Live and Become

I once asked my mother why we abruptly left Nigeria to relocate to Tanzania.  Usually pleasant, witty and insouciant, her mood darkened, as it often does when she speaks about my father.  After a pause she continued, "we moved because according to your father there were too many 'white' people in Nigeria, and he felt that President Julius Nyerere was the only African leader who had not sold out."

President Nyerere led Tanzania to independence, and over the next twenty years implemented African Socialism beyond the theoretical musings that some of his contemporaries espoused.  Committed to African liberation, he offered sanctuary in Tanzania to members of the African liberation movements from South Africa, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Angola, and Uganda.

Our month-long journey from a capitalistic and corrupt nation, toward a Marxist, Socialist country took us through Sudan which is centrally located in the middle of the continent.  Although known today for horrific atrocities and the genocide in Darfur; less well-known is the fact that it is also the largest country in Africa.

It is bordered by Egypt to the north, the Red Sea to the northeast, Eritrea and Ethiopia to the east, Kenya and Uganda to the southeast, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic to the southwest, Chad to the west and Libya to the northwest. The world's longest river, the Nile, bisects the country from south to north.

Though our journey was difficult, and sometimes fraught with danger, it pales by comparison to the challenges and perils thousands of Ethiopians Jews faced during the long trek across the desert of Sudan to reach the refugee camps from which they would be transported to Israel through Operation Moses.

An incredibly powerful, award-winning film chronicling one man's story about his exodus from Africa to Israel during this period is are featured in the American Trailer here, as well as an interview with the Ethiopian actor Sirak M Sabahat. In the years following the Ethiopian communities' return to Israel, their assimilation has been challenging and incomplete on a number of levels.

Ethiopians are not accorded the same levels of respect or acceptance of their rich and ancient culture, traditions and Minhagim (Jewish Customs), as some of the other European immigrants. Many Ethiopians Jews have even had to go through conversion in order to be considered "authentic" Jews, and were not accorded the same leniency granted to former Eastern European immigrants who were also granted Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return.

Unlike the Ethiopians, these immigrants were quickly and easily assimilated into the society, were able to participate in all Jewish life cycle events without question or constraint, and were not relegated to ghettos.  The individuals who assert that Ethiopians should be required to go through a conversion because there is no way to ensure or confirm that they are truly Jewish, have used the movie "Live and Become" as an example of why this is necessary.

However, the story portrayed in this movie transcends the political and polemical issues raised by the choice one mother made to save the life of her child.  Though the movie is based on a true story, it is the exception and not the rule.

This movie is in so many ways, a heart wrenching, visceral and painful portrayal of the selfless choice a mother made on behalf of her son. Similar in tone and depth of emotion as "Sophie's Choice", I can't fathom what these two women had to do to mentally arrive at a place where they could do something as unnatural as separating from ones child in a moment of greatest danger, in order save their lives. Or, as in the case of the main character in "Sophie's Choice", what she had to do to save the life of only one child.

Therefore, it is as a mother, a human being, and a Jew, that I am offended by the silent suffering of Ethiopian Jews in Israel, and I am outraged by the inequity of the treatment of Ethiopian Jews which seems to purely be based upon color.  I, personally, have met European and former Soviet Union Israeli immigrants who are totally non-religious and in fact do not even claim to be Jewish, but have relocated to Israel for purely economic gain.

I have also engaged in discussions with people about the discriminatory treatment of Ethiopian Jews in Israel; and it has at times gotten quite heated. Racism in all of its manifestations is reprehensible, yet individuals afflicted with this particular malaise always seem to find a justification for their prejudice, which allows them to assert that they are not racist.  We all have our particular preferences and biases, and I am not immune.

For example, I have a particular dislike of the Washington, DC inner city accent.  I find it to be an anathema, which is totally irrational, because I know that speech language pathology is largely unconscious, defined at an early age, and generally outside of our control.  What to me sounds ignorant and uneducated, is a baseline form of communication for this community, and it enables them to function within their communities and society at large. This statement could indeed be perceived by some as racist, and I reveal it to demonstrate my humanity and fallibility.

Much of what I have written in this blog has touched upon my time in Africa, but has also focused on my community of choice - Ethiopians, Habesha, and Jews.  I do not profess to have the answers, but I do know that we cannot not hope to find solutions unless and until we educate and aerate the challenges that still exist for people of African descent whether in America, Europe or Israel.

I hope this piece will inspire you to rent the movie "Live and Become" to see one man's perspective of what it is like to live as a Jew of Color in Israel.  The story should not be viewed as an indictment, nor as a gross generalization of how all Ethiopian Jews live.  To every situation there are exceptions, and most times many; however, it is important for people to expose injustice wherever it is found, and I believe this movie is an important tool in the arsenal of healing between the cultures, faiths and our race; the race of human beings.