When it comes to seeing themselves represented as activist icons, black Jewish women are pretty used to being shortchanged. Obviously, it’s not that black Jewish women aren’t making a difference in their communities and the world — it’s that the world intentionally chooses not to elevate their voices.
In America, we don’t shed a lot of attention on this group, but Ethiopian Jews are one of the most racially oppressed groups in Israel today. Like African-Americans, they experience disproportionate amounts of police brutality. They also experience other types of systemic discrimination in academia, jobs, and access to services like healthcare. Currently, the government is also freezing aliyah for Ethiopians, making it near impossible for any new Ethiopian Jews to immigrate to Israel.
As is the case in all oppressed groups, Ethiopian Jewish women have been even more mistreated when they experience the intersection of being black Jewish women immigrants. For example, the Israeli government’s forcible injection of birth control to Ethiopian women caused an international uproar. The act has resulted in declining birth rates, something many people feel was an intentional move designed to maintain a facade of racial “purity” in Israel.
Ethiopian Jewish women aren’t silent about the discrimination and violation they face. But our media and education systems do a terrible job of informing us about all the amazing things Ethiopian Jewish women are accomplishing. It’s really time that people start to recognize this community and fight for their rights. On that note, here are five badass Ethiopian Jewish women who fought for change.
1) Queen Yudit
As far as feminist icons go, Queen Yudit ( alternatively known as Yodit, Gudit (“the bad”), Esther, Esato (fire), Ga’wa and Tirda Gabaz) is the definition of “an oldie, but a goodie.” She’s a legendary Jewish queen, famous for overthrowing both Christianity and the Solomonic royal dynasty. We don’t know when she was born or when she died, but the height of her reign was most likely in 960 CE. The Jewish dynasty that she established ruled for several generations after her death.
In the legends about Queen Yudit, she is portrayed as a convert to Judaism who resisted Christian colonization by literally burning churches to the ground. Researchers are fascinated by Queen Yudit’s portrayal as a victor against empires. Jewish Women’s Archive quoted a historian named Salamon as saying: “The Jewish woman leader in Ethiopia may symbolize… the potential for power castration of the dominant group at the hands of the minority.” Sorry, but there’s nothing more badass than castrating power away from assholes. Personally, I stan this queen who had no time for Christian supremacy.
2) Nigist Mengashe
Another great leader who was born in Ethiopia, Nigist Mengashe immigrated to Israel in 1984, where she began dedicating her life’s work to addressing the social problems that Ethiopian Jews face there. She’s insanely accomplished, having worked as a social worker at the Ethiopian Prison Authority and earning a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Sussex in England. As an administrative director of the National Project for Ethiopian Jews, Nigist Mengashe is a social activist who tirelessly works at raising funds to provide services which — due to systemic racism — Ethiopian Jews have a harder time accessing.
Mengashe’s brilliance captured the attention of the United Nations, where she represented Israel in a South African conference against racism in 2001. With her (unfortunately unsuccessful) run for a seat in the Knesset (Israeli parliament), she laid the groundwork for Pnina Tamano-Shata’s election. Speaking of…
3) Pnina Tamano-Shata
When she was 3 years old, Pnina Tamano-Shata (granddaughter of Kais Shato-Maharata, a prominent spiritual leader within the Ethiopian Jewish community) she immigrated to Israel. She was enrolled in programs for gifted students, and later became a lawyer and a journalist. Tamano-Shata is super dedicated to supporting education and excellence within the Ethiopian community, working as an advocate for Ethiopian university students and at-risk youth. And, in her awesomeness, she’s also the first black woman elected to the Knesset. She was also the first woman to host a news talk show in Israel.
Tamano-Shata uses her voice and power to speak truth about racism in her society, no matter the cost. When elected to the Knesset, she bluntly stated that “I think we need to exhibit zero tolerance to discriminatory institutions, regardless of whether they discriminate against Ethiopians, Arabs, or anyone else.”
Even though Tamano-Shata is a literal hero in Israeli society, she still can’t escape racism. In 2013, Israel was shocked when Tamano-Shata was told that her blood wasn’t good enough to donate – because she had lived in Ethiopia, a country with a high rate of AIDS. Even though Tamano-Shata didn’t actually have AIDS, they refused to let her donate — instead keeping her blood frozen, never to be used. It’s a pretty fucked up and racist rule, and it applies to African, Caribbean, and Southeast Asian countries. But that kind of stuff can’t keep her down, as she continues to speak out against racism in Israel, including anti-Arab policies in the controversial Nationality Law.
4) Titi Aynaw
We have a tendency to downplay models and pageant contestants, but in a world that demonizes black women and doesn’t value our beauty, the validation of black beauty and femininity means a lot. That’s why Yityish “Titi” Aynaw, the first black woman to ever win the Miss Israel beauty pageant, is such an important figure. After her victorious win in 2013, Aynaw was deeply moved by the impact she had on other black women. As a judge in the 2014 Miss Israel pageant, she noticed that more and more Ethiopian women were competing. Aynaw said at the time, “There were girls that wanted to try it and didn’t know how to do it. They didn’t think there was a place for the black skin. After me, there was a place for more models.”
The vital role that her education played in her own success inspired Titi to start “Titi’s Project,” which aims to support children in the Netanya area where she grew up. They’re provided with a safe place to go after school, where they can take part in enrichment activities. In speaking about Titi’s Project, she said in an interview that “I want this project to be in every city in Israel. This is my big, big, big goal because there are many kids who need this project.”
In an interview with Periel Aschenbrand for Tablet Magazine, Aynaw shared her thoughts on discrimination against black people and Israel, and how it’s much different than in the U.S. Although Aynaw acknowledges that Israel has a problem with discrimination, she feels that in 20 years, “there won’t be any racism because what happened to us also happened to the Russian and Moroccan immigrants.” Aynaw doesn’t see the story of Ethiopian discrimination as one of anti-blackness, but anti-immigrant sentiment and Ashkenormativity. She also feels that in Israel, the larger Israeli and Jewish culture prevails, making the community tied together. I’m often much more pessimistic about race matters, but Aynaw’s optimism is inspiring!
5) Naomi Walder
She’s the youngest person on this list, but 11-year-old Naomi Walder just might help save the world. The incredibly bright activist — who wants to be president or the editor of The New York Times one day — made headlines when she spoke at the 2018 March for Our Lives rally in Washington D.C., demanding that our society see the lives of black girls as worthy of attention and activism. She told the world that black girls are victims of gun violence at higher rates than many others in our country, and that as such, black girls needed to be included in the national conversation we have about gun control.
In an interview with Elle Magazine (which you should definitely read, because it gave me life), Walder reflected on how violence against black women gets reported in the media, saying, “I noticed how black girls who were raped or killed or committed suicide — they didn’t get trending Twitter hashtags, they didn’t get retweeted millions of times, I would tell somebody I felt terrible about it, and they’d be like, ‘Who?’”
Because of this, Walder became determined to “say her name,” taking out time at another march to honor the life of Courtlin Arrington, a 17-year-old black girl who was shot and killed on March 7. Naomi felt that since Arrington’s death did not receive much news attention, she would bring attention to it herself.
Walder has been through a lot, but she doesn’t let it hold her down. When shitty things happen to her — like bullies telling her she can’t be black and Jewish — she speaks out about it. Like the badass Ethiopian Jewish women who came before her, she speaks for people who society tries to make invisible, and I think that’s just what the world needs right now.