In an article in the Makor Rishon newspaper, Rabbi Dr. Sharon Shalom, the founder and director of Ono Academic College’s International Center for the Study of Ethiopian Jewry, made the claim that the Second Temple period was saturated with mistrust and suspicion.  The Jews of the time failed to demonstrate depth, sincerity, honesty and understanding between one another.  Rabbi Dr. Shalom asserts that the religious culture of Ethiopian Jews today contains a number of important elements that can serve as “antibiotics” to heal toxic social discourse.

Shalom noted that when he was a postdoctoral fellow in Boston, he attended a lecture given by an Israeli doctoral student who was a Bedouin woman from the South of Israel. In her lecture, she presented Israel in one-dimensionally. “Israel and Zionism have erased my culture,” she said. “Israel is destroying my village and building Jewish settlements in its place.” Rabbi Dr. Shalom was alarmed when the audience responded with a strong ovation. He quietly addressed the Israeli lecturer about her experiences and she answered in two words that he believes explain the paradoxical relationships between the State of Israel and its minority groups, whether they are Jews or not.  The phrase she used to describe Israel was, “liberating colonialism”, that is, she saw Israel as a country that transmits liberal values, equality and social justice, yet it remains colonialist.

Rabbi Dr. Shalom notes that he experienced this phenomenon himself, after the publication of his first book, “From Sinai to Ethiopia”.  In this book, he argued that the Ethiopian traditions are not relics of the past meant to be displayed in museums. They are the living breathing customs of a vital and growing segment of world Jewry.  He said that in an instant his words turned him into a heretic to many.

He recalled this event recently after reading the report of Israel’s Ministry of Education which found that the gaps between the achievements of Ethiopian students and the other students are widening, and that these differences affect students’ eligibility for a high school matriculation (bagrut) certificate. In addition to lamenting the fundamental problem presented in the report, Rabbi Dr. Shalom critiqued the fact that the study does not differentiate between veteran Ethiopian-Israelis and new Ethiopian immigrants. He believes this distinction is very important as Ethiopian-Israelis are not one monolithic group just as the ultra-Orthodox Jews and people who hold left wing political views are not monolithic groups. 

Rabbi Sharon views this study and its structure as representative of an unfortunate dynamic of discourse currently affecting Israeli society. The discourse deals more with being seen and less with getting the facts straight. It is an extreme, competitive, aggressive discourse that identifies good and bad in a dichotomous way.

The origin of this discourse is mutual suspicion and mistrust.  It is true that in every disagreement all sides bring convincing arguments.  But what are the real motives of each side? Are they promoting separation or equality? Which side proposes to judge the other by their color, gender and ethnicity? Who envisions a society in which the “weak” minorities and groups receive their share only by grace and not by right? Sometimes we don’t even know the real identities and motives of those peddling such divisive opinions.  Rabbi Dr. Sharon warns that this discourse must not be allowed to take over our wonderful Israeli society.

So too, the Second Temple period was saturated with mistrust and suspicion and the Jewish people failed to demonstrate depth, sincerity, honesty and understanding. As Naftali Zvi Berlin writes, “Before the destruction of the Second Temple, there were many righteous, pious and Torah learning Jews, but they were not honest in their worldly conduct. Therefore, because of the baseless hatred in their hearts, they suspected everyone whom they saw to be heretics and in this way they came to bloodshed.”

Rabbi Dr. Shalom thinks that the religious culture of Ethiopian Jews can serve as an antibiotic to heal this sick discourse. His grandfather, the late Abba Dajan (Gideon) Mangesha, taught him the fundamental theological value of Beta Israel (Ethiopian Jewry)—the value of equality. Before God, everyone is equal. Therefore there is no “us and them.”  Everyone (including non-Jews), by virtue of being human, relates to God, equally. There are no people who are more important or less important.  We are all individuals and equally part of the divine being.

In many cases, the root of the disagreements we observe between traditional rabbinic law and Ethiopian religious law is the different worldviews, laws and customs that relate to our understanding of human nature. While traditional rabbinic law in many cases takes a suspicious attitude toward man, the Ethiopian tradition stands out in its positive attitude and trust in man.

These days we are required to take personal responsibility for our actions and for our society. How do we do so? Our country is founded on Jewish tradition and we can learn important lessons from our scripture. The Torah recounts how after other Israelites began to prophesy in the desert, Joshua, the servant of Moses got jealous on his mentor’s behalf.  He wanted to imprison Eldad and Meidad, two men who were prophesying in the camp. Moses replies to him in simple and clear words: “Are you jealous for me? My wish would be for all the people of God to be prophets and that God will give His spirit upon all of them!”

Today we in Israel require a spirit of prophecy to come over all of us, that will help us engage in self-criticism and expand the boundaries of mutual trust while reducing suspicions between one another.

The full article in Hebrew can be found at: