Fighting in Gaza, Ethiopian Israelis Feel Equal

Ethiopian Jews in Israel, often referred to as Beta Israel or in Ethiopia Falash Mura, have faced a complex journey of integration, marked by both remarkable successes and significant challenges. As Israel continues its prolonged conflict with Hamas militants in Gaza, the Ethiopian community has found itself deeply intertwined in the nation’s struggle. This narrative explores the profound sacrifices made by Ethiopian-Israeli families, whose children have not only integrated into Israeli society but have also paid the ultimate price in defending their homeland. Simultaneously, it sheds light on the stark contrast of privilege, exemplified by the controversial lifestyle of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s son, Yair Netanyahu, amidst the ongoing war.

A Community’s Journey

The story of Ethiopian Jews in Israel is one of endurance and resilience. The bulk of this community, known as Beta Israel, moved to Israel during the 1980s and early 1990s via covert airlifts such as Operation Moses and Operation Solomon. These operations were a response to severe famine and civil unrest in Ethiopia. Despite the promise of a new beginning, the integration of Ethiopian Jews into Israeli society has been fraught with challenges, including socioeconomic disparities, cultural adjustments, and instances of discrimination.

One of the most poignant aspects of this integration has been the involvement of Ethiopian-Israeli youth in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Military service is a significant rite of passage in Israel, and for many young Ethiopian Israelis, it has been both a pathway to integration and a source of immense pride. Yet, this path is not without its dangers.

The Price of Integration

The recent conflict with Hamas has highlighted the sacrifices made by Ethiopian-Israeli soldiers. Among them was Maru Alem, a 21-year-old soldier who lost his life in the October 7 attack by Hamas. Maru’s mother, Yegebal Ayalew, who immigrated to Israel in 2012, tearfully recalls her son’s dedication to his country. “He used to say to me, ‘Mom, what’s the problem? I’m going to work for my country. If we don’t protect Israel, Israel won’t be protected,'” she recounts.

Maru’s story is not unique. Ethiopian Israelis constitute about 1.7% of the Israeli population but have disproportionately borne the brunt of the recent conflict. Of the more than 500 Israeli security forces killed either on October 7 or in subsequent military operations, 24 were of Ethiopian descent. This statistic starkly underscores the community’s deep involvement and sacrifice in the defense of Israel.

Generational Divides and Cultural Challenges

The integration journey has also revealed generational divides within Ethiopian-Israeli families. Older generations, like Yegebal, often struggle with the language barrier and cultural differences, finding it challenging to navigate Israeli society. In contrast, the younger generation, having grown up in Israel, finds it easier to assimilate and often takes on significant responsibilities, such as military service, to protect their adopted homeland.

Dr. Liat Yakhnich, a researcher at Beit Berl College, notes this dynamic, saying, “I meet a lot of young people who grew up in families where they perceived the parents as weak. They appreciate the endurance of their parents but have had to deal with life in Israel on their own.” This generational gap can create tension but also highlights the younger generation’s determination to forge a place for themselves in Israeli society, even at great personal risk.

The Struggle for Family Reunification

One of the enduring challenges for Ethiopian Israelis is the issue of family reunification. Many Ethiopian Jews left behind relatives in Ethiopia, particularly those known as Falash Mura, who are descendants of Jews who converted to Christianity under duress. These individuals identify as Jewish today but are not recognized by rabbinical authorities, complicating their immigration process under Israel’s Law of Return.

Yegebal Ayalew, mourning her son, now clings to the hope that Israeli authorities will facilitate the relocation of her relatives left behind in Ethiopia. “I call upon the Israeli authorities to bring them here with God’s help,” she implores. The desire for family reunification is a powerful testament to the community’s enduring connection to their roots and their longing for familial unity amidst their sacrifices.

Contrasts of Privilege: Yair Netanyahu in Miami

While Ethiopian families like Yegebal’s grapple with loss and the struggle for reunification, another story has emerged, highlighting the stark contrasts within Israeli society. As the war rages on, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s son, Yair Netanyahu, has been spotted living a life of luxury in a high-rise near Miami. Photographs and videos published by show Yair relaxing on the balcony of a posh Hallandale Beach condo, sipping tea in his boxers, on the phone, and socializing with friends.

The luxury apartment, situated next to a golf course and a short walk from the beach, costs between $4,200 and $17,000 a month. The Daily Mail reports that Yair’s unit costs $5,000 per month, although it remains unclear who is footing the bill. This image of privilege starkly contrasts with the sacrifices of young Ethiopian-Israeli soldiers and their families, who face not only the dangers of conflict but also ongoing socioeconomic challenges.

The Road Ahead

The sacrifices made by Ethiopian-Israeli families in the ongoing conflict underscore their deep commitment to Israel, even as they navigate the complex realities of integration and the quest for equality. The disproportionate number of Ethiopian Israelis among the fallen soldiers is a testament to their dedication and the heavy price they continue to pay.

At the same time, stories like that of Yair Netanyahu serve as a reminder of the stark disparities within Israeli society. While some live in luxury, far removed from the daily realities of conflict, others sacrifice their lives in defense of the nation.

The plight of Ethiopian-Israelis also underscores the broader challenges faced by the Ethiopian community as a whole. Despite their rich cultural heritage and history, many Ethiopians continue to grapple with poverty, a lack of opportunities, and systemic neglect. This has driven countless individuals to seek a better life abroad, often at great personal risk and sacrifice. The story of Ethiopian Jews is not just about integration into Israeli society but also about the enduring struggles of their homeland, which continues to push its citizens to seek refuge and hope elsewhere.

The Ethiopian-Israeli community’s narrative is one of resilience and enduring hope amidst profound challenges. As they strive for a better future in Israel, their journey also serves as a poignant reminder of the broader socio-economic issues in Ethiopia that drive migration and shape the lives of many Ethiopians. The sacrifices of Ethiopian-Israeli soldiers and their families are a testament to their strength and dedication, but they also highlight the need for greater support and recognition of the struggles faced by Ethiopian communities both in Israel and back in Ethiopia.

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