Israel to Compensate Ethiopian Rabbis for Decades of Discriminatory Funding

Spiritual leaders of the Jewish Ethiopian community were denied equal funding by local religious councils, and have been fighting in court since 1992

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Rabbi Avram Shai from Arad and Rabbi Michael Mehrat from Ashdod.
Rabbi Avram Shai from Arad and Rabbi Michael Mehrat from Ashdod.Credit: Ilan Assayag
Or Kashti
Or Kashti

The National Labor Court ruled that 16 Ethiopian Israeli rabbis and spiritual leaders are to receive retroactive payment from the state and local religious councils, after decades of discriminatory allocation of resources, pay gaps and failure to redress the injustices despite protests and legal appeals.

The ruling rejected an appeal by the state and the religious councils in a case that began 12 years ago. “All along the way there were difficulties and even failures in the conduct of the state and the religious councils,” the National Labor Court said in its ruling, issued two weeks ago, adding that “the root of the process is discrimination based on national origin.”

The verdict paints a picture of disregard, denial and shirking of responsibility by the state for an injustice going back some 30 years.

In 1992, following protest over the government’s disregard for the spiritual leadership of Ethiopian immigrants to Israel, the government decided to give government recognition to the men who had been "keisim," or spiritual leaders, in Ethiopia. This entitled them to a salary for their services, which is paid by the religious council in each city or town. In addition, 12 members of the community were ordained as rabbis by the Chief Rabbinate, and they too become employees of the local religious councils.

However, the religious councils rejected the Ethiopian spiritual leaders’ involvement and failed to assist them in carrying out their work. For example, they were not given offices or funding for community activities. A number of the plaintiffs said they were openly asked not to work in the offices of the religious councils and that they were not paid the same as rabbis serving other neighborhoods.

Moreover, no investigation was ever conducted into the “disappearance” of some of the money the state had allocated to religious councils to pay salaries to the Ethiopian community’s rabbis and keisim.

Over the years that the case was before the courts some of the original plaintiffs passed away. The widow of Keis Avraham Tazezu, Yaffa Tazezu, from Be’er Sheva, said: “I can’t explain why they dragged us so long to receive what we deserve.” “How many courts will we have to go through for the state to take responsibility,” said Rabbi Avram Shai from Arad. Rabbi Michael Mehrat from Ashdod said: “They thumb their noses at us. Even after the verdict, I don’t believe the struggle has finally ended.”

A protest of Ethiopian keisim in Jerusalem, 2011. Credit: Emil Salman

The State Prosecutor’s Office and the Religious Services Ministry said in response that they are studying the verdict. They declined to comment on the court’s ruling that a way must be found “to end the process soon in an agreeable and honorable arrangement and avoid further litigation that is long and exhausting for both sides.”

Judge Leah Gliksman rejected the main arguments put forward by the state and the religious councils. One of the state’s argument was that it had no obligation “to supervise that budgets transferred for the purpose of funding the salaries of keisim were indeed conveyed to them in full.” The judge ruled that the state and the religious councils were both responsible for paying the salaries. The court also rejected the state’s argument that the rabbis and the keisim were entitled to back pay only from 2001 because “the state is unable to find evidence before 2001.” 

Glikson noted in her ruling that the lack of proper payment to the Ethiopian Israeli spiritual leaders is “part of a general phenomenon of non-payment of wages determined by government decision,” and that the state had been aware of the disparity and done nothing to redress it.

“It’s no simple thing to fight for the rights of the community and make sure our leaders receive exactly what they are due,” Rabbi Shai said. “I love Israel, but when they refused to make us equal to neighborhood rabbis, I realized that the religious establishment wants us to be slaves, water-drawers. That is even true in 2020.”

After the verdict was delivered, Keis Azaria Avihu of Ashkelon told Haaretz that for the first time he felt like any other citizen. “I’m afraid to say it’s because of racism. There was an attempt to weaken the spiritual leadership, but this did not succeed, we did not break and we will not break.”

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