Ethiopian immigrants in Israel.

Kessim (Ethiopian Jewish clergy) saying a prayer for Jews from Ethiopia who perished in Sudan on their way to Israel.

There’s a lot of ugly and unfortunate news coming out of Israel regarding the country’s treatment of the Ethiopian immigrant community, and on Twitter just now, I provided some context. I’ve decided to sum that up here as well, for those who might not want to read backward, in 140-character chunks.

First, links to the news + some related stories:

  1. Birthrates among the Ethiopian-Israeli community drop precipitously; Ethiopian immigrant women say they were “coaxed and threatened into agreeing to receive the injectable [long-acting] birth control drug [Depo Provera].”
  2. Israel admits that Ethiopian immigrants were administered Depo Provera without their informed consent. “Health Ministry Director General Prof. Ron Gamzu has instructed the four health maintenance organizations to stop the practice as a matter of course. The ministry and other state agencies had previously denied knowledge or responsibility for the practice, which was first reported five years ago.”
  3. Israel putting end to millenia-old tradition of Ethiopian Jewish priests: “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.”
  4. related: Many Ethiopian Jews were forced to undergo “conversion” after their arrival in Israel.
  5. related: Many Ethiopians were tested for HIV as they immigrated to Israel; roughly 2-3% were found to carry the virus, but this information tells us nothing about relative infection rates, as no similar program was carried out among any other Israeli community at the time.
  6. related: Because of the HIV test findings, blood donations made by Ethiopian-Israelis were routinely discarded from 1984 to 1996.

There are a variety of things going on here, one of which is most certainly racism, but of a kind similar to that experienced by Israel’s Sephardi (Middle Eastern Jewish) community when they arrived, as well. Jewish communities that do not reflect the traditions and history of the dominant Ashkenazi (European, and more broadly, Western) culture have long been treated as (and often literally called) primitive, insufficiently Jewish and/or educated, and in need of sweeping correction. This played a big role in both the HIV testing and discarding of Ethiopian blood, as well as in the placement in religious boarding schools of many young Ethiopians upon their arrival, and I suspect it played a big role in the decision to control women’s fertility without their informed consent.

As regards the conversions and the phasing out of the Ethiopian priesthood, there’s an additional factor at play: Judaism as a religion is much more defined by community than some other faith systems — there are many prayers and rituals that we simply may not perform, for instance, unless we have a group of at least 10 to perform them. Thus, rules that determine who’s in and who’s out have been important. This is in particular the mark of a minority faith, where maintaining the integrity of the community as against the huge and powerful outside world — much of which has been violently hostile toward the community throughout its history, slaughtering our members in the scores and millions — is a very important safeguard.

The flip side is that we then start turning against each other for not being “enough” of one thing or another. The question of “who gets to decide?” is a very big one, but when it’s raised within discrete communities within Judaism, “who gets to decide” is one thing; when it’s a question of national policy in a modern nation state, it’s another thing entirely.

For reasons that can largely be chalked up to hubris (the country’s secular founders thought religion was going to die out), Israel has allowed Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodoxy to become the default “Judaism” of the state, and anything that doesn’t align with that standard is deemed insufficient.

This is why so many Russian Jews, who couldn’t prove their Judaism because Soviet authorities had worked very, very hard to destroy it, had to “convert” when they came to Israel; this is why Americans who grow up anything other than Orthodox must prove their Judaism over and over if they want to marry in Israel; this is why there was and remains so much anti-Sephardic discrimination in Israel’s religious hierarchy (and is a large part of why the ultra-Orthodox Sephardic Shas party was formed); and this is why the Ethiopian community has so often been greeted with such misunderstanding and disrespect.

The early Jewish nationalists wanted the Jewish people to be as normal as any other; Ben Gurion talked about Israel needing prostitutes and thieves for that great day to arrive — and lo: Jews, in and out of Israel, are as normal and as human and as potentially terrible as any other group on earth.


  1. This makes me very sad — and then it makes me ashamed of wanting people of faith to be perfect. Because people of faith are people, first and foremost, and as Voltaire so famously said, man is born in a state of evil, and needs society in order to suppress his basest instincts.

    Thanks for this.

    My next question: Can this situation change? Should it? Why/why not?

    • It *should* change, but will it? I’m not entirely certain, if only because the Ethiopian community is such a small minority, and their traditions really are so different from those of mainstream Judaism from nearly everywhere else around the world. Having said that, the above nearly exhausts the extent of my working knowledge of the community (there have been protests over the years, but I don’t know how successful those have been; I know that Ethiopians tend to get less education and worse jobs/pay than other Israeli Jews, but I don’t know how much less; I know that the younger generation is much more prone to organize and get publicly angry, but I don’t know the extent to which that might be translatable into really shaking the status quo – like that) — I’ll try to find a better resource, and if I do, will leave a link here.

  2. To the person who called me “pathetic”: You clearly failed read the About Commenting page:

    You may not be rude to me or other readers while in my house. Coming back to accuse me of censorship didn’t (surprise!) convince me to publish your earlier remarks – it simply led me to understand that I had failed to adequately spam you the first time, and that you’re not very well educated. Management apologizes for the error. Fixt now.

  3. I’m having trouble phrasing my question, so please be patient with me. How do you reconcile wanting to stop prejudice against non-Ashkenazi Jews (assuming you think prejudice is a bad thing) with the question of who gets to decide? Do you think there is a way to come to an answer of who is Jewish without prejudicing non-Ashkenazi Jews?

  4. Emily, thank you for this informative post. It brings to mind Bibi Netanyahu’s claim that the influx of illegal Africans is ““threatening the fabric of Israeli society, its national security and its national identity.”

    Your post should be read in conjunction with Laura Friedman’s post on “Where Racism Comes From.”

    And as this Washington Post article states:

    ” Tensions over the presence of the migrants have been stoked by rightist politicians. In a speech at last month’s Hatikva neighborhood protest, Miri Regev, a parliament member from the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, called the Africans “a cancer in our body.”

    Interior Minister Eli Yishai, who has promised to clear out all the migrants, told the Maariv newspaper in a recent interview that they were creating “a state within a state” and that “most of the people coming here are Muslims who think that this country doesn’t belong to us, to the white man.” ”

    A poll conducted in May 2012 showed 52% of Israeli Jews agreed with Miri Regev’s statement that Africans were a cancer on the country.

    Sadly, Israel is not unique in its racism. Israel’s giving Ethiopian immigrants Depo Provera without their consent is reminiscent of the Tuskeegee Syphilis Experiment where American doctors intentionally withheld penicillin treatment from 399 Black men without their consent between 1939 and 1972 in order to study the effects of the disease in the African-American population.

    Israel is also not alone its hostile treatment towards illegal (and, to a lesser extent legal) immigrants–witness the reception that immigrants from Mexico have received in the U.S., especially in Arizona.

    The behavior of both the Israeli and American population towards their illegal immigrants is part of a wider phenomena. Witness how harshly Mexico treats its illegal immigrants.

    And it is no secret that Palestinian refugees have received, shall we say, a less than welcome reception amongst many of the Arab countries to which they fled.

    It seems that rejection of outsiders is a rather widespread (though certainly not universal) phenomena. Yes, Israelis should be criticized for the way they have treated both the legal Ethiopians and the illegal African immigrants, but they are hardly the only ones who deserve criticism.

    Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not bringing this up as a criticism of your post. I do not want anyone to think that I am implying that you are guilty singling out Israel for special criticism. I am guessing that you would be just as critical of American or Mexican or Lebanese behavior toward their immigrants/refugees had they been the subject of your post.

    No, I don’t mention this to criticize you. I bring this up because we can gain a new insight into history once we realize that rejection of outsiders is a fairly widespread phenomena. Specifically, understanding this phenomena may help us reach at least a partial understanding of why the Arabs opposed the large influx of Jews into Palestine starting in the late 1920s.

    Let’s look at some statistics. Bibi Netanyahu freaked out over 60,000 illegal African immigrants entering Israel. Netanyahu said that “If we don’t stop the entry, the problem, whose extent now is 60,000 illegal infiltrators, could easily develop to 600,000, which would flood the country and, to a large degree, nullify our character as a Jewish and democratic state.” ” (See Washington Post story cited above.)


    A number of American politicians called for us to build a huge fence along our Southern border to keep out illegal Mexican immigrants. The Department of Homeland Security estimates there were 11.5 million illegal immigrants in the United States in January 2009.

    Click to access ois_ill_pe_2011.pdf

    The 2010 Census reported there were 308.5 million people in the U.S. THUS, ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS REPRESENT ALMOST 4% OF OUR POPULATION.

    Now, compare the illegal immigration situation in Israel and the U.S. with the number of Jews entering the British Palestinian Mandate during the 20s, 30s and 40s. Table 3 of this report from MiddleEastWeb reveals that THE PERCENTAGE OF THE POPULATION THAT WAS JEWISH IN MANDATORY PALESTINE JUMPED FROM AROUND 11% IN 1922 TO 33% IN 1947.

    The author of this report notes that there is a great deal of uncertainty in the population data during Ottoman and British times and he cautions against drawing precise conclusions from the data. However, it is safe to conclude that based on statistics alone, the Arabs living in the British mandate had a greater justification for a backlash against the influx of Jews than Americans have for a backlash against illegal immigrants from Mexico or the Israelis have for a backlash against illegal immigrants from Africa.

    Of course, this analogy is imperfect. There was no Palestinian state when the Jews moved into the area, and much of the Jewish immigration was authorized by the British. But the native Arabs had no say in how many outsiders could settle amongst them. The British set the immigration quotas and they were forced to accept it. Rightly or wrongly, as far as they were concerned, the Jews were illegal immigrants and they believed the large influx of uninvited outsiders threatened their way of life.

    Now, please don’t misunderstand me. This should not be read as a moral justification for the murderous attacks by the Arabs against the Jews in the 1920s and 1930s. Attacks on Jewish settlers in Palestine were as evil as they were short-sighted. Nor should it be seen as an excuse to reject Israel’s right to exist. I do not raise these points to justify or excuse the inexcusable. Instead, I raise them to help us UNDERSTAND Arab behavior and to help us avoid excessively demonizing them for it.

    Those who oppose the peace process fetishize the demonization of the Palestinians. They point to Palestinian behavior going back to the 1920s as evidence that they can NEVER be trusted to have their own state. But is it that surprising that the Palestinians would attack Jews in the 1920s and 1930s given the rapid demographic shift forced upon them? Imagine what would happen if the U.S. was controlled by a more militarily powerful nation that forced us to accept an influx from Mexico as great as the influx of Jews forced upon the Palestinians. Would we accept them peacefully, or would some of our more hot-headed citizens use incoming Mexicans for target practice? I’d like to think that we’d tolerate them peacefully. I’d like to think there would be no lynchings in Texas or Arizona. I’d like to think we were better than that, but unfortunately, I’m not unconvinced that this would be the case.

  5. Oops… that last sentence should read “I’m not convinced this would be the case.”

  6. A lot of this is just terrifying. Informed consent is *the* main pillar of modern medicine. Without that there is no reason for patients to ever trust health professionals. The people who made that policy should be in jail, not just told to stop.