Zala’s Story

Portrait of beautiful young woman looking out of window at midnight.I’m a Ethiopian Jewish woman living in Israel but life here is terrible for people like me.  We are not welcomed in the Jewish community because of our skin color and we are accused of being “fake Jews”.  My husband is a white Israeli Jew.  We met when he came to Gondar, a northern town in Ethiopia three years ago as one of the many Israeli Jews who were helping with the repatriation process.

We fell in love and got married.  He remained in Gondar even after his business there was finished.  After a long discussion, he encouraged me to come back to Israel with him.  He told me it was where I belonged.  He said that many Ethiopians had moved there and that many still were.  My family encouraged me to go and I promised them that they would join me.

I was excited about going to Israel.  It was the birthplace of Moses who led our people out of the land of Egypt where they were enslaved for over 400 years.  I wanted to see the remains of Solomon’s temple and pray at the Wailing Wall.  I just wanted to immerse myself in the land I had read so much about and had always dreamed of one day seeing.

Sadly, life in the Promised Land was not at all what I expected.  I was faced with racism from people I never thought would be racist, given our history and the persecution our ancestors faced from other nations in ancient times and in both World Wars and still today.  How could they discriminate against me because of my color and my country?  When the Nazis were loading their families into the cattle cars, did they care that some of them were fair skinned, blonde hair and blue eyed?  To them they were alike–subhuman deserving of extermination.

After the war ended, many children who by some miracle, survived concentration camps, labor camps and death marches wandered from village to village searching for a relative.  Others were placed in temporary field hospitals. Those who were lucky ended up in Kloster Indersdorf, an abandoned convent near the Dachau concentration camp.

There is such ant-blackness in this community where my husband and I live that I’m tempted to leave not only this place but my Jewish faith as well.  I can’t put up with the stares and the racist remarks.  I dread going to the synagogue and trying to worship with people who don’t want me in their community.  Whenever I leave the synagogue, I feel drained, mentally scarred, and depressed.  I don’t get much sympathy from my in-laws.  Although they try not to show it, I can tell that they don’t approve of me.  They would have been happy if Isaac had married an Israeli Jewish woman.

It’s hard to hear the Rabbi use racial slurs and be accused of lying about being Jewish. They say that we are pretending just to come to come to Israel and that we will make their religion impure.  It’s very traumatic and hurtful to be treated like this by those who should be welcoming us into their community.  Didn’t God instruct the Israelites when they were in the wilderness that, “You shall neither mistreat a stranger nor oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt“?  Yet, here generations later, they are oppressing us.  Didn’t God punish Miriam for speaking against Moses’ because of his Ethiopian wife?  What about loving your neighbor as yourself?

For months I have been wrestling with myself.  Should I just pack up and leave Jerusalem and Isaac or should I stay and have children ask me questions like, “Why are you black? Did you do something wrong?”  What about being called “darkie” and other racist slurs in Yiddish which they learnt from their parents?  Would God want me to spend the rest of my life living in a community which treated me as an “outsider” and made me feel that I would never be “enough”?

Where would I go when I leave here–back to Gondar?  No.  It would be foolish to return there.  My parents object very strongly to that.  And I didn’t feel safe anymore and I was always afraid that my family and I would be attacked by the non-Jewish community. We heard stories of them burning neighbors’ crops and my parents said that it would be better for us to leave than to stay and die.  So, I came here with Isaac and I was planning to bring them over as soon as possible because I have never separated from them before and I feared for their safety.

Then, I came here and was not only subjected to blatant and systematic racism but I learned of the Israeli policy which keeps black Jews from their families.  I heard about a family who had been on a waiting list for nine years before they were finally granted permission to come here.  I don’t know how long my parents will have to wait before the Israeli government allows them to come and live with Isaac and me.  Since Beta Israel of Gondar are not officially considered Jews, it’s hard to tell if my parents will ever be allowed to emigrate.  I’m probably here only because I’m married to an Israeli Jew.

It’s hard to find a job here because no one wants to me even though I can speak fluent Hebrew and English.  So, I had to settle for being a housewife, not that I mind taking care of Isaac and our home.  I feel so lonely, though.  I don’t have any friends.   Every other weekend, I talk to my brother,  who lives in Tel Aviv.  When he arrived in Israel five years ago, he resided in an absorption centre for two years.  During that time, he studied Hebrew, familiarized himself with the governmental authorities and the services to every citizen in the areas of education, social welfare, and employment and got assistance in finding housing.  He’s married now to an Israeli woman and has two children.  He works in security and when he can, he sends money to our parents.  Like me, he’s hoping that they would be able to come to Israel soon. 

I called him, this morning, to tell him how hard it is living here in Jerusalem and that I’m thinking of leaving.  “Don’t let them win,” he told me.  “You’re not alone.  You have Isaac who is a good husband and you have God.  Be strong in the Lord.”  His words encouraged me, somewhat but after I hung up the telephone, I went into the bedroom and prostrated myself on the rug.  I prayed to God.

And He said to me, Have I not commanded you?  Be strong and of good courage; do not be afraid, nor be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” Those words brought great peace to my heart.  Just as He encouraged Joshua when he was given the responsibility of leading the people into the Promised Land following Moses’ death, God wants to encourage you too.  When you have God on your side, you have nothing to fear.”

I have spoken to Isaac and confessed that I had thought of leaving Israel because living here was completely different from what I expected and the constant racism I had to deal with.  He told me that if I still wanted to leave, we could.  All that mattered to him was my happiness.  I told him that I was willing to stay because this is where God wants me to be.   One of these days He will reveal why to me.

I don’t expect things to change but I will continue to trust in the same God who sent this message for Ebed-Melech, the Ethiopian, through the prophet Jeremiah:  “Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: ‘Behold, I will bring My words upon this city for adversity and not for good, and they shall be performed in that day before you. But I will deliver you in that day,’ says the LORD, ‘and you shall not be given into the hand of the men of whom you are afraid. For I will surely deliver you, and you shall not fall by the sword; but your life shall be as a prize to you, because you have put your trust in Me,’ says the LORD” (Jeremiah 39:15-18).

I was inspired by true events to write this post.  In January of this year there was a report that Israel will allow 400 Ethiopian Jews to immigrate ahead of elections.  Members of the Falash Mura community, Ethopian Jews whose ancestors converted to Christianity, will be flown in before coming elections on March 2.  Let’s hope that they will receive all the help they need in order to integrate into Israeli society.

Sources:  Forward; The Daily Beast; Tribecatrib; Holocaust Encyclopedia; Bible Gateway; DW; Gov.il; YNet News; i24 News; Old Paths;

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