Friday, June 29, 2012

An ancient faith in Africa | & The Charlotte Observer Newspaper

By Holland Cotter
New York Times


    Ethiopia’s form of Orthodox Christianity has a Jewish ring to it, with its Saturday Sabbath and other similarities.
    Tradition has it that the Queen of Sheba, an Ethiopian leader, went to Jerusalem in 10th century B.C. and had a son with King Solomon. The prince returned to Africa, taking the Arc of the Covenant with him. The artifacts are said to be kept in St. Mary’s of Zion church in Aksum.

LALIBELA, Ethiopia On the roads through Ethiopia’s highlands, traffic raises a brick-red haze that coats your clothes, powders your skin and starts a creaking in your lungs.
Despite the dust, people wear white. At churches and shrines white is the pilgrim’s color.
I wear it too, protectively: long-sleeved white shirt, tennis cap, Neutrogena sun block.
A pilgrim? Why not?
I’m here for something I’ve longed to see, Ethiopia’s holy cities: Aksum, the spiritual home of this east African country’s Orthodox Christian faith and, especially, the mountain town of Lalibela, with its cluster of 13th-century churches some 200 miles south.
Lalibela was conceived as a paradise on earth. And its 11 churches, cut from living volcanic rock, are literally anchored in the earth. In scale, number, and variety of form there’s no architecture or sculpture quite like them anywhere. Heaven seekers and art seekers are, in some ways, kindred souls, impelled to spend precious time and travel mad distances in search of places and things that will complete them.
The history of Ethiopian culture is deep, going back – if the national epic, the “Kebra Negast” or “Glory of Kings,” can be believed – to at least the 10th century B.C., when an Ethiopian ruler, the biblical Queen of Sheba, traveled to Jerusalem in search of the wisdom of Solomon. The two had a son, Menelik, who became Ethiopia’s first emperor.
Solomon, the story goes, wanted Menelik as his heir. But the young prince, with Africa on his mind, left Jerusalem behind. He did not, however, leave empty-handed. Secretly he took with him the Ark of the Covenant, which held the tablets given by God to Moses, in effect, establishing a new Israel in Ethiopia.
History, if that’s what this is, then fades until around 300 B.C., when a new empire coalesces in northern Ethiopia.
Aksum is its capitol, a still-existing group of immense stone stelae, carved with architectural features, its grand monument.
By the fourth century A.D. Ethiopia has become officially Christian, and the Ark is in Aksum, enshrined in a cathedral named St. Mary of Zion, where it remains.
Its presence makes Aksum the country’s holiest city, and St. Mary of Zion its holiest shrine, though materially both have seen better days.
The original cathedral was leveled by a Muslim army in the 16th century. Its modern replacement is a circular domed structure built by Ethiopia’s last emperor, Haile Selassie, in the early 1960s.
It’s a curious thing. Its wide, unbroken interior has the blank, functional ambience of a skating rink. Can this newish, nondescript, somewhat disheveled space really be the physical and psychic center of one the world’s oldest versions of Christianity?
A priest at the lectern burst into song, a long, gorgeous melismatic chant that bloomed in the dome. Everyone stopped to listen, enraptured.
There was the answer. Yes, it can.
The evidence was even stronger outside. I was in Aksum just before an important holy day dedicated to Mary, the object of acute devotional focus in Ethiopian Orthodoxy. Pilgrims from far and near were already gathering. A day later the city would be a sea of white, and St. Mary of Zion would be open and full. People were the completing ingredient.
To Lalibela
By the 10th century A.D, new rulers, known now as the Zagwe dynasty, appeared. They kept the Judaic form of Ethiopian Christianity, with its Saturday Sabbath, and further promoted the concept of an African Zion by giving it physical manifestation in a new capital.
The force behind the new city was the 13th-century Zagwe emperor Lalibela, for whom the new capital came to be named. He is credited – and here we are again in a tangle of fact, fantasy and informed surmise – with planning and creating the 11 churches there, all chiseled directly from sandstone cliffs and gorges. According to legend the emperor himself, spelled by angels on night shifts, did the work. Whether the results can justifiably be called, as they often are, the eighth wonder of the world, they are certainly wondrous. And sharing, as they do, sculptured architecture that extends from Turkey to China, they are indeed world-spanning.
On St. Gabriel’s day the Lalibela church dedicated to the archangel who announced the birth of Jesus to Mary opens before dawn. Chanting, amplified by loudspeakers, pours out. Following a group of pilgrims, I go in.
The service, continuous for hours, is diffuse but enfolding. Priests and deacons huddle in an alcove, beating drums, rattling sistrums, doing a small-step, hopping dance. Nearby a priest massages worshippers with a hand-held brass cross; one bent-over man gets a full rubdown, one palsied woman a prolonged pacifying touch. Another priest rushes from behind the sanctuary holding flaming tapers in front of him like wands or prods. A third swings a silver censer in hazardous arcs in front of a painting: St. Gabriel with European features, Ethiopian skin, and pooling Byzantine eyes.
The choreography is ecstatic, sensually overpowering. To be in the middle of this is discomfiting.
What’s my role? What do I do? – then a release.
Just stand there.

Read more here:

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Not out of Sheba | Gene Expression | Discover Magazine

ot out of Sheba

Liya Kebede, Credit
There is a new paper, Ethiopian Genetic Diversity Reveals Linguistic Stratification and Complex Influences on the Ethiopian Gene Pool, which is being sensationalized in the media. For example, the BBC headline: ‘DNA clues to Queen of Sheba tale’. I assumed that this was just the media, but to my surprise the authors themselves mention the ‘Sheba tale’ in their discussion for various reasons. This is unfortunate. Though it is true Ethiopians have a legend of descent from the queen of Sheba (and through her relationship to king Solomon the ancient Hebrews), if there is a scholarly consensus about the location of Sheba, it is probably in southwest Arabia (i.e., modern Yemen). But the reality is that it is probably just as likely that the story in the Hebrew Bible is an interleaved synthesis of legend and reality, and that disentangling the nuggets of truth so as to establish the location of the real Sheba is going to be impossible (it is just as likely that the real queen of Sheba, if she existed, was a Levantine notable who was given a more exotic provenance by the redactors of the Hebrew Bible).
As for the paper itself, it is of some interest. I’ve blogged and analyzed Ethiopian data myself, but the sample coverage here is awesome. Additionally, the authors attempted to ascertain time since admixture in relation to the Ethiopian population for their West Eurasia and African ancestral components, as well as sniffing around for signatures of selection in the genome. The highlights:
  • As first observed by Dienekes (to my knowledge) the Ancestral Sub-Saharan (ASS) component of Ethiopian ancestry is not in any way shape or form related to that modal in the Bantu or in West Africa. And, upon further exploration, it seems that it is separable from the Nilotic element as well, though this is less assured (one has to be careful when overloading a data set of a particular group of populations)
  • In Ethiopia it seems that Omotic ethnic groups are the modal reservoir for this component. This is of interest since Omotic are liminal members of the Afro-Asiatic language family
  • The major find here is that the non-African component of the ancestry of Ethiopians seems to have an affinity to Egyptians and Levantines, more than Yemenis
  • Additionally, there is some possible suggestive evidence for selection. Unsurprisingly Ethiopians carry a high proportion of the “European” variant of SLC24A5
  • Finally, the time since admixture is ~3,000 years BP (they used ROLLOFF)
In terms of selection, I am curious about what they found in the regions around the highland adaptation loci. One might predict that these regions should be enriched for indigenous African ancestry if the alleles are old. In contrast, if the alleles are newly arisen in the genetic background then there is no expectation that they should exhibit bias in their local genomic ancestry. The high frequency of SLC24A5 in a tropical population with West Eurasian ancestry is not surprising. South Indians have the derived variant on the order of ~50% frequency as well. The authors speculating about sexual selection seems like a deus ex machina. If sexual selection was strong for the derived variant and light skin then the allele should have become decoupled from the rest of the genome in terms of phylogeny (spreading to populations with lower levels of West Eurasian ancestry).
Two major criticisms. First, I am not clear that the comparison with non-African Ethiopian genomes was with the non-African genomes of the non-Sub-Saharan African populations. To get at what I’m saying, if you compare the West Eurasian ancestry of Ethiopians with various West Eurasian groups, then the proportion of West Eurasian ancestry in those groups is going to effect your Fst. Non-Jewish Yemenis have a high load of Sub-Saharan African ancestry. The relative closeness of the non-African component of the Ethiopians to Egyptians and Bedouins may simply be a function of the lower African ancestral load in these populations in comparison to the Yemenis. If the authors found greater genetic distance from Yemeni Jews I would be much more convinced, because the Jewish population in Yemen has a far lower proportion of African admixture than the non-Jews.
Second, like Dienekes I am not quite sure of ROLLOFF’s power in terms of generating a good peg for the time of admixture in this chronological window of time. The recent admixture events (e.g., North Africa, African Americans) are obviously right. But is it plausible that large numbers of West Eurasians were pushing their way into the highlands of Ethiopia as late as ~3,000 years ago? Perhaps. The depictions by Egyptians of the people of Punt seem to suggest they were of mostly West Eurasian ancestry. It could be that ~4,000 years ago the admixture had not been so thoroughgoing. There are two reasons I’m skeptical though. First, if there is one part of the world where we have some documentation of population movements ~3,000 years ago, it is the Near East. All we have to go on at this point is ROLLOFF. Second, like Dienekes I think we should be careful about relying on ROLLOFF alone. I have a hard time accepting ROLLOFF’s estimate for the admixture between West Eurasians and indigenous ancestral Indians ~3-4,000 years ago as well. Rather, I think that ROLLOFF is either biased toward underestimating the admixture time, or, picks up the last major pulses and misses the “peaks” of admixture. I would push both Ethiopian and Indian admixture events back several thousand years at least from what ROLLOFF is implying (or, perhaps more precisely, the inferences that some researchers make from ROLLOFF).

Frieda Pinto, Credit
Which brings me to an interesting point: there are strange correspondences between the demographic history of Ethiopia and South Asia. In both situations you have a population which seems to have arisen out of a balanced admixture between a distinctive indigenous population and a West Eurasian group which was intrusive. The ancient and medieval Western thinkers sometimes confused Ethiopia and India because of their marginal geographical position in relation to the Mediterranean world and the existence of dark-skinned people in both locales. The Greeks did differentiate though between the lighter skinned Indians of the north and the darker skinned ones of the south, with the latter resembling Ethiopians the most, except that their hair form was not curly (in reality, “north” would be the Punjab and Sindh, while the “south” would be Kerala and Tamil Nadu, because of the nature of Greek commerce and trade). Today some South Indians apparently get confused for being Ethiopian, and no doubt the reverse occurs, especially for women who straighten their hair somewhat.
That’s all I’ll say for now. The data is online, in convenient pedigree format. So I’ll be weighing in more in the near future….

Friday, June 22, 2012

Queen of Sheba's gift? Genetic mixing trail - Technology & science - Science - LiveScience -

updated 6/21/2012 2:50:25 PM ET
The Queen of Sheba's genetic legacy may live on in Ethiopia, according to new research that finds evidence of long-ago genetic mixing between Ethiopian populations and Syrian and Israeli people.Sheba And SolomonPublish Post
The Queen of Sheba, known in Ethiopia as Makeda, is mentioned in both the Bible and the Quran. The Bible discusses diplomatic relations between this monarch andKing Solomon of Israel, but Ethiopian tradition holds that their relationship went deeper: Makeda's son, Menelik I, the first emperor of Ethiopia, is said to be Solomon's offspring.
Whether this tale is true or not, new evidence reveals close links between Ethiopia and groups outside of Africa. Some Ethiopians have 40 percent to 50 percent of their genomes that match more closely with populations outside of Africa than those within, while the rest of the genomes more closely match African populations, said study researcher Toomas Kivisild of the University of Cambridge. [ History's Most Overlooked Mysteries ]
"We calculated genetic distances and found that these non-African regions of the genome are closest to the populations in Egypt, Israel and Syria," Kivislid said in a statement.
From its perch on the Horn of Africa, Ethiopia is the site of early hominin discoveries such as "Lucy," a fossilized Australopithecus afarensis and an early human ancestor. Ethiopia is also a gateway between Africa and Asia, according to Kivislid and his colleagues. But few genetic studies have delved specifically into the Ethiopian genome.
Both agriculture and linguistics show a link between Ethiopia and lands outside of Africa. For example, archaeologists have uncovered wheat and barley farming in Ethiopia, agriculture that first arose in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East. Linguistically, Ethio-Semitic, a language spoken both in Ethiopia and nearby Eritrea, has been traced to a Middle Eastern origin. 
To better understand the genetic ties between Ethiopia and the rest of the world, Kivislid and his colleagues analyzed the genomes of 188 Ethiopian men from 10 diverse populations. The men came from different regions and spoke different languages.

Tracing the genomic changes, the researchers found that the non-African and African genes first mingled about 3,000 years ago rather than during more recent times, the researchers reported Thursday in the American Journal of Human Genetics.
The results revealed that the Ethiopian genome is less ancient than those of some South African populations, and that Ethiopian genes are quite diverse. Language hinted at genetics, the researchers found: Speakers of Semetic and Cushitic tongues were shown to have genomes about half comprised of genes from non-African origins. Other groups were characterized by mixes of eastern and western African genes.
"These long-lasting links between the two regions are reflected in influences still apparent in the modern Ethiopian cultural, and, as we show here, genetic landscapes," the researchers wrote.That timeline confirms what linguistic studies have suggested about links between the Middle East and Ethiopia during this time period, the researchers wrote. It also matches records and tales of the reign of the Queen of Sheba from about 1005 to 955 B.C., when trade routes were established and a royal son, perhaps, was born. Relations between the Horn of Africa and the Middle East would continue for centuries.
Follow Stephanie Pappas on Twitter @sipappas   or LiveScience @livescience. We're also on Facebook   and Google+.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

African Jews S. African university hosts conference on black Jews

Int'l Society for Study of African Judaism [file]Photo: Courtesy Kulanu
PRETORIA – The South African University of KwaZulu-Natal hosted this week a unique conference on black Judaism around the globe, with a special emphasis on black Jews in Africa.

The conference followed an earlier initiative by Dr. Edith Bruder, a professor at the French national research institute, to establish the International Society for the Study of African Jewry. Bruder said she hopes that the conference, which took place on Wednesday and Thursday, will not only generate international interest in the black Jewish communities, but will also help the communities themselves in discovering each other and in researching more about their culture and past.

Over the last century, a growing number of tribes and communities in Africa claim to have rediscovered Jewish origins, and are readopting a Judaic religious identity. The Igbo people of Nigeria, a tribe of approximately 30,000 people, are at the center of Dr. Bruder’s research. According to Bruder, pre-colonial archeological findings at ancient sites suggest that the tribe might have come into the arms of Judaism earlier than the arrival of the Portuguese to the region in the 15th century.

Less well known perhaps are the Lemba tribes in Zimbabwe, South Africa and, to a smaller extent, also in Mozambique and Malawi, which were also represented at the conference. These tribes believe that they have specific religious practices and beliefs similar to Judaism.

According to their oral traditions, their ancestors were Jews who left Judea approximately 2,500 years ago, and settled in the Arabian Peninsula – probably in the Jewish village of Sanaw in Yemen.

Later on, in their search for gold, they migrated to northeast Africa, where they received the name of Lemba, meaning“non-African,” or “respected foreigners.”

Among the participants at the conference were academics from Israel, France, Congo, UK and the US, including Professor Shalva Weil, a renowned anthropologist from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Weil has been working with Ethiopian Jews for many years, and chairs the Society for the Study of Ethiopian Jewry – a research group affiliated with the International Society for the Study of African Jewry.

Talking to The Jerusalem Post, Weil emphasized that Ethiopian Jews do not associate themselves with the African tribes proclaiming Jewish origins, like the Yibir people or the Lemba.

“These tribes often describe themselves as ‘Israelites,’ and are not recognized in any way by Israel as Jews,” she said.

“Unlike, of course, the Ethiopian Jews, who are a natural part of the Israeli people in every sense.”

Weil’s speech at the conference, which was titled “Black But Not Beautiful,” examined the situation of Israelis of Ethiopian origins these days.

Weil said she intended to bring to the fore in her talk the incidents that Ethiopian Israelis are sometimes confronted with, and the story of their encounter with Israeli society.

Weil remarked that the conference was exciting, in that it brought together researchers of different ethnic groups from all over the world.

The conference took place under the umbrella of the KwaZulu-Natal University, which canceled a lecture by an Israeli diplomat a few weeks ago. This time, the feeling was that Weil was a honored and awaited guest.

“I am ‘mainstream’ here,” she told the Post, “especially when I talk about Ethiopian Jews. For the audience at the conference, the Ethiopian Jews are heroes. It is actually very refreshing.”

Monday, June 11, 2012

Queen of Sheba’s legacy: The inspiring young women of Beta Israel | The Times of Israel

“Your history is part of our history and your future is part of our future,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a gathering of over 1,000 Ethiopian Jews at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem last month. The May 20 event was a memorial ceremony for those Ethiopians who lost their lives during the community’s mass immigration to Israel during the 1980s and 1990s. For the first time in 20 years, a prime minister of Israel formally recognized the Ethiopian memorial by attending.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu participates in a ceremony at Mount Herzl, for the Ethiopian Jews who died while making their way to Israel, at Mount Herzl in May 2012. (photo credit: Uri Lenz/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu participates in a ceremony at Mount Herzl, for the Ethiopian Jews who died while making their way to Israel, at Mount Herzl in May 2012. (photo credit: Uri Lenz/Flash90)
Just months before, on January 18, over 5,000 young Ethiopian-Israelis and their supporters stormed through central Jerusalem to protest against racism and discrimination. In the midst of the growing awareness of Israel’s disenfranchised Ethiopian community, are those who may be among the country’s future game-changers: young Ethiopian-Israeli women.
Beylanesh Zevadia (photo credit: Courtesy)
Beylanesh Zevadia (photo credit: Courtesy)
Despite the many challenges that Ethiopian immigrants continue to face in Israel, the community’s women are ascending to positions of power and prominence. In March, Pnina Falego Gaday-Agenyahu, an educator who made aliyah with her family at age two, became the first Ethiopian-Israeli to be appointed to Israel’s Council for Higher Education. Yarden Fanta-Vagenshtein, a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, made aliyah in 1985 and is the first Ethiopian woman to earn a doctorate in Israel. Belaynesh Zevadia made aliyah as a teenager and at age 25, she became the first Ethiopian-Israeli diplomat in Israel’s Foreign Service. In February, she was appointed the country’s first Ethiopian-born ambassador. In an ending fit for the history books, Zevadia will represent the State of Israel at its embassy in Ethiopia.
These women inspired me, a Sierra Leone-born American citizen, to go to Jerusalem as a Fulbright Fellow to investigate the lives of young, accomplished women of Ethiopian descent. I wanted to understand how young Ethiopian-Israeli women weathered the difficulties of their lives and became successful. As part of my research I interviewed three remarkable young women — Ester Semu, Shira Shato, and Leah Biteolin — in an attempt to uncover the Ethiopian community’s pride and pain.
As a visiting student at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, I saw a lot more female Ethiopian students than males. Most of my Ethiopian female friends were employed at government agencies and community organizations, whereas the sleepy-eyed security guards posted at Jerusalem shops and restaurants were mostly Ethiopian men. Indeed, according to a 2006 report by the Myers-JDC-Brookdale Institute, Israel’s premier center for applied social research, 12.3 percent of Ethiopian-Israeli women hold academic and management positions as compared to 8.2 percent of Ethiopian-Israeli men.
“I think Ethiopian women are strivers,” says Ester Semu. “They want to get more things and they are more aware about what they can achieve.”
Ester Semu (Courtesy)
Ester Semu (Courtesy)
Semu is the first Ethiopian-Israeli to serve as a tour guide in Israel’s national service. A petite beauty whose English accent is indistinguishable from that of the average American student on a Taglit-Birthright trip, Semu worked very hard to get to where she is today. Her parents made aliyah through Operation Moses in 1985, and she is the only child out of 10 children to be born in Israel. Like many other Ethiopian-Israeli families, members of Semu’s family died in Sudan during the journey to Israel.
The immigration experience itself may be part of what gives young Ethiopian-Israeli women the chutzpah to become successful. The Ethiopian Jews were rural villagers and their emigration to a modern, industrialized country such as Israel was deeply traumatic.
For centuries, the Beta Israel, which means “From the House of Israel,” suffered relentless persecution as the Jewish minority in Ethiopia. Beginning in the 1980s, the American Jewish Diaspora lobbied the U.S. government and the State of Israel to rescue the Ethiopian community through a series of clandestine airlifts out of Ethiopia and into the Promised Land. The community was placed in absorption centers where they received Hebrew lessons and basic social services. Decades have passed and millions of shekels have been poured into their integration, but still, the Ethiopian Jewish community in Israel has deteriorated. Over 50 percent of Ethiopian families live below the poverty line, and thousands continue to face discrimination in housing, education, and employment.
‘Growing up in Afula, I knew we were different. It became clear very quickly — in school, at the market, everywhere’
Often unable to read and write their own native languages, let alone Hebrew, the elders faced numerous difficulties and had to rely upon their young children.
Leah Biteolin was three years old when her family made aliyah after months of waiting at the refugee camps in Sudan. “It was incredibly exciting,” she says. Once in Israel, she soon shouldered adult responsibilities. “The three of us — me, my sister, and my brother — knew that we had a responsibility to help our parents. We translated the news for them, we wrote letters to government offices, and we scheduled medical appointments. We did things that the average 10 year old is not concerned with,” says Biteolin.
From an early age, the young women I interviewed faced the kind of stigma that is common for the over 116,000 Ethiopian Jewish immigrants and their children currently living in Israel, of whom about 32 percent are Israeli-born. “Growing up in Afula, I knew we were different. It became clear very quickly — in school, at the market, everywhere,” says Semu. In primary school the other Israeli kids called her kushi, an epithet commonly compared to the N-word, though it derives from Cush, the biblical name for modern-day Sudan.
Yet each woman I interviewed managed to escape the fate of poverty and marginalization partly because of her university education and international travels — crucial experiences that gave them self-confidence and pride in their cultural heritage. Semu speaks Spanish, a language she picked up from watching telenovelas, and she has traveled to Cyprus. She also spent a year in the United States because Bnei Akiva, a religious youth organization, sent her there to teach at a Jewish day school in New York.
During the Sigd, the biblical festival celebrated by the Ethiopian Jewish Diaspora, Semu lectured to a roomful of American Jews about her Ethiopian culture. Her year abroad was the typical coming-of-age experience where she went out into the world, wrestled with the elements, and discovered her authentic self. “I finally became happy with my family’s culture. I realized that you have to know who you are and where you come from in order to do something in the future, in order to become somebody,” she says.
The soft bigotry of low expectations does in fact exist: ‘People are amazed whenever I start speaking English…their mouths drop open,’ Ester says. ‘I have to think it’s funny otherwise it would make me sad.’
Travel and army service gave Shira Shato, whose family came from a small village near Gondar in 1984, the confidence to thrive. As the feisty renegade in a family of 14 children, she broke with family tradition by enlisting in the IDF instead of the alternative national service for religious Jews. During her army service she was responsible for training her cohort on how to become a medic. Most of her colleagues came from wealthy families in Tel Aviv so having them see a competent, confident Ethiopian in a position of authority bolstered Shato’s pride in her ethnic identity. Shato also spent a year in America at Ohio State University, as an Israeli Fellow at the university’s Hillel center.
As a young executive at the Jewish Agency, Leah Biteolin had an opportunity to travel to Canada and Switzerland for projects that built important bridges between different communities. Biteolin, an accomplished legal trainee who has also been to Croatia and Australia, is the subject of an eponymous documentary about her life by filmmaker Daniel Remer.
Yet for all their enviable accomplishments, all three women continue to taste the bitter herb of prejudice. As a fellow young African immigrant who is often the only Black person represented in prestigious programs such as the Fulbright fellowship to Israel, I can attest that the pathology of “soft bigotry of low expectations” does in fact exist.
“People are amazed whenever I start speaking English…their mouths drop open,” Semu says. “I have to think it’s funny otherwise it would make me sad. People still think that Ethiopians are ignorant and are unable to do anything,” she says.
Shato’s brush with racism happened in the army, during training with a non-Ethiopian colleague and an Israeli doctor. “We started making small talk and the doctor asked my partner about his role on our team. He then looked and me and said, “You too?” with a surprised look on his face” says Shato. “Skin color says nothing about someone’s ability,” Shato kindly informed him. The doctor quickly apologized and said he ‘misspoke.’
The women have battled negative stereotypes based not only on their race, but also on their gender. “We live in a chauvinistic society and I think all people talk about is how beautiful Ethiopian women are, and not about their brains or what they are achieving,” says Shato.
“It’s perceived that Ethiopian women want to get married to non-Ethiopians,” Semu remarks with clear annoyance. Perhaps this stereotype is rooted in a bit of truth since a Central Bureau of Statistics report showed twice as many Ethiopian women marry non-Ethiopians as compared to Ethiopian men. But then again, since Ethiopian-Israeli men are scarce at universities and professional workplaces, it is only natural for Ethiopian-Israeli women to marry their educational and professional peers.
Ethiopian women do in fact face a lot of pressure to marry within their culture. After Shato completed her first university degree, her father pulled her aside and whispered, “You have to settle down and find yourself someone, and it would be much better if he is one of us.” She ended up with an Israeli of Moroccan descent.
When Semu got engaged to her French-Israeli fiancé, her non-Ethiopian classmates insinuated that they saw it coming because she is ‘educated and cultured.’ “It offended me because they thought they were giving me a compliment. They were basically saying that I’m too high-class for an Ethiopian guy. It was insulting. I didn’t set out to marry a non-Ethiopian. I just wanted someone who matches me,” says Semu. Like Shato, Semu’s father was also deeply concerned that the man she married is non-Ethiopian. “Many people in the community think, “Why do you want to go out [of the community] and marry someone who is not Ethiopian? Are we not good enough for you?” says Semu.
As evidenced by the mass demonstrations in January, young Ethiopian-Israelis are very angry that even though they chucked their ancestral traditions off the Masada, even though they speak Hebrew as a mother tongue, or are Israeli-born, they have not escaped the stigma of the poor African villager who Israel had to go rescue and introduce to a flushing toilet.
The two fathers’ reservations about interracial marriages is based on old hurts that have never healed. After the Ethiopian aliyah to Israel, the rabbinic establishment struck a fatal blow to the elders of the Beta Israel when they rejected the community’s biblical brand of Judaism, which did not include the Oral Torah. Moreover, thekessim, the community’s traditional priests, have had their powers quartered and quarantined by the religious establishment. In January, Haaretz reported that Israeli rabbis are working to “phase out” these gatekeepers who have guarded the community’s Jewish traditions for thousands of years. The elegantkessim — with their white turbans, dignified strut, and colorful ceremonial umbrellas — will soon disappear into history.
Despite the fact that they are educated, well-traveled, and have acculturated into modern Israeli society, all three women feel a strong reverence for their traditional Ethiopian culture. Like me, a lot of Ethiopian-Israelis are 1.5 generation immigrants — they left the country of their birth before age 12 for a new country. Unlike first-generation immigrants, 1.5s occupy a strange space as cultural chameleons. Our adopted societies expect us to pledge cultural loyalties, but the act of reclaiming our ancestral heritage is like a soothing balm to the wounds of racism, discrimination, injustice, and bigotry.
All three women agreed that the biggest issue plaguing young Beta Israel is the failure of integration. “Children nowadays are very much separated from their parent’s heritage. They wanted so badly to be accepted [into Israeli society], so they threw out their culture and customs,” says Semu. As evidenced by the mass demonstrations in January, young Ethiopian-Israelis are very angry that even though they chucked their ancestral traditions off the Masada, even though they speak Hebrew as a mother tongue, or are Israeli-born, they have not escaped the stigma of the poor African villager who Israel had to go rescue and introduce to a flushing toilet.
As a result, many young Ethiopian-Israelis have sought empowerment by appropriating the most bombastic elements of urban African American culture. “I really don’t understand all the hip hop music, rap fashions, and all the gang things. Why do we have to adopt someone else’s culture? Why don’t we dig for our own roots instead?” says Shato.
According to data by the Myers-JDC-Brookdale Institute, risky behavior has indeed increased dramatically among first and second generation Ethiopian-Israeli youth.
Reflecting upon this tragic situation, Shira further adds, “Young people have to understand the story of what their parents went through to come to Israel. The decision to leave everything behind and walk to Sudan, not knowing where they were going, not knowing if they will succeed, it was a brave thing. I believe if they learn more about their own community, the sacrifices that their families made to come to Israel, they will understand their roots and will be motivated to build themselves up, break the cycle of poverty, go for education, and reach for more opportunities.”
The State of Israel has made small steps in continuing to address the plight of its Ethiopian Jews. In March 2012 the Knesset approved a bill that calls for the establishment of an Ethiopian Jewry Heritage Center which will serve as an archival institute for historical and genealogical research, academic conferences, and seminars.  In 2008, the Ethiopian Sigd was declared an official State holiday. Due to the advocacy work of the Israel Association of Ethiopian Jews (IAEJ), the Knesset extended an affirmative action policy that will help Ethiopians gain positions in the government, civil, and private sector. The IAEJ also spearheaded a campaign that led to the repealing of a discriminatory mortgage grant policy that confined Ethiopian-Israeli couples to terrible neighborhoods. Institutions such as Nishmat, a private women’s seminary in Jerusalem, has a wonderful program that offers young Ethiopian-Israeli women an opportunity to learn and grow in a supportive environment.  As a student at this seminary, I was delighted to see the amount of camaraderie that the faculty and administrators encouraged between the Ethiopian-Israelis and foreign students from North America, Europe, and Latin America.
Leah Biteolin, Ester Semu, and Shira Shato all have bright aspirations for the Ethiopian Jewish future in Israel. “I really want to be involved in politics because that’s how you can truly influence the entire society,” says Shato, who, with her dynamic charisma and strong personal convictions, can surely wrestle down any opposition on the floors of the Knesset. “I hope that we continue to improve as a community so that it wouldn’t be strange to see an Ethiopian at a university, at the theatre, or in cultural places,” adds Ester. “When I think of my life since high school, I am proud of everything. I am helping people, changing their lives, and I feel that I am helping to create the next generation of Jewish people,” says Leah.
Without a doubt, these three young women are glowing jewels in the crown of the biblical Queen Sheba. But even though their stories are a source of inspiration, thousands of other young Ethiopian-Israelis do not have the opportunity to get a university education or embark on enriching international experiences.
Netanyahu concluded his speech by adding, “I hope that our new plan for improving immigration and integration will help you all to go beyond that glass ceiling.”
As a young African immigrant who grew up in a Westernized country, and has navigated around the sinkholes that some young minorities unfortunately fall into, I offer a toolbox of ideas to help crack that glass ceiling: An exposure to the world — to people, to places, to ideas — has a magical effect on a young immigrant’s bi-cultural identity, self-confidence, and intellectual growth; participation in structured, well-funded programs that provides heartfelt mentorship and guided access to universities and professional opportunities will level the playing field for those who have to overcome Olympian hurdles before the race even begins; being immersed in a vibrant social environment where one can express their unique ethnic identity and cultural heritage without shame or ridicule, offers the perfect stage for multicultural friendships, and even marriages, to bloom and grow. If the State of Israel fulfills its promise to its Ethiopian Jews, what new chapter will the next generation add to the history of the Jewish people?

Friday, June 8, 2012

Jewish Heart for Africa... JPost - Jewish World - Jewish Features

Organization aims to bring sustainable development to schools, orphanages and medical clinics in rural African villages.

Kaliro Orphanage in UgandaPhoto: Matthew Reber
By installing a small set of solar panels in some of the most remote of African villages, Sivan Borowich-Ya’ari and her organization Jewish Heart for Africa are able to bringelectricity to schools, orphanages and medical clinics that have never seen artificial light before.

This week, Jewish Heart for Africa is officially marking having helped 250,000 people throughout the continent, bringing them sustainable solutions that allow for the fulfillment of basic life needs. Based in New York City, the organization is a 501-c3 nonprofit whose goal is to save African lives using Israeli sustainable technology. Founded in 2008 by French-Israeli Borowich- Ya’ari, 33, as of Tuesday, the group had completed 58 solar projects at schools, medical clinics and orphanages in villages throughout Ethiopia, Uganda,Tanzania and Malawi. The project that had just been completed as Borowich-Ya’ari spoke to The Jerusalem Postover the phone from New York on Tuesday evening was in the village of Nthodo, Malawi.

“Our priority is really to get where the need is the greatest,” she said.

Borowich-Ya’ari, who received her masters degree in international affairs from Columbia University, began her career bringing sustainable energy to Africa while working for a United Nations development program. From there, she decided to establish her own organization, to bring similar aid to African villages through an Israeli lens.

“Israel has so much to offer and Israel managed to cope with a land that was without any kind of resources, and today it is one of the most innovative countries,” she said. “I’m sure that if we can transfer these technologies to the people that are most in need, we can help them.”

First and foremost, the solar panels bring something as simple as electric light to the communities, Borowich- Ya’ari explained. The villages need to have at least 1,000 residents and be far from the national grid, she added. After receiving a commitment to maintaining the solar facilities from the local government, Jewish Heart for Africa teams teach the local residents about what is going to be happening and how solar energy functions.

“Most of them haven’t seen light in their life,” Borowich-Ya’ari said.

Upon arrival to any of these villages, visitors will usually see a simple medical clinic that has essentially nothing inside – no light and no refrigerator for medications.

“If you want to find a medical clinic at night you can’t,” she said.

The photovoltaic systems that Jewish Heart for Africa installs include storage batteries so that energy captured during the day can also be used at night, according to Borowich-Ya’ari. Team members always make sure to then install light bulbs in various places around the village, with at least four outside the medical clinic.

Within the clinic, the organization brings in 50- to 60-liter refrigerators that have ample room for vaccines – a feature that also attracts doctors to come live in the area. In addition to powering the medical clinic, the local school and the orphanages, the group also ensures, as an incentive, that the homes of doctors, nurses and teachers all receive electricity, Borowich-Ya’ari explained.

Once the medical clinics are equipped with electricity and refrigerators, lines and lines of people ready to receive vaccinations quickly form, and the organization has now vaccinated over 100,000 people, she said.

The average cost per project is about $10,000, much of which is raised through donations from the global Jewish community. By bringing in sustainable Israeli technologies to African villages, the organization also hopes to improve Israel’s image worldwide, according to Borowich-Ya’ari.

In addition to providing basic electricity needs, the solar panels have also paved the way for clean water access in several villages, Borowich-Ya’ari said. In a few of the villages, Jewish Heart for Africa has installed water pumps – powered by the solar panels – that each pump over 20,000 liters of water per day. Thus far, four of these have been completed in Uganda and Tanzania, and one in Malawi.

Borowich-Ya’ari hopes to continue bringing vaccines, solar energy and drinkable water to more and more villages throughout Africa.

“The demand is so great,” she said. “You look into the eyes of the children – everyone needs it.”