To me, it is obvious that “Black Lives Matter.” From my earliest immersion in Jewish education, I was taught to appreciate the value of each person irrespective of race, color or religion. Most of our society will acknowledge that black lives do matter. Just ask them. But, for black lives to really matter, that acknowledgment must be manifested in action.
It is not only as Americans that we must transform the phrase “Black Lives Matter” into an action plan. The time has come for the Jewish community to finally affirm that the black Jews of Ethiopian descent in Israel and those stranded in Ethiopia also matter.
Although the condition of the 150,000 Jews of Ethiopian origin who live in Israel and the 8,000 Jews stranded in Ethiopia has been a concern for many decades, the issue has become a flashpoint since the creation of the Black Lives Matter Movement. The failure of Israel’s leadership to respond appropriately to the brutal treatment of Ethiopian Jews has caught the attention of a growing segment of Diaspora Jewry who believes that an anti-racist initiative is critical now – before the problem becomes unmanageable. Ethiopian Jews in Israel are often subject to racist treatment by the Israeli police. Jews of Ethiopian origin face job discrimination. Ethiopian Jews are often made to feel as if their lives did not matter.
Although organizations such as the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry (NACOEJ) are working to enrich the education and training of Ethiopian Jews, it is not sufficient. Israel’s Government must allocate sufficient funds and resources to ensure that Ethiopian Jews receive the tools and skills necessary for them to enter the IDF and the job market at levels comparable with non-black Israelis. Without devoting the resources now, we run the risk of creating a “permanent underclass” in Israel.
The Jews stranded in Ethiopia have been promised authorization to make Aliyah for decades. They moved to Addis Ababa and Gondar from their small villages where they once had small plots of land for subsistence farming. They essentially gave up their livelihood and trekked to their new homes based on the promise that they would be permitted to make Aliyah. Today, they have meager resources: Families of seven or eight frequently live in one-room shacks – often without electricity and plumbing. Organizations such as NACOEJ help to provide meager daily rations, which are supplemented for children and nursing mothers. But, it is never enough.
COVID-19 is now plaguing the already fragile Community. The people are told to “social distance” – in crowded compounds. They are counseled to practice good hygiene, but without adequate sanitation, soap or water. They are in desperate need of good medical care. Without our assistance, these black lives would not survive to matter at all.
Most of the Jews stranded in Ethiopia have been on approved Government lists since 2007 and 2010. It is estimated that 70% of those who are waiting to make Aliyah have first degree relatives already living in Israel. Parents are separated from children. Sisters and brothers are apart. Bringing this group to Israel is important for the value of family reunification.
Although there are some who mistakenly claim that those in Ethiopia are not really Jews, it is important to recognize that Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, and Reform rabbinic leadership in North America, and the Chief Rabbinate in Israel, have declared these people as Jews for the purpose for Aliyah. It is also important to note that Ethiopian Jews who make Aliyah do go through a process of “giyur” (conversion) in order to satisfy those who doubt. If we really care about them and if their lives really matter, they must be brought to Israel now.
Our challenge as North American Jews is to transform the phrase “Black Lives Matter” into a positive action plan. Bringing Ethiopian Jews to Israel and appropriately absorbing them will require a partnership of the Government of Israel and North American Jewry. Israel must know that we care about black lives and we expect Ethiopian Jews to be promptly welcomed and absorbed in their Homeland. I know that this will not happen overnight. Until that time, NACOEJ is committed to working together with North American Jews who want to make black lives matter in order to garner the resources to save lives that matter.
Rabbi Jerome M. Epstein is President of the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry (NACOEJ) and CEO/Executive Vice-President Emeritus of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.