Two Israeli-Ethiopian writers are using literature to create cultural understanding. Germaw Mengistu and Daniel Belete are part of a migration from Ethiopia to Israel that began in the 1970s.
During this time, Ethiopian Jews started immigrating through refugee camps in Sudan. Many were escaping persecution, famine, and war. The Israel military conducted two staged airlifts of Ethiopian migrants in the following decades. Migration has continued since then.
It’s estimated that about 135,000 Ethiopians now live in Israel, where many experience difficulties in finding educational and employment opportunities. Some news reports from Israel describe racism that Ethiopians face in the Jewish state, including a segregated school system where only about one-fourth of high school seniors of Ethiopian origin score high enough on their tests to be accepted at a university. Many Ethiopian families live below the poverty line in Israel.
Mengistu and Belete are two of the few voices who have emerged from the Ethiopian community. They are recognized for writing from experience in their adopted homeland.
Here are some recent accomplishments of these two Ethiopian writers:
Mengistu a trailblazer
Mengistu is the first Ethiopian-Israeli author to be included in the Israeli literature curriculum. Middle school and high school teachers began using his short story, “A Dream at the Price of Honor,” in classrooms in fall 2016.
The author described the inclusion of his story in the curriculum as “very emotional.” The story, which is about an elderly Ethiopian couple’s journey to Israel, won the 2011 Haaretz Short Story competition.
“This is the first time that Israeli children will discover the cultural heritage written by a Jew from Ethiopia,” Mengistu said.
In the story, the couple talks about how much they long to visit Israel, and when they get there they realize that the reality is much different from their dreams. The story is part of an effort to create a more balanced curriculum in Israeli schools that will place a greater emphasis on stories of Jews who came from Ethiopia and Muslim countries. The curriculum has long been criticized for focusing on European-Jewish history and ignoring the history of Jews from other cultures and traditions.
While Mengistu’s story focuses on one couple, it could be that of thousands who have immigrated to Israel. Mengistu himself was born in Gondar, Ethiopia, near Tigray, and migrated to Israel in 1991, just two months after 15,000 Ethiopian Jews were airlifted to the country. Possessing a Ph.D. from Haifa University, he currently serves as a communications professor.
Belete working on educational project
Belete, who also is a member of the Ethiopian community in Israel, is working on a long-term project called Ashan Ve’amitz, which is designed to educate people about the rich culture of the Ethiopians who live in Israel. The project, which is described as possibly “the first serious literary work by a member of the community about the community,” includes a collection of stories and proverbs, a conversation manual, and a book to help the Israeli and Ethiopian communities build connections.
In a recent interview with Haaretz, Belete discussed cultural differences he has encountered that have led to misunderstandings and discrimination. He said that even though he was a good student in Israel, other children didn’t want to study with him. Moreover, in the Israeli army he was a good combat solider, but was punished due to a cultural misunderstanding. At a meeting with a company commander, he said, he looked down because Ethiopian culture dictates that lowering one’s head is proper when speaking to someone in authority. However, the commander thought he was being disrespectful.
In response, Belete said he decided to write. He traveled throughout Israel collecting stories to document the story of the Ethiopian community and, in his words, “to rehabilitate the culture.” His stories are targeted to the Israeli community in an effort to help them understand the mentality of the Ethiopian community.
Belete and Mengistu hope that their writing will help to secure a place for literature in the Ethiopian community in Israel. Mengistu said that few people are engaged in literature in the community.
“Literature has to be related to people’s lives, and perhaps there’s no time for that, nor is literature a source of livelihood,” he said. “There are many fields where efforts are being made, for example success in the academic world, but there’s a missing piece.”
Belete said that he reads writing by talented Ethiopians on social media, but he believes that many must be concerned with daily survival and can’t focus on writing, much less make a living from their craft. He said that many young Ethiopians in the community are creative and hopes that they will become artists and writers and that the Israeli culture will accept them as equals. In addition, he hopes they feel the freedom to express their ideas artistically.
The first signs of the community developing a political cultural elite are evident, Mengistu said. “These are still rare and exceptional exhibits, but perhaps with time we’ll see an increased presence of social leaders,” he said.