM.

One of the main problems with all of the Abrahamic faiths is that there is an inability to exert a message of tolerance. Tolerance is only shown towards 'like-minded' individuals and not to members of other communities. There is a reason why the Jews of antiquity reveled in the conquest of other semetic tribes. There is a reason why Islam spread to the corners of the Earth through conquest. There is a reason why Christianity enthusiastically embraced colonialism and the "burden" of "civilizing" others. I understand that for the sake of "inter-faith relations" we talk about the sameness of all religions but we should not forget that intolerance is unfortunately a key aspect of the abrahamic faiths. Compare this to the Eastern faiths, for example, where individuals can practice different forms and different schools usually within a stone's throw away from one another without conflict. Also, in Sikhism, we do have our few divisions but the majority would never be compelled to evoke violence as a measure of protocol against them.

15: Dr. Birinder Singh Ahluwalia (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), February 03, 2012, 8:16 AM.

I am intrigued by one of the comments above, to the effect that "they can practice their religion but it is forbidden to call it Judaism." Hmmm ... reminds me of someone saying: "I smoked it but never inhaled it" ... or she can live in my house, bear our children, cook and clean for me, but cannot call herself a wife. (This should in no way be construed that I am trying to stereotype women). Just as the lawmakers turned cute in calling such relationships mere 'cohabitation', I am sure Israel will come up with an acceptable term to describe its citizens who are Jewish but cannot call their religion Judaism ... I think it is becoming too confusing for me, I'll just wait for the acceptable terminology to be announced by Israel in this matter.

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Even Though They Are Jews"

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