The Many-splendored 'Ethiopian Vote'

Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger
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Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger

Most of the guests at the wedding on Saturday night at the spiritual center for Ethiopian immigrants in Quarter 11 in Be'er Sheva were from the groom's side. "The bride is Caucasian," one of the guests noted, evidently proud of the melting pot of immigrants at the function.

Sitting around the tables were the men, most of whom donned skullcaps, and the women, who were dressed in traditional white attire. Every now and then, one of them would get up to join the dancing at the far end of the hall, to the tune of authentic Ethiopian music. Outside sat the young men and women, with stylish hairdos, sipping beer and chain-smoking imported cigarettes.

Just two streets away, in a small apartment, with almost every wall displaying a picture of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, a meeting of local Shas activists was coming to a close. Dressed in a dark suit and donning a black skullcap, the head of the local Ethiopian community reminded everyone about the rally tonight in Tel Aviv. "Tuesday is an important day for gathering strength and feeling encouraged," said the energetic Rabbi Mazor Bayana. "Two buses will be waiting here for us in the afternoon, and they must depart full."

Rabbi Bayana, a 33-year-old father of six, will be sitting on the stage tonight at the Yad Eliyahu arena. Bayana is Shas-groomed through and through, and served as a department director in the movement's private education network. Earlier this month, Shas' spiritual leaders decided to give Bayana 13th place on the party's Knesset slate. Recent surveys are predicting 10-11 seats for Shas, but party officials and members of the Ethiopian community in Be'er Sheva are relying on past experience - namely, that Shas always does better than the opinion polls predict. They are certain: Rabbi Mazor is in.

In the last elections, Ethiopian immigrants voted almost automatically for the Likud. This time around, the Likud is likely to again receive a large chunk of the 55,000-60,000 Ethiopian votes; but the previous hegemony appears to be a thing of the past: The Ethiopian vote, like the Russian vote, is an archaic term.

One reason why the Ethiopians will vote for a variety of parties is the presence of two Ethiopian candidates in realistic positions on the Knesset slates of Kadima (Shlomo Mula Nagosai, 34th place) and Shas (Bayana).

In the eyes of the Shas candidate, the Likud remains the biggest threat. "Yes," Bayana said to the activists on Saturday night, "there are Ethiopians who vote Likud. Bibi, the model, comes here all sweet-smelling and spruced up, and asks for our votes. But after the elections, he won't even let us smell his socks.

"We have the greatest of the great who has taken care of us impartially," Bayana continued, indicating toward Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. "We, with the grace of God, are in a good position...13th place is very respectable for our community. Shas is a religious, social-minded, traditional and compassionate party that was established with the purpose of advancing the downtrodden. Shas is our natural home...We will never be able to fit in with the other parties."

The activists at Shas' Ethiopian headquarters are, for the most part, adults - parents with reservations about the state-run education system. Only a handful send their children to the Shas network of schools, despite the fact that on orders from above, the network has opened its doors to Ethiopian students from all around the country.

Nevertheless, these parents believe that Shas holds the solution to the gap between the spiritual and value-oriented aspirations they nurtured in their country of origin and the Israeli reality. "A weak ago, a young member of our community was murdered in Tel Aviv; it was on a Friday night," one activist commented. "Such a thing was unheard of in Ethiopia. They have ruined education for us here in Israel. Our youth have nothing - no respect for parents, no values. We never dreamed of getting into such a situation."

For the youth, too, however, Rabbi Ovadia is special. More and more Ethiopians are now familiar with his 1973 halakhic ruling that recognized the Beita Israel community as Jews. The ruling played a decisive role in the government's decision to bring the Ethiopian Jews to Israel, and the activists in Be'er Sheva now feel obliged to support Shas.

Baruch Garamai, 25, from Be'er Sheva's Quarter 6, voted Likud in the past, but now quotes Rabbi Yosef's ruling as his reason for changing his mind. "Many rabbis still don't see us as Jews," he says. "Rabbi Ovadia works on our behalf and it helps. Why should we disregard this?"

Shula Mola, former director of the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews, on the other hand, won't be voting Shas. "I vote left; and with the grace of God, when there is a real left here, there will also be a real solution for the Ethiopians, with a broad and comprehensive outlook. Shas doesn't offer this," she says.