Empowering Ethiopian Jews, and Fighting Discrimination

By Daniel Ashkenazy

Courtesy of Fentahun Assefa-Dawit

Fentahun Assefa-Dawit has led the Israeli non-profit organization, Tebeka, since 2013. Tebeka, which means advocate for justice in his mother tongue, Amharic, was founded in 2000 by the first Ethiopian-Israeli attorneys to qualify for the bar in Israel.

Assefa-Dawit guides all facets of Tebeka’s work, from dialogue on policy with government authorities to the free legal counsel program. More than a thousand Ethiopian-Israelis who would not otherwise be able to afford legal representation have already benefited from this organization, which aims to facilitate their honorable treatment and fair integration into Israeli society.

Fluent in English, French, Hebrew and Amharic, Assefa-Dawit believes that his facility with language gives him an advantage in his field because he is not dependent upon others to communicate with people. This affords him the ability to convey authentic messages across diplomatic channels effectively and with ease.  It also enables him to appreciate the nuances of communication and to translate it to those with less experience and cultural savvy.

How did he learn to speak four languages fluently and what experiences have led him to the path of community leader? I recount his inspiring story, a linguistic and cultural journey rooted in heritage, below.

Multilingual from Childhood

Assefa-Dawit was born and raised in the Gondar region of Ethiopia. Although the native language is Amharic, Assefa-Dawit had classes in English through the sixth grade and it was there that his mastery began.

He was also educated in his Jewish heritage and in the Hebrew language from a young age. As a child he dreamed of making aliyah ]Eds. Note: immigrating to the Land of Israel, undertaken with spiritual significance]. In the documentary film, Exile of the Black Jews, by Simcha  Jacobovici, (1983) a young Assefa-Dawit calls out from the back of a truck, “My name is Natan. I will one day live in Israel.”

However, it seemed that all paths to Israel were closed to him as a youth. The 1980’s were a period of great upheaval in Ethiopia especially for the Jews, known locally as Beta Yisrael [the “House of Israel”] due to a civil war and virulent famine. Many community members fled to the Sudan hoping to find food and shelter. While in those refugee camps, the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief (OXFAM), sponsored classes to teach the English language for the refugees. When it was discovered that Assefa-Dawit and his compatriots were Jewish they were no longer permitted to remain in the classes. Word came to the attention of Israel and the United States that they were being persecuted in the Sudanese refugee camps when because they were Jewish.

The United States, Israel and Sudan undertook a covert operation to airlift the Ethiopian Jews to Israel. They did this at great risk, but successfully for a number of weeks until the airlift of the Ethiopian Jews was leaked by the press and the operation was confirmed by then Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres. As a result, the rescue ended abruptly and some of Beta Israel were left behind, imprisoned or otherwise unable to leave.

The Canadian Chapter 

With Operation Moses’s completion Israeli officials spoke to the Jewish Immigrant Aid Society (JIAS) in Montreal about the possibility of sponsoring Ethiopian Jewish immigration to Canada. The Canadian government agreed to fund flights to Canada with several prominent members of the Montreal Jewish community assisting in the absorption of the newly-arrived Ethiopian Jews.

“My Uncles Avishalom and Tsegaye and my Aunt Woodie (Zehava), along with myself, were among the lucky ones who received sponsorship to come to Canada, along with a few hundred other Ethiopian Jews,” Assefa-Dawit recalls. He relocated to Montreal after receiving a scholarship to go to college. However, he was separated from his parents who had already immigrated to Israel with the early airlifts.

In the province of Quebec, where Montreal is located, French is the official language and it is compulsory for all immigrants to learn it. After working on learning French for several months, Assefa-Dawit was able to translate documents from English and French into Amharic for other new immigrants. With his mastery of English and French he often advocated on behalf of his community while living in Canada (1985-1994).

While in Montreal, Ethiopian Jews learned firsthand about discrimination against Blacks, often at the hands of fellow Jews. One particular incident involved an Ethiopian worker being fired from a bakery preparing Matzoth for Passover because they were deemed “not Jewish enough.” This prompted his Uncle Tsegaye to remark, “In Ethiopia we knew what it meant to be a Jew. In Canada we learned what it meant to be Black. Unfortunately, it was some of the Jews who taught us.”

Despite some racism, the small Ethiopian Jewish community thrived and was accepted into the United Talmud Torah Day school. There are many success stories from those Beta Yisrael children who grew up in Montreal. In Montreal, Dr. Charles Asher Small, the Director of the Institute for the Study of Global Anti-Semitism and Policy (ISGAP) and others worked tirelessly to gain acceptance of the Ethiopian Jews living in Montreal. Nonetheless, racism would continue and touch Assefa-Dawit’s life, too. A racist professor in the engineering faculty of Concordia University discriminated against Assefa-Dawit, which triggered him to pursue the dream that he had as a child; to live to Israel.

Onward to Israel

Dr. Small convinced him to go to Israel and to get his engineering degree at the Technion. After nine years in Montreal, Israeli authorities helped him to finally make aliyah. He was reunited with his parents and siblings, who had arrived in Israel in 1984 on Operation Moses.

The experience of discrimination and his commitment to his community were prominent influences on Assefa-Dawit journey and led him to pursue his current mission in Israel. After earning a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the Technion, he switched his sights to community development and leadership. “I began working as an engineer at the Ayelet Hashachar Absorption Center and after a few months was asked to help out with the Ethiopian immigrants,” he said.  This included being asked to direct the Jewish Agency absorption centers in Israel’s north.

He became responsible for the well-being of more than 1,000 new Ethiopian-Jewish immigrants, including protecting their safety during the harrowing days of the 2006 War in Lebanon. Later that year, Assefa-Dawit took over as director of the Jewish Agency’s Galilee-Region Partnership 2000 Program, which linked six northern communities with Canadian Jewish communities. His ability to speak multiple languages enabled him to coordinate the different components that would lead to the program’s success and his professional development.

“My aim was to give new immigrants the tools necessary to have as smooth a transition as possible in their new home.  My engineering skills helped me to think outside of the box and to resolve some of the hard problems in an ‘unconventional way,’” he recalled. The Jewish Agency adopted his approach and he was chosen to be the Director of Partnership 2000 for the Galilee Panhandle region.

In 2007 Assefa-Dawit was appointed as representative of Keren HaYesod UIA (United Israel Appeal) in Sydney, Australia and became the UIA’s CEO for New South Wales.  There the color of his skin was not a barrier as he was able to use his excellent language skills to overcome discrimination. Australia was both challenging and rewarding, but despite this, Israel was home.

Back to Israel and the Ethiopian Community

Upon his return to Israel, Assefa-Dawit decided to continue his work with Ethiopian immigrants. H was offered the position of director of Tebeka, which  plays a lead role in proving to a new generation of Ethiopian-Israelis that Israel’s democratic processes can work in their favor.

Tebeka’s activities include working against police brutality, securing compensation for mistreated employees and solving problems of wrongful practices in the IDF against Ethiopian Jews. For example, after an Ethiopian Israeli soldier was brutally beaten by the police without provocation, the legal arguments presented by Tebeka attorneys created a rare instance in which the Attorney General reopened the case. In another case, after a retail employee of a major chain was offended to learn she was being referred to as “a dark-skinned worker, Tebeka represented her in a suit against the company due to its use of discriminatory language. The company apologized and the court awarded her damages.

Assefa-Dawit is personally involved in Rakia, one of the multitude of ways Tebeka assists Ethiopian Israelis. This program is designed to advance outstanding young professionals, at the start of their careers, in assuming leadership roles in the public, academic and business sectors.

The problems of discrimination remain, as represented by protests around the country throughout 2019 in response to the brutal killing of an IDF officer from he Beta Yisrael community. Nonetheless, the director of Tebeka believes that these protests “Will not escalate as they have in the USA.”

Assefa-Dawit’s life journey influences and empowers his commitment to Tebeka and to the vision of promoting democracy. He is dedicated to advancing the educational, social and economic mobility for a new generation of Ethiopian-Israelis.  His career path seems clear, but after running for the city council in Ashdod and coming close to winning a seat, might politics be in his future?

Fentahun Assefa-Dawit has managed to overcome many cultural and linguistic barriers to reach where he is today. His warm personality and devotion to the next generation of Beta Yisrael.

Israelis, has yielded positive changes. In his own words “I am here because I have a right to be here, because this is my country,” he adds with a smile, “In Israel black lives matter and we all work towards the same goal of eliminating discrimination in our country.”


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