February 27, 2007

Speaker Discusses Problems of Ethiopian Jews

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Cornell’s black and Jewish communities came together yesterday to host Batia Eyob, the director of the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews, who spoke on the role of Ethiopian Jews in Israeli society.

Eyob was born in 1973 in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa. The early 1980s ushered in a period during which thousands of Ethiopian Jews left their homes in hopeful determination of reaching Israel.

Eyob, just 10 years old, and her sister, moved by themselves to establish a new life in Israel in 1983.

Eyob said that the most difficult part of the move was parting from her family, who would remain in Ethiopia for the next two-and-a-half years. Eyob and her sister were forced to grow up quickly and take care of each other.

Upon arriving in Israel, Ethiopians had to adjust to a new life and were faced with learning a foreign language, finding jobs and even becoming accustomed to the new food.

Today there are new challenges facing the Ethiopian Jews in Israel.

Eyob said that the younger generations do not know where they belong, and their confusion and lack of a true sense of identity often drives them to delinquency.

In addition, for many Ethiopian college graduates looking for work, the common misconception that Ethiopians are less educated and even “backwards” has a significant influence that poses yet another challenge, Eyob said.

Eyob said that many individuals — both Jews and non-Jews, alike — are unaware of the challenges that Ethiopian Jews face. By speaking to students about these topics, Eyob hopes to open people’s minds and raise awareness.

Eyob was eventually reunited with the rest of her family in Canada, where she completed her undergraduate degree in applied social sciences. Several years later, she returned to Israel to complete her M.A. in Israeli Society and Politics.

Ray McGill ’07, a member of the Coalition of Pan-African Scholars, attended yesterday’s talk. He said it is important for Cornellians to hear a story like Eyob’s to gain, “a different perspective of Israel with its variety of ethnic groups.”

Yesterday was not the first time the black and Jewish communities have come together to host events. In 2004, the two communities held a massive voter registration drive called “Vote for Hope.”

In 2005, the Cornell Israel Public Affairs Committee and NAACP brought a former Israeli basketball star, Lavon Mercer, to speak about his past experiences as an African-American living in Israel and serving in the Israeli Army.

Cornell’s black and Jewish communities hope to work together on more projects in the future.

“We look forward to continuing to work together and to building the strong relationship between these two communities here at Cornell,” CIPAC president and Sun Columnist Justin Weitz ’07, said.

David Kiferbaum ’08, vice president of advocacy for CIPAC, added, “I really do hope to continue collaborating with the black community on future events. We share many of the same values and have a great deal to gain from closer collaboration on a slew of issues.”

In her talk, Eyob stressed the importance of cooperation between peoples of different cultural and ethnic backgrounds.

“We are all of different sizes, shapes, and colors. We are a variety of people.”