Arrested for trying to leave Ethiopia for Israel, Herut Admasu’s father was tortured for years, until he could no longer walk or even crawl. But despite the torture, he refused to give up the dream he shared with so many Ethiopian Jews: to live freely as a Jew, in Israel.

Admasu told her family’s story at the opening film of the “Israeli Citizens of Color: From Ethiopia to Chicago to the Negev” series hosted by the Ithaca Coalition for Unity and Cooperation in the Middle East (ICUCME). The film, “Mekonen: The Story of an African Jew” follows an Ethiopian shepherd whose family emigrates to Israel. Forced to grow up too young, Mekonen must figure out who he is as an Ethiopian Israeli and what he wants in life.

For Admasu, connection to her Ethiopian heritage was complex. Like most first-generation children, she wanted only to identify with the country of her birth, Israel. She refused to learn Amharic and even rejected her name, which means “freedom,” in favor of a more mainstream one.

But during a trip to Ethiopia with her father, Admasu finally began asking questions. Sitting outside the prison where her father had been imprisoned, she heard for the first time what he had endured in order to gain freedom for himself and his family – and why he had given her the name of “Herut.”

Now using her birth name again, Admasu is committed to sharing her story and working on behalf of Ethiopians in Israel. Sometimes, she said, that puts her at odds with her parents. For them, Jerusalem was built of gold; to Admasu, Israel is a country like any other, which needs its citizens to speak out when something isn’t right. “That’s what being a democracy means,” she said.

During the Q&A after the film screening, Admasu reflected on the difficulties Mekonen and his family faced in adjusting to life in Israel. Anyone moving to a new country faces such challenges and needs to make adjustments, she said. The important difference for Jews like Mekonen is that there is no going back: Israel is the country of last resort for Jewish refugees from all over the world.


Islamophobia and Antisemitism: An Ithaca Response

Participants in a previous Dinner Conversation

Ithaca is a community that cares, as demonstrated by the capacity crowd that filled the Just Be Cause Center multipurpose room on April 4 to discuss Islamophobia and Antisemitism. The Ithaca Coalition for Unity and Cooperation in the Middle East (ICUCME) sponsored the event as part of its Dinner Conversation Series. A vegetarian pot-luck was followed by presentations from community members.

The goal of the evening was to encourage participants to consider their own words and actions and to expand empathy and understanding within the Ithaca community, said the organizers.

Mahmud Burton of Islamic Community Outreach Services spoke about the responsibility of each person to stand against Islamophobia and Antisemitism, invoking the lesson of the Holocaust, “in which some of the most terrible crimes of morality were committed, not only by those who were perpetrating them physically but by the ones who were standing passively and silently and doing nothing to intervene.”

The same kind of rhetoric that uses “violent otherization” is being heard again, said Burton. “There can be no doubt that expressions of Antisemitism and Islamophobia are feelings and words and acts of injustice and dehumanization. To the extent that these are allowed to become normalized in our society, we all share culpability if we remain silent and inactive.” He noted that In Islamic tradition, silence is unlawful if three conditions of full certainty are met: that what is happening is truly wrong or evil; that the behavior in question has actually been committed; and that speaking out will remove or reduce the evil that is being committed. If these three conditions are met, then silence is forbidden. “It becomes clear from this that we share a collective obligation to speak out against injustice,” he said.

In her remarks, Linda Glaser noted that hate crimes against Muslims have surged 67%, while 53% of the 1,300 or so religiously-related hate crimes in the U.S. are against Jews. She echoed Burton’s remarks in pointing to the “indignity of difference” as a root cause. “People’s fear of what is unlike themselves makes Jews and Muslims vulnerable, as they have eaten, dressed, worshipped and believed ‘differently’ for millennia,” she said. “Anyone who is different – whether wearing a hijab or a yarmulke – is at risk of this.”

Glaser emphasized the importance of focusing speech, especially political rhetoric, appropriately, so as not to fall into hurtful stereotypes of Jew or Muslim that demonize the “other.” As an example, she pointed to the use of medieval antisemitic tropes used in relation to Jews today. “While medieval antisemitism claimed that ‘Jews are evil, demonic and they kill babies,’ modern antisemitism says ‘the Jewish state is evil, demonic, and kills babies,’” said Glaser. “Such statements are not about political differences but about targeting Jewish identity.”

Small group discussions followed the speakers, after which participants shared their insights and reflections with the entire room. Some described prejudice they’d experienced themselves; others shared what most resonated for them in the speakers’ remarks. When the group was asked whether Ithaca has a problem with Islamophobia and Antisemitism, one participant said, “If we didn’t have a problem, it would be easy to talk about Middle East issues without people getting furious. There’s a problem because we can’t talk about that like we talk about anything else.”

When asked what we can do to combat prejudice in our own communities, one person responded that she wants to learn to be an ally through her speech. Another spoke of reaching out to immigrants in the Ithaca community; a third talked of encouraging companies to be welcoming and inclusive to everyone.

After the discussion, whipped cream, toppings, and multiple flavors of ice cream were put out for a build-your-own ice cream social. Over ice-cream, “participants kept talking, exploring, and sharing – creating understanding, one relationship at a time,” said Glaser, “which is what ICUCME is all about.”

ICUCME is a grass-roots anti-racist community organization working to bring a constructive approach into dialogue about Israel and the Greater Middle East. As a non-partisan organization, ICUCME embraces fact-based, respectful dialogue, mutual recognition, and cooperation to promote understanding and support peace.