Ethiopian Women in Israel

How the lives of Ethiopian Beta Israel women changed when they made aliyah to Israel.


Reprinted from Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia with permission of the author and the Jewish Women’s Archive

Changes in Family Life

One of the greatest changes which the Ethiopian Jewish community has undergone in Israel in their move from an underdeveloped society to a modern, Western society is in the specific realm of family and personal relations. Female genital surgery is hardly performed in Israel and women express no desire to continue this practice. Girls can no longer marry at first puberty; in fact, it is illegal to marry in Israel until the age of seventeen. In addition, girls have to attend school until the minimum age of sixteen.

ethiopian jewish womanMarried women are encouraged by social workers and others to go out to work in order to assist with the family income, and it is often easier for a woman rather than a man to find employment, particularly in temporary, unskilled jobs, in which the Ethiopian Jews, despite the numerous vocational courses offered to the community, tend to congregate. According to research conducted by Phillips Davids in 1999, early marriage and childbearing are being replaced by later marriage and first birth, which will eventually have a profound effect on life-time fertility.

For the first time, rural Beta Israel are handling money and have bank accounts; a woman’s salary may be paid straight into her bank account; or she may be earning more than her husband.

The Israel rabbinate has established a special department dealing with Ethiopian divorces. One-third of all Ethiopian Jewish families in Israel are one-parent families; the other two-thirds are largely made up of “complex families” constructed from two or more one-parent families, which are intrinsically unstable.

The divorce rate among Ethiopian Jews in Israel is far higher than that among the general population.  The single main reason for this is the emasculation experienced by Ethiopian Jewish men. Males no longer reign supreme; “Israeli” women answer back. If women are beaten, as was the practice in Ethiopia, they can turn to the police and file a complaint against their husbands–and many do. Ethiopian women in Israel look with curiosity and also envy, at their Israeli counterparts, and selectively imbibe Israelis’ lip-service to egalitarianism between the sexes.

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Shalva Weil is senior researcher at the NCJW Research Institute for Innovation in Education at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, specializing in Indian Jews and other ethnic groups. She is the editor of Ethiopian Jews in the Limelight (1997) and two bibliographies on Ethiopian Jewry (2001; 2004). In 2004, she was appointed president of SOSTEJE (Society for the Study of Ethiopian Jewry).

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