Shlomit Bukaya Takes on Racism in Israel

It’s market day in Ramla, a small city about 12 miles south of Tel Aviv, and while vendors hawk their wares to a bustling crowd of shoppers from diverse ethnic backgrounds, Shlomit Bukaya, Executive Director of the Association of Ethiopian Jews (AEJ), ponders the future for Israelis of Ethiopian descent.

“In some ways, there has been progress for our 151,000-member strong community,” the 35-year old lawyer explained in an interview in her office. “But a developed country like Israel should know how to stop discrimination.”

Bukaya is warm and animated, with a wholehearted laugh that shakes her shoulder-length blond curls. Yet when she talks about social injustices, she grows serious, speaking at breakneck speed to get her points across. Perhaps it’s because she doesn’t want her two-and-a-half-year-old son to experience racism that older generations of Israelis of Ethiopian descent have endured. It’s almost as if she’s running against time.

There are large gaps between Israelis of Ethiopian descent and other Israelis in education, housing, and economic stability. Since its inception in 1993, the AEJ has advocated for policies to close these gaps to improve the quality of life for Israelis of Ethiopian descent, as well as to change public attitudes toward the Ethiopian Jewish community.

Despite the challenges facing the Ethiopian Jewish community in Israel, Bukaya’s own story is inspiring. Bukaya arrived with her parents and six siblings from Ethiopia in 1990 as part of Operation Solomon when she was five years old. Her name was Marito; upon arrival in Israel, she was given the name Shlomit. The family of ten (the youngest child was later born in Israel) settled in Afula, a mid-sized city in central Israel. Because the population was diverse, Bukaya said, she “didn’t feel different from the other kids.”

She became active in Israel’s nationwide Scout Movement, served on her high school’s student council, tutored other students, and entered the Israeli Defense Forces on an academic track. At first, she thought she would be a biologist, but changed course midway through her studies. After soul-searching, she decided to attend the Interdisciplinary Center, IDC, in Herzliya, to receive her law degree. She then worked in commercial litigation in one of Israel’s largest law firms. Her siblings had similar trajectories: one brother works at Google and another at Amdocs. Her husband, Ano, studied aeronautic engineering at the Technion (Israel’s equivalent of M.I.T.) and now works as an engineer in the Israeli Air Force.

While working in Tel Aviv that she encountered one of many experiences that she now uses to exemplify everyday discrimination faced by Black Israelis. One of the firm’s other lawyers saw a wash bucket in the hall and asked Bukaya—dressed in office wear though she was–to move it.

“I could move it,” Bukaya told her colleague. “But so could you.”

The woman suddenly realized with embarrassment that Bukaya was a lawyer and not a cleaning woman. Putting aside the woman’s lack of tact, Bukaya said the incident illustrated “the way some Israelis see the color of my skin and have an assumed notion of who I am.”

While working as a lawyer, Bukaya often wrote social media posts highlighting her frustrations with racism and discrimination. She gradually realized that she wanted to do more, and took on the leadership role of the AEJ in 2019.

“Israel hasn’t yet learned how to fight prejudice on a broad scale,” Bukaya said. Previous waves of immigrants from all over have struggled; Jews from Ethiopia are the newest wave, joining new arrivals from Afghanistan, India, North Africa and North Africa. But Bukaya pointed out, “the color of our skin, which I see as a privilege, might mean that we’ll suffer more because we stand out.”

Historians are uncertain about the origins of Ethiopia’s Jewish community, also known as Beta Israel. Some believe they are descendants of the Biblical tribe of Dan; others claim they are descendants of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. The community lived in isolation until the twentieth century. There are accounts that members of the Ethiopian Jewish community were just as surprised to find light-skinned Jews as the light-skinned Jews were surprised to meet their dark-skinned brethren. In 1973, the then-chief Sephardic rabbi, Ovadia Yosef, ruled that they were, indeed, Jews, and therefore qualified for Israel’s Law of Return, legislation that permits any Jew to settle in Israel.

Israel completed several missions to rescue Ethiopian Jews, including Operation Brothers during 1982-83, in which Mossad agents operated the Red Sea Diving Resort during the day, and smuggled out 12,000 Jews into Israel at night. (The story has been made into “The Red Sea Diving Resort,” available on Netflix.)

A huge wave of immigrants then arrived in May 1991 during Operation Solomon, when Israeli planes airlifted more than 14,500 Jews out of the country in under 36 hours. Israel went to great lengths to bring them to Israel, but in many ways, the country has failed to fulfill its mission.

In 2016, for example, only 34 percent of Israelis of Ethiopian descent graduating high school had enough requirements to enroll in a university, compared to 60% among other Jewish students. According to Bukaya, this gap points to government policies that perpetuate socioeconomic disparities rather than close them. She said that there are still educational programs that separate students not according to need but according to their origin.

Bukaya said that until the AEJ stepped in a few years ago, the Israeli Army held separate programs for Ethiopian soldiers about to finish their Army service, even though these soldiers had served in the same Army units with non-Ethiopians. The Army has since stopped that policy.

Of greatest concern to Bukaya is police brutality against Ethiopian youth. In July 2019, an off-duty killed Solomon Tekah, 19, in Kiryat Haim, a town in Northern Israel.

“Can you imagine a police officer killing a non-Ethiopian in an ordinary neighborhood?” Bukaya asked. “It would never happen.”

Since 1990, eleven Israelis of Ethiopian descent have died either at the hands of police officers or in the post-trauma fallout triggered by their arrests.

The Government has recently voted to create a special task force to probe the police’s internal investigations unit to prosecute police officers who abuse members of the Ethiopian community. In early February, Israel President Reuven Rivlin and other government members signed an anti-racism pact sponsored by Israelis Against Racism, chaired by Maj.-Gen. (res.) Eliezer Shkedi, a former commander of the Israeli Air Force.

Bukaya says that more must be done.

The AEJ has pushed the government to enact a law to ensure more representation in corporations, government departments, and regional councils which first went into effect in 2005, with a wider law enacted in 2011. According to Bukaya, the law is vital but the government does not have the authority to punish firms or government bodies that don’t adhere to it. Bukaya is now lobbying for an amendment to the law that would require hiring Israelis of Ethiopian descent not only at entry-level but at senior level positions.

There are a number of organizations that help the community, including Atachlit Beta Israel Farm, an agricultural center that preserves Ethiopian Jewish agriculture and heritage, Tebeka, a legal aid organization, and Keren Hanan Avnor, which grants scholarships.

Some Israelis politicians have already eyed Bukaya as a possible candidate for the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament, where she has established connections in her lobby for changes in legislation.

“If the only way to fight is to enter politics, then I’ll do that.” Bukaya paused, a twinkle in her eye. “But not yet.”