PRESENTATION OF AVISHAI MEKONEN, DIRECTOR OF FILMS ON ETHIOPIAN ISRAELI JEWS, AND RACIAL AND CULTURAL ISSUES IN THE JEWISH COMMUNITY, MARCH 22, 2015
The following is a summary of the presentation:
Through viewing excerpts from the film, 400 Miles to Freedom, the participants learned that the Jewish community worldwide is very ethnically and racially diverse. There are Latino Jews, Asian Jews, African-American Jews and Jewish communities living in Africa today.
He explained that before being airlifted to Israel in Operation Moses, the Ethiopian Jews lived several years in refugee camps in the Sudan where they had to pretend they were Muslim. Firstly, if the Sudanese Army who controlled the refugee camps knew that they were Jewish, the Army would have return them to Ethiopia where the Mengistu regime would have imprisoned them. Secondly, they were living among Somali refugees who were very prejudiced against all Jews.
Mr. Mekonen described the dispute between the Ethiopian Israeli Jews and the Israeli Rabbinate in which the Israeli Rabbinate questions the community's religious status because the relgious customs of the Ethiopian Jews followed while in Ethiopia were not based upon Rabbinic Judaism. Hence, the Israeli Rabbinate requires those born in Ethiopia to undergo a form of conversion before they can be married in Israel. The participants were very surprised that the Israeli Rabbinate questioned the Ethiopian Jews religious status.
He discussed some of most important unique cultural traditions of the Ethiopian Jewish community such as the fact under the Ethiopian Jewish tradition it is totally taboo to marry someone who even ones patrilineal sixth cousin. Such a person under traditional Ethiopian custom would be viewed as having social status similar to a brother or sister. The community's elders keep detailed oral records by patrilineal lineage. He gave an example from his own experience. Once he brought home to introduce to his father a girlfriend, who he wanted to marry. His father interrogated his girlfriend about her patrilineal ancestors and when it was uncovered that his family and her family had a common patrilineal ancestor five generations ago, his father reprimanded Avishai that he would be violating the major taboo.
After he reported on the difficulties that elders of the Ethiopian Jewish community have in transmitting their traditional cultural values to the younger generation who have quickly assimilated into the general Israeli culture, there was a discussion among the participants about the fact that this phenomenon is similar to the experience of Jewish groups who immigrated to the US.
Politically, he pointed out that the Ethiopian Israeli community is very attached to the Likud Party because the Operation Moses, Operation Sheba, Operation Joshua, and Operation Solomon airlifts to Israel happened under Likud adminsitrations. In fact, he noted that his mother criticized him as being "Ashkenazi" when he told her that he voted for the Zionist-Union Party in the last Israeli election.
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