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.

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