Between the Holy Land and the Motherland

Between the Holy Land and the Motherland

By Leslie Nguyen-Okwu

Israeli 'Kessim' or religious leaders of the Ethiopian Jewish community pray during the Sigd holiday marking the desire for 'return to Jerusalem', as they celebrate from a hilltop in Jerusalem, on November 20, 2014. Sigd used to mark the aspirations of Ethiopians Jews to go to Jerusalem. Today Sigd is celebrated in the holy city with thousands of Ethiopians from all over Israel congregating to pray together, led by their religious leaders, the 'Kessim' who recites prayers while they pray overlooking the old city of Jerusalem.
SourceGali Tibbon/Getty


Because it’s a global age, and everyone’s an immigrant.

By Leslie Nguyen-Okwu

Early one Sunday morning, while many are still asleep, Avi Ayeh is drilling 22 teenagers on vocabulary. Like a sergeant, he bellows out the Amharic alphabet as he closely inspects the loops of each character that his Ethiopian Israeli charges diligently copy.

The odd mishmash of cultures — Africa in the land of milk and honey — elucidates one of many unseen pockets of Israeli society: pockets where Jews don’t look exactly like what the rest of the world assumes. Since Israel’s founding in the mid-20th century, some 3 million Jews have flocked there from 90 countries, including Ethiopia, India, Venezuela and more, in a migration known as “Aliyah.” But a generation later, many of them are concerned: They love their new home, but what’s going to happen to the roots they tugged out of their native soil?

Ethiopian Jews are especially worried about language, which is why people like Ayeh are trying to make Amharic, Ethiopians’ native tongue, thrive in the new nation. To help serve some 135,000 immigrants who arrived in Israel from Ethiopia between 1984 and 2013, Ayeh has started six learning centers to teach children of those immigrants, with goals to build five more in the next decade. 

The language loss is traceable, in part, to the socioeconomic status of the original immigrants, says Anbessa Teferra, the man in charge of Amharic instruction at the Ministry of Education in Israel. Most émigrés in the 1980s and 1990s hailed from a rural, agrarian society and were largely illiterate, making it more difficult to pass down any level of literacy to their next of kin. 

For the 66 students who attend Ayeh’s schools, it’s a big jump from everyday life: The second generation hasn’t grown up speaking Amharic in the home. A study from Israel’s Ministry of Immigrant Absorption revealed that less than half of the 81,000 second-generation Ethiopians in Israel speak fluent Amharic. Only 8 percent of people in this young Ethiopian generation speak Amharic on a regular basis. Take Orli Matferia, a young university student, who says even basic conversations with her grandparents are a struggle. She feels neither Israeli nor Ethiopian, somewhat “stuck in between the Holy Land and the motherland.” 

That struggle is perhaps ironic, given how eager many Ethiopian Jews were to come to Israel: In the summer of 2013, the Israeli government completed its 30-year immigration project, which airlifted some 23,000 Jews of Ethiopian origin to Israel. Three decades before, another Israeli airlift, Operation Moses, brought thousands of Ethiopian Jews from Sudan to the Holy Land.

An Ethiopian Jew takes part in a welcoming ceremony in Israel.

A Jewish Ethiopian immigrant takes part in a welcoming ceremony after arriving in Israel (2012).

Source Uriel Sinai/Getty

Israel’s opening its gates to Ethiopians was welcome after centuries of uncertain identity; historians aren’t certain from whence the Ethiopian Jews — known as the Beta Israel — came. Perhaps from a coupling of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon, or perhaps they made their way via Egypt. It’s a murky history, but also a tale as old as time: There are Chinese Panamanians, Dutch South Africans, Indian Mauritians. And of course, there are Jewish Americans, who have reinvented traditions in unique ways abroad, emphasizing Hanukkah and bar or bat mitzvahs, which are far less highlighted in Israel.

When the motherland can’t be home, the Holy Land bears the burden of fulfilling that need.

The narrative also fits into the history and future of Ethiopia itself. People are leaving Ethiopia in droves, between 1,000 and 35,000 every year since the mid-1980s, seeking homes in places with better employment prospects. As the world urbanizes and globalizes, rural Ethiopians are making their way to cities and urbanites are fighting to shake off their borders, adding up to an Ethiopian diasporic community of more than 130,000. Many journeys are dangerous, as the migrants rely on smugglers or other unsavory types to get them out. Many, too, flee political or ethnic oppression, or travel by foot across difficult terrain to the Arab world. All of which adds up to another kind of urgency: When the motherland can’t be home, the Holy Land bears the burden of fulfilling that need.

Yet, sadly, their new home doesn’t always feel welcoming. Many Ethiopians experience racism and feel differences between white Jews and black Jews acutely; indeed, a national rabbi declared the Beta Israel true Jews only in the 1970s. Many black Jews are poorer than their white counterparts and struggle with comparatively high unemployment rates. Segregation persists: One study showed that only 10 percent intermarried with whites.

Of course, plenty of Ethiopians have no interest in hanging onto the old country. Teffera says parents push their kids to speak Hebrew, and, like Hispanic teens living in the U.S., many become translators for their parents. Others think it might be difficult to build a movement around saving a language that isn’t even truly endangered. As Steven Kaplan, a professor of comparative religion at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, points out, Amharic is still spoken by 22 million people around the world. So “whatever lip service (pun-intended) you might pay to the transmission of Ethiopian culture in Israel,” Kaplan says, there’s probably little at stake.

Little, it would seem, except for the incalculable questions of identity in a global world.