Ethiopian Israeli singer Rudi Bainesain will perform at Israel's S.F. consulate's Yom HaAtzmaut gala.
Ethiopian Israeli singer Rudi Bainesain will perform at Israel's S.F. consulate's Yom HaAtzmaut gala.

S.F. Israeli Consulate spotlights Ethiopian Israeli success stories

Update (May 2): Rudi Bainesain was unable to travel to the U.S. due to visa complications, according to the consulate, and therefore will not be performing at the events mentioned in this article. Israeli soprano Ronit Widmann-Levy will sing at the Yom HaAtzmaut gala on May 4.

“People really think that Israel is a bunch of white people.”

That’s the impression that Matan Zamir, Israel’s deputy consul general in San Francisco, said he gets when he speaks to both Jewish and non-Jewish audiences at venues across the Bay Area and the Pacific Northwest.

In an effort to correct that misconception, the consulate is partnering with an Israeli nonprofit on a social media campaign to share stories of successful Ethiopian Israelis. In addition, it has invited a popular Ethiopian Israeli singer, Rudi Bainesain, to perform at its annual Yom HaAtzmaut gala on May 4.

“There’s not enough knowledge on how diverse Israel is in terms of ethnicity, in terms of religion, in terms of country of origin,” Zamir told J. “Only those who actually visited Israel and experienced how diverse it is” know that Israelis come from a multitude of backgrounds, he said.

The consulate kicked off its monthlong “Black Voices from Israel” campaign on March 24 with a post about Tali Semani, a 36-year-old clinical psychologist and social activist from Rehovot. Asked to share a moment that shaped her, she wrote, “All of the moments when others assumed or told me that I can’t or that I’m not capable. They pushed me to work harder and be better.”

Another recent post featured Tirsit Legasse-Bishaw, vice president of program development and partnerships at Olim Beyahad. Founded in 2007, Olim Beyahad (“rising together”) helps Ethiopian Israelis integrate into society by providing job training and mentorship opportunities, as well as by counteracting negative stereotypes about members of the community. The organization connected the S.F. consulate with participants to interview for its social media campaign.

“We were happy to join the campaign and present a different narrative of the Ethiopian Israeli community by highlighting some of our graduates who are at the forefront of their fields,” Olim Beyahad spokesperson Havtam Simon wrote in an email.

There are approximately 155,000 people of Ethiopian descent living in Israel today, representing about 1.6 percent out of a total population of 9.4 million. In the decades following Israel’s secret airlifts of large numbers of Ethiopian Jews, many have achieved success in different areas of society, including the arts, military and politics. For example, Pnina Tamano-Shata became the first Ethiopian Israeli to be named a government minister in 2020.

Yet as a whole, Ethiopian Israelis lag behind their non-Ethiopian peers in educational and professional achievements, according to Olim Beyahad. Community activists cite poverty, discrimination and police harassment as obstacles to full integration. In 2019, thousands of Ethiopian Israelis took to the streets to protest the police killing of an unarmed Ethiopian Israeli man, Solomon Tekah, and the everyday racism that they experience.

Zamir, who was raised in Jerusalem, said the consulate’s campaign is not meant to “sugarcoat” the challenges that Ethiopian Israelis continue to face. “It takes time for them to be absorbed in Israel, but you can look at so many success stories that are happening today despite those challenges,” he said. “I think with time we will see more and more prominent Ethiopian voices.”

It takes time for them to be absorbed in Israel, but you can look at so many success stories that are happening today despite those challenges.

Josh Litchfield, the consulate’s director of press and communications, said the campaign has received a “very positive response” so far. The first post was retweeted by several Israeli government officials, including other diplomats in New York, Atlanta and Toronto.

The campaign, which will continue through the end of this month, will highlight three more Ethiopian Israelis: a director at the ministry of finance, the head of a department of Israel’s mass transit system and the head of a law firm.

Bainesain, the singer, will perform in person at the consulate’s invitation-only Independence Day party next month at San Francisco’s War Memorial and Performing Arts Center. A runner-up on the second season of the televised singing competition “The Voice Israel,” she will also sing at Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco on May 3, which is Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day for fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism.

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

Andrew Esensten is the culture editor of J. Previously, he was a staff writer for the English-language edition of Haaretz based in Tel Aviv. Follow him on Twitter @esensten.