Torah Sociology and Redemptive Aspects of Ethiopian Jewish Aliyah
Torah Sociology and Redemptive Aspects of Ethiopian Jewish Aliyah

A Record of Redemption, not Racism

Israel's absorption of Ethiopian Jews over the last thirty years has been characterized by much social neglect and prejudicial discrimination. These failures are the cause of the anger and pain graphically expressed in recent demonstrations.

Liberal, secular sociologists  and much of the media, review thirty years of successes and failures and conclude that Israel is a racist state.  A  Torah sociologist, however, looks at the same record and concludes that these are the footprints of the ultimate redemption, and Israel is a redemptive, and not racist, state. The journey of the ingathering of the Ethiopian Jewish exiles, full of potholes and false turns, is the subject of this article.

Defining social neglect, discrimination and racism

First let us clarify three relevant terms, social neglect, prejudicial discrimination, and racism, which have been indiscriminately used in the media.

Social neglect occurs when governmental social programs are not adequately funded and developed, and thus do not successfully meet the needs of a distressed target population.

Prejudicial discrimination occurs when a person negatively prejudges another person (in our case, by his skin color) and thus the victim receives unequal or unfavorable treatment.

Racism refers to a coherent, formal, and ideological governmental policy to discriminate in social programs and benefits on the basis of race.

Israel's absorption of Ethiopian Jews over the last thirty years has suffered from serious social neglect and discrimination, but not from racism.

There has been social neglect

Israel's absorption has suffered from social neglect because of the tremendous costs that are necessary to absorb a population that was predominately rural, non-literate, and very communal in its way of life, into a highly competitive, technological Western Israeli society.

In contrast, government funding was sufficient to absorb middle class, educated Russian immigrants during the same period. The last twenty years has also seen a governmental policy of downsizing direct governmental intervention in society and privatizing social and educational services. This strategy was adequate for Russian immigrants, but highly inadequate for Ethiopian immigrants.

It is incumbent now for the government to generously fund wide scale programs, in addition to the help given by American organizations,  of educational enrichment, community and social and leadership development, generous college scholarships, and subsidized housing. The long term social costs of not funding such programs will be inevitably much higher than the short term budgetary expenses.

There has been discrimination

Ethiopian Jews have suffered social discrimination based on skin color because it is inherent in human nature to prejudge people by skin color. Fifty years of psycho-social research has shown that prejudging people by skin color is a universal, eradicable human trait. So just as we are ethically obligated to learn how to control and channel our appetite and sex drives, we must also take responsibility for our innate psychological mechanisms of social prejudgments.

It is important that the government fund and develop educational and self awareness programs combating social prejudice, and in the mean time, it should implement widespread programs of preferential hiring of Ethiopian high school and college graduates.

Redemption, not racism

Despite these serious failings, the overall historical picture of Ethiopian absorption is one of a daring, redemptive ingathering of our exiles, and not one of ideological racism. As we know, the social absorption of two million Holocaust survivors and immigrants from Mid Eastern countries, in the 1950's and 1960's, was also accompanied by inadequate finding, social neglect and prejudicial discrimination. Our society still suffers from the consequences of these failures.

Why has our prophetic ingathering of the exiles been accompanied by so much pain? Aliyah, in actuality, is a euphemism for the wrenching, painful social experience of emigration. Research shows that emigration will almost inherently seriously weaken family structure, communal bonding, and make any immigrant over the age of thirty five feel that he has become a handicapped victim.

When any immigrant gets off the plane he finds himself in a strange land and at the bottom of an unfriendly social ladder (unless he possesses an unusual degree of wealth and social support). How much the more so when the immigrant moves from a rural, pre-modern society to twenty first century Israel!

Thus the goal of absorbing Ethiopian Jewry was, and remains, 'social engineering' at its most daring, bordering on messianic chutzpah. Liberal sociologists feel that successful social change on this scale is simply a matter of spending enough money, employing quality, professional social planning, and counting on the people's inherent good will. When these expectations are not met, liberal sociologists conclude that it must be because the general population, the victimizers, is racially or economically biased and selfish. This is what the liberal media is telling us today.

In contrast, Torah and conservative sociologists teach us that effective social change is more evolutionary than revolutionary. Healthy human beings are cautious about surrendering self interest, and human nature evolves slowly. \

This may be what Rav Tzvi Yehudah Kook taught when he said that the coming of our redemption is a slow, evolving process, like the coming of the dawn.


The absorption of Ethiopian Jewry must challenge us today as it did 20-30 years ago. So far, we seem to barely get a passing grade according to the real life results of our efforts.

We have to implement the changes outlined above.

However, our shortcomings are due to the enormous sociological difficulties of the task, and not because of institutional or ideological racism. The task of absorbing our Ethiopian Jewish brethren is a sacred part of the redemptive ingathering of the exiles that the Zionist project initiated. To succeed we must engage in honest national self criticism and national self development. It is forbidden to engage in self-hatred accusations of racism.