OneWorld Magazine presents

Inventing Tradition?

by Dr.Ruth Westheimer and
Dr.Steven Kaplan

Ethiopian Falasha "How much of Ethiopians in Israel distinctive culture must they surrender in order to enter into Israeli society? Whether the demands placed on the Ethiopians are precisely defined by a single authority, as in the case of the Rabbinate, or are the result of more general social forces, the challenge remains essentially the same."
In traditional Ethiopia, the Beta Israel adopted many elements from the dominant Christian culture, but retained a separate social and religious identity. In this manner they survived for hundreds of years. The challenge that confronts Ethiopian Jews in Israel is virtually a mirror image of that which they encountered in the past. Overwhelmingly, they seek to become part of the social and religious mainstream. The crucial question is, can they do this without having to abandon their own culture for that of their neighbors?

In reality, of course, the predicament they face is far more complex than a simple either/or situation. As we saw in the previous chapter, already in Ethiopia many Beta Israel had undergone changes that hinted at what awaited them in Israel. Religious practices changed, children grew more independent, the authority of elders declined, young women did not automatically marry at puberty. The clock cannot be turned back. And it is both inaccurate and hopelessly romantic to talk, as many do, of "preserving Ethiopian culture." Cultures, like fossils, are best preserved in museums. For them to live, they must be exposed to the light of day and the touch of human beings. To paraphrase the anthropologist Mary Douglas, "And if a culture is not developing, is it really a culture at all?"

The recognition that cultures always change should not, however, be read as a carte blanche to recreate the Ethiopians in the Israelis' own image. Because Israel is a country dedicated to the integration of immigrants, there is a frightening tendency to "help" newcomers fit in by explaining "how we do it here." While based largely on good intentions, one must not forget where those lead. The line between explaining a new culture and destroying an old one is often very thin.

Today, many Israelis are painfully aware of the fact that, in the 1950s Jewish immigrants mainly from North Africa were pressured to abandon much of their traditional culture. All agree that immigrants should be treated with greater sensitivity, and many programs have been developed that focus on the crafts, music, and "folklore" of different ethnic groups. In the case of the Ethiopians, however, their lack of familiarity with modern technology has often led to their being labeled "primitive." At times they have been treated as empty vessels waiting to be filled. Even the most personal and idiosyncratic aspects of "civilization" are not exempt. Thus, at the time of Operation Moses, one social worker explained to a reporter, "We have to teach them everything! Why, they don't even sleep in pajamas, so I had to explain that here we sleep in pajamas." One can only wonder how large a sample she made before coming to the conclusion that most Israelis sleep in pajamas!

Israeli concern with the cultural integration of the Ethiopians has, it must be stressed, an important positive side. In comparison to most Westerners and especially Americans, Israelis are not very concerned with the issue of skin color. The crucial categories for Israelis are Arab/Jew -- Jew/non-Jew, Religious/Secular, and European/Middle Eastern. Black/white has never been an important distinction. For most Israelis, therefore, the primary strangeness of the Ethiopians is not their color but their culture: their language, their foods, their clothes, and their manners.

In the course of time, some Israelis have grown to appreciate certain aspects of Ethiopian culture. Their deep, abiding respect for older people, which we shall consider in some detail below, has impressed many outsiders. Their soft- spokenness and impeccable manners are also often contrasted favorably with Israeli curtness. In Ethiopia, to speak in a low voice is considered a sign of good family background and training. Indeed, it is often referred to as a "whispering culture". Initially at least, the Ethiopians brought such behavior with them to their new homes. The Ethiopians' protest against the Rabbinate was, for example, particularly moving because it was carried out in almost complete silence. As former American ambassador to Israel Samuel Lewis once commented, "The Israelis all seem impressed by the Ethiopians' quietness and manners. Perhaps they'll start copying it."

Both as individuals and as a group the Ethiopians must make hundreds of decisions regarding which elements of their tradition to retain, which to transform, and which to abandon. Not all aspects of their culture will be treated in the same fashion. Nor will all Ethiopians make the same decisions. Already significant differences can be seen in matters of religious observance, dress, food, and family organization.

Return to Ethiopia Index | 1. Surviving Salvation | 2. Inventing Tradition?
3. Old Virgins to Soldiers | 4. Translating Culture | 5. Book & PBS Doco


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