Rabbi speaks on Israeli immigration
Last Wednesday, Brandeis Bridges hosted Rabbi Bob Samuels ’54 for a discussion titled “Tales of African Asylum Seekers and Ethiopian Jews,” which focused on the obstacles that Ethiopian Jewish immigrants face both en route to and in Israel.
According to Integrated Regional Information Networks humanitarian news and analysis, which, according to its website, is a service of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, many Ethiopian Jews face issues such as poverty, racism and segregation, despite having given up their previous lives and belongings to travel to Israel.
Samuels made Aliyah, or moved permanently to Israel, earlier in his life.
He worked in Israel as an educator for a number of years, most notably as the director of the Leo Baeck Education Center in Haifa, Israel, which, according to the school’s website, provides “community programming in Haifa’s underprivileged neighborhood, which empowers individuals of all ages to fulfill their potentials, and become agents of social change.”
Throughout the discussion, Samuels detailed his experiences working with Ethiopian immigrants and students of all different backgrounds.
Samuels also described how prejudices come into play in the tensions between different racial groups in Israel, much as they do in the United States.
Samuels said that race played an enormous role in the failed integration of black Sephardic Jews—from regions including the Iberian Peninsula and northern Africa—into the predominantly Ashkenazic—central and eastern European—society.
“What can I say? They [the Ethiopian Jews] are black,” Samuels said, explaining how the Ashkenazic Jews treated the Sephardic immigrants “like homeless people.”
Additionally, Samuels explained how efforts toward integration failed due to a lack of consideration for the Ethiopian immigrants’ roots, stating that placing the immigrants in apartments in “backward parts of cities” instead of in farming communities likely contributed to the high poverty rates among the Ethiopian communities.
“I think there are many cases of Ethiopians who have been integrated into Israel and feel good about being in Israel and feel empowered with opportunities, just as anyone else.” Samuels said. “I think most of them feel that they have had a less than equal shot and … I think it is an open question as to what the next 25 to 50 years will see in what percentage of the black Jews in Israel integrate.”
Despite his current outlook, Samuels said that he does not believe that the issue is a random one nor that the problem is singular to Israel.
According to Samuels, the issue boils down to one basic belief.
“I believe in the philosophy of equality despite differences. Everyone has the right to respect and to equality irrespective of all things: race, religion, sexual orientation, ethnic background and socioeconomic conditions. And that’s hard to do because most people who have power don’t like to share it,” Samuels said.
Though Samuels tried to suggest a fix for this issue, he expressed doubt.
“[Y]ou need people in powerful positions who control different aspects of lots of peoples’ lives who believe [this philosophy],” he said. “And believe me—I’m in my eighties now—my experience is that they are few and far between. People come with their prejudices and sometimes don’t even know it, and it’s very hard for them to overcome those prejudices.”
Samuels praised Brandeis students for their continued efforts toward social justice, urging them to constantly be aware of ongoing social issues worldwide.
These efforts—coupled with an open mind—will help end intolerance and establish better relationships between different racial and ethnic groups, Samuels said.
“Fight the good fight; keep doing the right thing. Keep accepting people for who they are,” Samuels said. “And who knows if one of those black families might be a solution for Israel—some amazing, charismatic, powerful person who would be a great integrator for Israel.”
Samuels praised Brandeis Bridges as one example of Brandeis students doing just that.
The club formed around the Brandeis Bridges initiative, which is sponsored by the Brandeis Israel Public Affairs Committee and sends five Jewish students and five black students to Israel each year and encourages positive relations between the two groups.
“It’s really good to approach topics like [Ethiopian Jews’ asylum seeking] to open dialogue,” Gabi Hersch ’17, the club’s vice president, said in an interview with the Justice.
“That was really the main reason we had this event, because in events like these that hold very strong emotions for both the black perspective and from the Jewish perspective, since we come from different backgrounds, we approach the topic differently, and it’s good to get to know each others’ viewpoints on some deep level like that.”