I was born in a village in Ethiopia. There were no cars and no electricity. It was a normal village. I was raised Jewish. There was no such thing as secular or religious in Ethiopia. There was only religious, period. If you were secular, you weren't Jewish.
My parents always wanted to immigrate to Israel. It was something dreamlike, something no one knew about. Maybe others who grew up in cities and had access to communications knew something about Israel. But we only knew that there were no other peoples there because it belonged to the Jews; here was a temple and a river of milk and a river of honey; all you had to do there was religious work. All I knew about was Jerusalem,
I wasn't told about terms such as nationality or religion. Those weren't terms my parents used in their kind of Zionism.
There was only Jerusalem and life among Jews.
At the end of 1983 my parents heard that there was a way to go to Israel. So we went to Sudan, and arrived after two weeks of walking. I was 7 years old and my two younger sisters were one and three years old. My parents left the village in the middle of the night because the Jews weren't allowed to leave the village, at least not my parents. The Jews were blacksmiths and potters. The Christians didn't do those jobs. My parents did, so we had to escape in the middle of the night.
We walked for two weeks along with other Jewish families. On the way, there were robbers. When we got to Sudan we lived in a refugee camp. It was 1984 and there was the great famine in Africa.
Many Ethiopians, not only Jews, left Ethiopia and went to Sudan. There were many people in the refugee camps. My family also lived in the refugee camp. There was death and sickness; I saw a lot of people die throughout my life because they didn't have anything to eat, or because of diseases that don't exist here. We stayed in Sudan for a year because there wasn't any organized aliyah to Israel; it was only by sea and it was for very few. At the end of '84 there was the big operation. I came during this operation, obviously by plane, my first ever, and to Israel! I came with my married sister and my parents only came to join me in Israel a year later. I started school, and of course everything was new to me: a teacher, school.
After the army I traveled a bit in the States and lived in New York for a little while. It influenced me because I was exposed to new things again. I was in the States with a million black people, and I disappeared. For people who saw me on the street, I wasn't a Jew. It was very important for me that I be seen as a Jew. It's something I never dealt with in Israel because here everyone knew I was an Ethiopian Jew. I came back to Israel and studied at the university, I majored in Middle Eastern Studies and African Studies at the Hebrew University. At university I made friends with Arabs, with Druze; I met new people that I never had contact with before. I mean, in Sudan I had met Arabs, but in Sudan they're Africans, not enemies like they are here. My parents weren't educated in a school, they're illiterate, they don't know how to read or write. All the information I got was at school. I didn't have anyone at home to comment on what I was learning, to say it wasn't true, to provide another perspective. What I learned at school was what I knew. For example, according to my history teacher, there was no Jewish contribution to the conflict. There were the riots of 1929, and wars, the Six-Day War, the Yom Kippur War, but it was always the other side that started it. There was never a neutral perspective or one that showed what we had done. Based on the history I learned at school, I never knew we invaded this land. I went to a religious school. Also, my parents were Zionists and they weren't familiar with this business of being conquerors. They would just say, 'It's our right to be here.' They don't have the insights I developed over time. At university I became more aware of facts that I hadn't been aware of until then.
I had to educate myself, and university educated me. I can say that just from those courses things changed in me and I started to read and research more. If you're exposed to knowledge, when you learn new things about the conflict, you think about questions like "Did we conquer them, or not?" It doesn't mean the other side will change their minds, but they will see an effort being made for peace and to change things. They will have access to the same ideas, and we'll have access to theirs. But I think that part of the change that occurred in me is because of who I am. I can't see myself as Ethiopian because I can barely speak the language. I don't have my parents' culture - I don't have anything in common with Ethiopia. But sometimes it's hard for me to regard myself as Israeli because sometimes I do behave like an Ethiopian culturally - yes, I'm very quiet and yes, I'm patient and I don't scream-- and sometimes society sees me as such right away. I float between worlds. It's easier for me to understand the other, the stranger, whoever feels alienated, because I sometimes feel alienated by society. It's not really logical, but that's how I got started.