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Ethiopian Women in Israel

How the lives of Ethiopian Beta Israel women changed when they made aliyah to Israel.

By Rabbi Steven Weil & Shalva Weil

Reprinted from Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia with permission of the author and the Jewish Women's Archive

Changes in Family Life

One of the greatest changes which the Ethiopian Jewish community has undergone in Israel in their move from an underdeveloped society to a modern, Western society is in the specific realm of family and personal relations. Female genital surgery is hardly performed in Israel and women express no desire to continue this practice. Girls can no longer marry at first puberty; in fact, it is illegal to marry in Israel until the age of seventeen. In addition, girls have to attend school until the minimum age of sixteen.

ethiopian jewish womanMarried women are encouraged by social workers and others to go out to work in order to assist with the family income, and it is often easier for a woman rather than a man to find employment, particularly in temporary, unskilled jobs, in which the Ethiopian Jews, despite the numerous vocational courses offered to the community, tend to congregate. According to research conducted by Phillips Davids in 1999, early marriage and childbearing are being replaced by later marriage and first birth, which will eventually have a profound effect on life-time fertility.

For the first time, rural Beta Israel are handling money and have bank accounts; a woman's salary may be paid straight into her bank account; or she may be earning more than her husband.

The Israel rabbinate has established a special department dealing with Ethiopian divorces. One-third of all Ethiopian Jewish families in Israel are one-parent families; the other two-thirds are largely made up of "complex families" constructed from two or more one-parent families, which are intrinsically unstable.

The divorce rate among Ethiopian Jews in Israel is far higher than that among the general population.  The single main reason for this is the emasculation experienced by Ethiopian Jewish men. Males no longer reign supreme; "Israeli" women answer back. If women are beaten, as was the practice in Ethiopia, they can turn to the police and file a complaint against their husbands--and many do. Ethiopian women in Israel look with curiosity and also envy, at their Israeli counterparts, and selectively imbibe Israelis' lip-service to egalitarianism between the sexes.

Shifts in Education

Between 1905-1934, Dr. Jacques Faitlovitch (1881?1955), a Semitic scholar from the Sorbonne who invested his life in bringing the Jews from Ethiopia in line with other Jews, selected 25 Beta Israel from Ethiopia to educate in Palestine and Europe, where he "planted" them in orthodox Jewish communities--in London, Paris, Florence, and Frankfurt. The idea was that they would return to their villages in Ethiopia and teach their brethren.

This dream was not fully realized, but some students pursued a career in education. Not a single female was selected to study in Europe, since it was considered too dangerous a voyage, but there were one or two female pupils at Dr. Faitlovitch's school in Addis Abeba, founded in 1923.

In the 1950s, two groups of young Beta Israel students came to Israel in order to study; most returned home at the request of the Emperor Haile Selassie to take up governmental and teaching posts in Ethiopia. The groups were mixed--male and female--and two women stayed on in Israel after marrying Israeli men.

Since their immigration to Israel, both boys and girls study at educational establishments. In a survey carried out in 1996 of 120 Ethiopian high school graduates of the Israeli educational system who studied in schools during the years 1987-1989, 98% of the respondents, who were now in their 20s and 30s and setting up their own families, answered that they favored egalitarian education for both sexes (Weil 1997b:102). Girls' educational achievements were similar to those of boys.

Whereas in 1987-1989, nearly ten percent of girls of Ethiopian origin of high-school age were not studying at any educational institution, probably because they were already mothers, today nearly every female adolescent is enrolled in school. However, some young Ethiopian female adolescents are joining their male counterparts, albeit at a slower rate, in dropping out of school without completing 12 grades. Recently, there is an increase in the number of Ethiopian females who are referred or turn to institutions for girls in distress.

At the other extreme, women are among the forerunners of those receiving higher education in Israel. Yardena Fanta holds a doctorate in education from Tel Aviv University. Other women have completed their MAs or are making successful careers in law, social work, social sciences or physiotherapy. In the Hebrew University Program for Excellence in Education among Ethiopian Jews, which trains young Ethiopian Jews as teachers, just over half the students are female.

Occupations and Status

Approximately one-third of Ethiopian women in Israel are employed, as distinct from more than one half of Jewish women from other origins. The Ethiopian women are largely concentrated in unskilled occupations, although some are employed in white collar occupations, as social workers, clerks, dental assistants and so on.

According to an IDF (Israel Defense Forces) source in February 2003, 48% of Ethiopian women serve in the IDF. Approximately half of those who do not serve volunteer for National Service. Several exceptional women have taken up key positions of leadership in the Ethiopian Jewish community in Israel. The 'changing of the guard' is not only with respect to a new, young, secular leadership in Israel, as opposed to an old, religious guard; today, women have also taken the reins.

While Ethiopian Jews in Israel are afforded equal privileges and responsibilities in practically every sphere of life, in practice they are socially and spatially segregated, which sometimes gives rise to feelings of deprivation.

Shula Mola, as the director of the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews, tries to battle this. Negest Mengashe has recently been appointed the administrative director of the National Project for Ethiopian Jews, aimed at raising vast governmental and outside funds to ameliorate the condition of Ethiopian Jews living in Israel. She can also be credited with being the first Ethiopian woman in Israel to run (unsuccessfully) on the list of a women's political party to the Knesset (Israel Parliament). Truwork Mulat directs the Steering Committee for Ethiopian Jews attached to the Ministry of Education. Simha Getahun is the coordinator of multicultural programs in Elem, an organization for disattached youth. Tsega Melaku is deputy-director of the Amharic Radio of Kol Israel. Meski Shibru is Israel's most famous Ethiopian Jewish model and singer.

Conclusion

Immigration to Israel changed Ethiopian Jewish family life in a dramatic manner. In Israel, girls are not allowed to marry at first menstruation and women are encouraged to go out to work. Some young women have been referred to welfare institutions; some live beneath the poverty line. One third of Ethiopian families in Israel are one-parent families. At the same time, some young women have become community leaders; others are acquiring a higher education. As the apparent gap between migrant Ethiopian women and men continues to grow, new forms of family structure and adjustments will no doubt emerge.

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