Jews, Human Rights and an Engineer as Obama Visits Ethiopia

A post on Facebook surfaced on Monday July 13th. “I knew Abraham when I was a small grade. I knew him because he was a bookworm….”

The post was by a recent immigrant to United States from a small Jewish majority town in the outskirts of Addis-Ababa. How Abraham died is not scandalous because unlike Faigy Mayer, he was not an ex-hassid or a start-up entrepreneur . What is known is that he played football (soccer), that he loved to read and that unlike most people in Ethiopia, he was well educated, a doctor (radiologist) and an electrical engineer. It was known that he was generally quiet but kind to those around him. What was also known was that he was Jewish. Not just Jewish, but openly and unabashedly Jewish. Attending services, observing shabbat and wearing a kippa at all times Jewish.

This fact might seem of little importance, but this little fact is at the root of a lot of complications which may soon follow for two congregations and three countries.

You see, Israel stated that there are no more Jews in Ethiopia and by all observable accounts that is correct. Except for one synagogue in a largely Messianic neighborhood of Addis-Ababa which Abraham founded. The reason for one openly-Jewish synagogue is because in Ethiopia, being openly Jewish can limit one in many ways. Children of openly Jewish families are not allowed into public schools. If one managed to get through school, then it is restrictions to work since most workplaces openly discriminate against those who are Jewish, especially those who are openly-Jewish. in Ethiopia there is still a common superstition of the Jewish evil eye curse which leads to disappearances and deaths of  many Jews every year. Which leads to the last complication: being openly Jewish affects one’s burial rights; namely, openly Jewish people have none. They are thrown away like trash along with all other excrement of society. 

Because of this harsh anti-Semitism, there are few obvious signs that any Jews live in Kechene. Most Jews in Kechene who want a chance at normal life must do so in secret. This means, in every day life,  Jews of Kechene often pretend to be Christian by wearing crosses and taking on tattoos of crosses on their faces, that no non-Jew wears.

This creates a confusion for people in Israel: to them, there is no way that these people with crosses tattooed on their faces are Jewish and therefore do not extend to them the right of return. Because of this, the Ethiopian government can continue to discriminate against openly Jewish people and continue to persecute those who try to practice Judaism in secret; effectively trapping them at home with no way out of their situation. 

In United States the difference in skin implies to most Jews that they have little in common with Jews of Ethiopia.  The phenotype of an individual can be very deceptive. This is why most white people think they have nothing in common with the half-black, President Obama.  President Obama is set to visit Addis-Ababa this month, and he happens to have more in common with white people than black people having grown up in a white middle class household. In a way, by making an emphasis on race, the religious Jews seem to say that somehow, faith and customs of a people is only important if they are from a specific geographic area or of a certain racial make-up.

The critics of Abraham and other Jews of Kechene will ignore that Abraham chose to endanger his life to maintain his faith, the faith with  the same principles which religious Jews hold so dear in Israel and elsewhere around the world. They will ignore that he, just like millions of Jews, had one hope: to live in the land of his fore-fathers, where he thought he belonged, where people think like him, pray to the same God, the same way he did, every shabbat until his untimely death.

So what now? Now the community will have to fight to bury Abraham just as they fought for the past two years to open synagogues. If they fail, they will have to drive around Ethiopia, until they find a “sympathetic” official, who will let them bury the poor Avraham and hope that officials will not find out. For if they do, the place in the earth will have to be vacated, and Avraham will be relegated to the same fate as all unwanted things in Ethiopia endure.

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