'We’ve Come a Long Way, and Will Go Further': Three Ethiopian Israelis Tell Their Stories

For these immigrants, willpower, support and pride helped them surmount prejudice and achieve success: 'Just don’t stand in our way'

Left to right: Eti Tadela; Dror and Cherut Dese; and Daniel Ishta.
Oozy Bitew and Yahli Zelther

The bullet fired last week by an off-duty policeman that struck Ethiopian Israeli Solomon Teka in the chest and killed him sparked mass protests by Israelis of Ethiopian descent and their supporters, but it was only the catalyst.

The young people who burned tires and blocked traffic for hours were protesting their day-to-day treatment at the hands of the police, the failure of the authorities to help those in need, the obstacles they face in the educational system – and most of all a society that sees them first and foremost in terms of their skin color.

But for all the anger and frustration the protests represent, there are ambitious and talented young people of Ethiopian origin who are paving the way for future generations – in entrepreneurship, the army, the police and academia. They are determined to overcome obstacles and seek to integrate into society while maintaining their identity.

>> Ethiopian Israelis are furious at 'white media' coverage of protests, and for a good reason | Analysis

Here are three stories of Ethiopians who came to Israel at a young age. They embody the difficulties and complexities encountered by young Ethiopian Israelis and the changes in their community over the years.

Dror Dese

“I am writing this post to my community, to my brothers and sisters, to those whose hearts bleed with mine during this sad and difficult time: This isn’t the solution. I know it feels like we live in a vicious circle – every few months, there’s another case of police violence towards the community and again we take to the streets and again someone makes a half promise and it’s quiet again for a while, and then we start over. Believe me, I know.”

These words were written Tuesday last week by Dror Dese, a young Ethiopian Israeli who witnessed the demonstrations and sought to steer them in a better direction.

Dror and Cherut Dese.
Oozy Bitew

“Our anger and frustration is real and justified, but burning tires and blocking roads, just as we’ve done in the past, isn’t the way … We need to direct our anger at Caesarea, at Balfour [the location of the Prime Minister’s Residence], at the government, [Public Security Minister] Gilad Erdan, at Benjamin Netanyahu. They are responsible. They are to blame.”

As hard it is to believe in the Israel of today, Dese is a success story. At age 37, he owns a successful business together with his wife, Cherut Dese, which employs four people. When he was younger, quite a few doors were opened for him, which he was able to take advantage of through his resourcefulness, and no less so, his chutzpah and daring.

“It wasn’t easy,” he said. “I needed a lot of elbows and to work hard to be successful. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how capable I am. The first thing everyone looks at is the color of my skin. I will always be different. The day Israeli society looks beyond that, we will know we’ve made our way.”

Dese was born in Ethiopia and immigrated to Israel in 1990 at the age of 8. His family settled in an immigrant absorption center in the Jerusalem suburb of Mevasseret Zion and then moved to Ashkelon.

“Compared to other Ethiopian neighborhoods, the neighborhood I grew up in was integrated. There were Ethiopians but other communities as well,” he recalled.

“The main thing I remember from then is not necessarily the presence of racism, which exists towards a lot of communities. What was most noticeable was the differentiation. They always excluded us, put us aside and treated us differently.”

That was manifested mainly in the schools, where teachers sought to integrate Ethiopian children into Israeli society but also constantly kept them apart – for instance in separate classes long after they had acclimated to their new country.

But Dese’s teacher also insisted he adopt a new name from a list she prepared. When his turn came to select one, Dror was the only one left – although he now says he likes it.

After he completed his army service in the artillery corps in 2007, Dese decided to leave Ashkelon and join friends in an apartment in Kiryat Ono, near Tel Aviv. “There, I really felt that I stood out. Everyone looked at me strangely,” he said. “I broke through the racial barriers in any event, and I didn’t feel that I needed to change for anyone.”

He was working as a security guard at a mall when he saw an ad from an Italian restaurant looking for a cook. Dese called and told the man who answered that he had worked as a cook in the army. The man invited him in for an interview. “Just before I hung up, I told him I was Ethiopian. I asked if that bothered him and he replied: ‘Does it bother you?’”

Dese got the job and was promoted to head chief chef and manager while also taking course at the Tadmor hotel school. In 2009, he opened his own Ethiopian-style restaurant. “It was a beautiful restaurant with authentic food, but it survived only a year because Ashkelon people weren’t ready for our kind of food,” he lamented.

Dese dabbled in other things, including informal education, before deciding to open a business in Tel Aviv called Tarbut B’Teva (“culture in nature”) that offers local tours and self-empowerment workshops. His first customer was Cherut, whom he later married.

A protester in Tel Aviv on July 8, 2019.
JACK GUEZ / AFP

“Our business is designed to integrate knowledge of the land with values and a return to one’s roots,” Dese said. “We take young people, college students and adult and create a meaningful and constructive experience that will help them achieve all of their goals.”

Among the workshops Tarbut B’Teva offers is how to communicate with law enforcement officials.

Asked if he felt he had managed well up to this point, he replied: “There’s a long way to go. Today when an Ethiopian sets a somewhat higher price for a service, people say he’s not worth it. But we’re the same. The one thing that differentiates us and other Israelis is color … If we’re given the same chances as everyone, I’m sure you’ll see other successful young Ethiopians.”

Daniel Ishta

“It doesn’t make a difference to anyone that I served in the army, that I’m an Israeli running champion, that I’ve received all kinds of certificates of merit and excellence, that I work hard and am talented. Whenever anyone looks at me, the first thing they see is my different color.”

Those are the comments of Daniel Ishta, an Ethiopian Israeli who at age 30 has considerable accomplishments to his name due to his abilities and his determination.

Daniel Ishta.
Yahli Zelther

“My being categorized as an Ethiopian creates the first barrier. To succeed, I have had to prove myself three to four times more than other Israelis. I’ve been successful. I know that. I have succeeded even though they put quite a few obstacles in my way. I’ve worked hard for it,” he said.

Ishtar immigrated to Israel in 1990, at the age of 3, with his brother and father. His mother was forced to remain in Ethiopia for several months before she could join them.

“We came from a village and arrived in Israel with nothing. At first, we lived in an immigrant center in Netanya, after which we moved to Kfar Tavor and later to Rishon Letzion,” he recalled. “My mother worked hard to support us and after a few years, we managed to buy an apartment. My parents got divorced and my father works as a painting contractor. That was the starting point of my life.”

Ishta has been successful mainly because of his athletic ability, which was already evident from his school days, particularly in middle- and long-distance running.

“So I clung to sports and that was lucky,” he said. “I could easily have turned to crime, but I had a good family and grew up in a mixed neighborhood, which made integration easier. There were only seven Ethiopian families in the neighborhood, and in all of them almost all the children managed to break down the barriers. Some serve in Yamam [the counter-terrorism unit of the border police], and others are electrical and electronic engineers.”

Despite that, Ishta said he encountered racism as a child. His big breakthrough came in the army, where he had wanted to join a combat unit but was instead offered a place as a part-time solder while he continued to pursue his athletic career. He began as a fitness instructor in the education corps and later became a physical training instructor. Ishta credits Dr. Avi Moyal, who heads the Israeli army’s physical fitness program for providing him the opportunities.

When he finished his army service in 2008, Ishta worked briefly as the manager of kiosks at shopping malls and then signed up to join the police.

“I served two years in the police and wanted to continue, but I discovered that if you don’t have the connections, it’s hard to succeed. There’s no relationship between ability and a career path. You need someone behind you, so I decided to resign,” he said.

“The police were surprised that an Ethiopian would resign, and they laughed at me, as if we [Ethiopians] had nowhere else to go, that we had no prospect for success on the outside,” Ishta said, adding: “I didn’t take it seriously.”

Today Ishta is the owner and manager of two businesses involved in gluten-free food. He also serves as coach to the blind runner Avi Solomon and accompanies him on races. Ishta is married and has a daughter.

Asked if he views his life story as unusual, Ishta responded: “No. There are a lot of Ethiopians who have succeeded. Ethiopian aliyah [immigration] was a success story. In the not so many years that we’ve been here, we’ve achieved a lot. Don’t forget our starting point, our parents. They came from the villages without any education or means.

“Today more and more young people of Ethiopian origin are getting a higher education. We simply have to work harder. We don’t have as much support from home or the financing, so we need more help. I can’t understand how the Jewish people, which survived the Holocaust and suffered racism, behaves as it does towards my people because of their color. Why is color so important in their view?”

Eti Tadela

Eti Tadela is an example of an Ethiopian Israeli who pursued higher education with relative ease. She has a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education and a master’s in educational systems management. Today she is a nursery school teacher and social coordinator.

“There’s no doubt that the system imposes roadblocks and that if it permitted young people of Ethiopian origin to break through, they would do it,” she declared.

Eti Tadela.

“But it also depends on the person himself. Each us perceives himself differently. I remember expressions of racism towards me, but I didn’t let it get to me. Once someone called me a “kushit” [a pejorative term for blacks in Hebrew], so I thanked him for the compliment, because a kushit is a beautiful woman,” she said.

Tadela has ambivalent feelings towards this month’s street protests. “They don’t have any family support and it won’t be easy to succeed. It’s like a volcano that explodes. I understand and identify with their frustration and their anger at the racism, but I don’t support protests like this,” she said.

“They’ve hurt innocent people and that’s not right.” Among them was her brother, who is a police officer and was beaten during the protests. “There’s no justification for this. You can speak calmly,” she said.

Tadela immigrated to Israel in 1988 at age 11. Her family initially lived in an immigrant center in Nazareth Illit and from there moved to the Tel Aviv suburb of Rehovot. She studied at a state-religious school and later at the Kfar Hasidim boarding school. “All of my friends went there,” she remarked.

At both of her schools, she studied with children from other ethnic communities but Tadela said she almost never encountered racism as a child – and when she did, she never allowed it to get the best of her.

“I remember when an adviser in a course I was taking asked me: ‘How will you find work when you don’t speak our language?’ I answered that I speak exactly the same language that she does. I told her it was a pity that a woman working in education would speak like that and trying to hurt me and undermine my self-confidence. But she wasn’t successful. I asked to change advisers.”

Despite that, Tadela said she has not encountered any obstacles in pursuing her career due to her Ethiopian background.

“There were jobs I wasn’t hired for, but it was all professional and not connected to the color of my skin. Conversely, I’ve never asked for any breaks or preferential treatment. I want to be a success because of who I am and because of my abilities. Young Ethiopians want to succeed. A lot of them are talented, enterprising. We’ve come a long way, and will go further. Just don’t stand in our way.”