01 June 2021

Ethiopians and Druze

Ethiopians and Druze

What do Ethiopian Jews in Israel and the Israeli Druze community have in common?

Both live in Israel and are citizens. Both are unique groups in Israel. Both have always had a strong sense of identity.

 A few years ago, I was in the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem where they were preparing a display of the dramatic rescue of Ethiopian Jewry and their return home to Zion. From time immemorial the Jews of Ethiopia turned towards the Holy Land and like Jews the world over, longed for 'next year in Jerusalem!" Now they were finally home. Many walked for weeks. not all made it as wild animals, slave traders and the elements took their toll. A modern Exodus story. Is there anything more dramatic or inspiring?

A particular poster caught my eye. It captured the moment as a young Ethiopian mother with her baby on her back took their first steps in the Promised land. The traditional colored, modest clothing and the wonder in her  eyes was truly  a scene worthy  of a poster.

Next to that poster was one depicting another young Ethiopian woman. This one described her successful integration into Israel. Gone were the simple modest clothing. Tight fitting jeans took it's place. What a happy young lady! She was now part of the global village. Israel was her portal to the real world. Now she can look like any other hip hop young chick. How liberating. She has thus  fulfilled the dream of the millennium thanks to the Jewish Agency and the Israeli government.

When I shared my thoughts with a young employee of the Agency, she did not understand my concern. "Indeed, this was exactly the success that was hoped for. Ethiopian Jews have made it. They were "Israelis" finally.

  How many light years was this "new Ethiopian  from what her parents dreamed ? To instantly melt into the world village and be mistaken for a young African American in NY or LA! The dreams of an ancient Jewish community finally come true. Something just did not seem right but my fellow Israeli Agency worker did not  begin to understand. 

I had occasion to witness the yearly mass gathering of the Ethiopian community as they celebrated the ancient holiday( the "Siegh") that remembered and longed for Jerusalem. In Ethiopia they would gather once a year on a hill and face Jerusalem with prayer and praise, longing for the day ...as did Moses on Mount Ebo where he longed for but could not enter the Land.

Today in Jerusalem they gather in their tens of thousands, this time in Jerusalem overlooking the Temple Mount. How wonderful to see our brothers at home together with us and fulfilling their dream! Hundreds of elders and rabbis (called kayses) in their traditional festive best. Thousands of their flock gathered, facing the Temple Mount. Is there anything more   heartwarming?

 Unfortunately, large parts of the flock have wandered from the path and are floundering in dangerous fields.

I witnessed these lost sheep. The bus I was riding in was targeted as we drove by. Threatening looks and less than friendly words yelled at us by throngs of  bored teenagers strolling slowly across the street showing us who owned the road. Was I in Jerusalem or in a no-go neighborhood in Brooklyn, NY? They look and dress like them. they walked like them,

Was it supposed to be this way? Were they saved from the long Exile for this...? The young Jewish Agency lady probably sees this as the “price of progress”.

On the other hand, I saw other young Ethiopians that day. Calm, disciplined, dressed in a respectable fashion, part of a Benai Akiva youth group. Some were group leaders and were engaged in organized, constructive activities appropriate for the occasions.

The look on their faces was one on purpose and respect for others and for themselves. What a difference. I wonder how they would fit into the Jewish Agency poster...? 

The grave mistakes being made with so many Ethiopian youth have already  been made with Jewish immigrants expelled from Arab lands that arrived in Israel in the fifties.

Yes, a new Jew was engineered then too by post Torah Israel. The “Black Panther’s” protest group  and total alienation  was the result.  There were Jewish Agency posters then too.  Another great success.

The common denominator to all the above is one word - identity. Do we appreciate who we are and why we are here? It seems that  many of our problems, both internal and external, can be linked to that word - Identity- our sense of identity in this Land.

 Which brings me to the Druze. The Druze community comprises about 2% of Israel's population. They are Arabs but have their own "secret religion" . Known to be simple rural people - fierce fighters when they must, and loyal to the powers that be as long as they are treated fairly; and especially if the government is indeed perceived to be in control and have clear direction.

 During Israel’s War of Independence, the Druze like all observers believed the Jewish state had no chance and so they chose to  fight against the Jews on the side of the other Arabs. However, when it became clear that the Jews were going to win, the Druze switched sides and ended up the winner. The Druze like a winner. They have a very healthy sense of where the winds are blowing - a historical  necessity for  survival of minorities  in the region.

Their elders urged Israel to take their sons into the IDF thus ensuring the pact between them and the winning  Jews. Indeed, the Druze community has always been held up as the example of cooperation and respect between the Jewish state and its minorities. 

This was so as long as they felt their patron was a winner. Since Oslo and subsequent retreats, the abandonment of our South Lebanon allies and  Arab terror onslaughts, the Druze have been having second thoughts. 

The Druze are Israel's litmus test. If they are loyal and respectful of the Jewish state and to  Jews then we are ok. Just watch the Druze.

Some time ago there was a pogrom against Jews  in Pe'kin,  a Galilee village with a Druze majority and a few Jewish families. (Pek'in is the only place in Israel with uninterrupted Jewish presence since the Second Temple).

The excuse for the riot was a cell phone antenna controversy. The result was all the Jewish homes were torched or ransacked. A Jewish police woman was abducted and ransomed for arrested Druze rioters.This has been the latest example of the Druze smelling the changing winds.

Druze challenges to Israeli authority is  worrisome. This never  happened in the pre-Oslo  capitulation (1993) days. It did not happen when Jews knew why they were here and did not abandon their identity for membership in  the global village. Things were  clear.  Today the Druze see how Israelis ape all things not Jewish and   how she offers  our neighbors another piece of our heart(land) in return for "acceptance" and quiet. The Druze do not understand this but sense  something is not very  kosher with their erstwhile patrons and model.

They may be switching horses. The Druze always  like a winner.

 So, what do Ethiopian Jews and Druze  have in common? 

Jewish identity.  

 When we know who we are and why we are in this land - the rest will be a lot easier for everyone including the Druze.


Shalom Pollack is a filmmaker, writer and tour guide in Jerusalem. He is writing a book," Despite ourselves - I was there”


Amazing tours coming up; June 6, June 20, July 7                  

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