“To be Ethiopian in Israel is to be constantly struggling for something…”
This recipe and article are the result of reading a recent article in Taste that profiles the food of Ethiopian Jews living in Israel. I was familiar with the history of Ethiopians in Israel but it was the ways in which these Ethiopians were mixing food cultures and bringing Ethiopian flavors to their new homes that struck me. One restaurateur wrote of making shakshuka (a staple Middle Eastern dish and a favorite of mine) with the signature Ethiopian spice mix of berbere and I knew I had to try it!
But what also struck me, more profoundly, about the article was the minimal engagement with the ways in which Ethiopian Jews in Israel are facing systemic racial violence. The anti-Black hate and violence that Ethiopians face in Israel is relevant and ongoing, and it seems irresponsible to be talking about food as a tool for Ethiopians to diplomatically engage Israel without recognizing the ways in which Ethiopians in Israel are routinely targeted for anti-Black and anti-immigrant violence. This violence is the context that this food is created in.
Ethiopians are not recent arrivals in Israel, having come primarily in two large scale operations in 1984 and 1991 that were designed to bring Ethiopian Jews (also known as Beta Israel or the derogative Falasha) to what they perceived as their religious and ancestral homeland (Ethiopian Jews believe that they are part of the ‘lost’ tribe of Dan, one of the original sons of Israel/Jacob). Today, more than a third of Ethiopian Jews living in Israel are born there.
But, from the moment they arrived, they faced discrimination and hatred from a society unwilling to accept that these Black Africans were really Jews. They were the only group of Jews required to “undergo a symbolic immersion ceremony upon arriving in the country to put to rest any doubts about their Jewishness.”
Recently, there has been increasing tension between the Israeli government and a growing Ethiopian population. Current Israeli governments refuse to recognize the ‘right of return’ for Ethiopian Jews, making them go through a process to request special permission to immigrate to Israel. And, while the government has paid lip service to allowing Ethiopian Jews to immigrate, in many cases reuniting families, only one Ethiopian family was allowed to immigrate to Israel in all of 2018 (and, just this week, 82 Ethiopians were also allowed to join their families in Israel).
More poignantly, the treatment of Ethiopians within Israel mirrors the treatment of Black people in other white, settler nations. Ethiopian Jews face societal marginalization that leaves them impoverished and vulnerable to racial violence. 41% of Ethiopian-Israeli families live in poverty, and they have faced recurring violence and death at the hands of the Israeli police. Just last week, Ethiopian Jews once again took to the streets in protest of another young Black man gunned down by the Israeli police.
Integral to these discussions of Ethiopians’ experiences in Israel is the recognition of systemic anti-Black racism. While there are many critiques of Israel as a settler colonial state, often race, and particularly forms of anti-Black racism, have been under attended to; as Junaid Rana argues, “racism is more often seen to be epiphenomenal, a tangent, a hindrance to be overcome, rather than an integral part of the design (of settler colonial occupation).”
In truth, even a superficial glance demonstrates the intense anti-Black racism and state violence that is an integral part of the daily settler occupation of the state of Israel, meted out against Black immigrants in the form of mass detention, forced sterilization, and frequent anti-immigrant demonstrations where white Jewish settlers chant, “Blacks out!” and target Black citizens for anti-Black and anti-immigrant violence.
While the position of Ethiopian Jews is a complicated one, on one hand desiring integration into the settler state of Israel as fully Jewish people (and, thus participating in the erasure and ongoing dispossession of Palestinians) while on the other being denied this integration and made the target of racialized violence, there is no doubt that their struggles in Israel are connected to the anti-Black sentiment embedded within Israeli society.
To ignore this context while emphasizing the ‘culinary diplomacy’ engaged in by Ethiopian Jews in Israel, is to follow a well-trod path in food writing when it comes to engaging the cultural context of food: ignoring the power differentials (and related oppression and violence) in favor of narrative that sees food as a way to come together across differences. But, how can we understand the ways in which food might bring us together without understanding the forces and reasons which separate us in the first place?
It’s good to want people to come together, but sometimes the task of ‘cultural diplomacy’ thrust upon food misses the point, or at least a few steps in the process. Placing food in this position can be a way of avoiding real, systemic change – of avoiding real, systemic violence that cannot be solved by food. During the recent demonstrations in protest of the police killings of Black men, Ziva Mekonen-Degu, executive-director of the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews, summed it up beautifully:
“To be Ethiopian in this country is to be constantly struggling for something. We have been struggling since we came to this country to be recognized and treated fairly. Today the struggle is against police brutality, which is a result of racism against black people in this country…
I don’t need them to learn my culture, I don’t need them to eat my food. I need them to stop looking at my son suspiciously.”
Shakshuka with Ethiopian Berebere Spice
This is a simple recipe that comes together quickly, which is why I love it for breakfast or lunch. I often pull it out when people come over because it looks more impressive than the work that went into it! Rich tomato sauce is accentuated by the spicy, fragrant berbere and the freshness of the herbs and chives. The yolks of the eggs should still be runny and mix into the sauce to create a wonderfully rich treat that is easily sopped up with injera (Ethiopian flat bread made from teff) or a crusty Italian/French loaf which is also common in Ethiopia (thanks to the Italian occupation).
- 2 shallots, finely sliced
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 can of diced tomatoes (or about 2 fresh tomatoes if you want to go that route)
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 1 tablespoon berbere spice
- 4 eggs
- salt and pepper, to taste
- chives, diced to garnish
- fresh parsley and/or dill to garnish
Heat olive oil in a frying pan and saute shallots until just slightly brown and toasted.
Add tomato paste, mix until it coats the shallot and allow to fry for one more minute, until paste is fragrant.
Add whole can of diced tomatoes and cook over medium-low and stir every so often until bubbling.
Add berbere, salt, and pepper and mix (if you like it really spicy, add a bit more berbere!).
Make 4 "wells" and crack an egg in each well. Sprinkle with a little more salt and pepper (if needed) and then reduce the heat to low and cover. Let cook for a few minutes until the whites are opaque and set. You can gently shake the pan to see if the yolks move, meaning they are runny. Cook a little longer for a solid yolk.
Remove the pan off the heat immediately once cooked and finish off by sprinkling chives and dill/parsley. Enjoy with injera or fresh bread while still hot!
We find this serves two if we're hungry (with a little leftover) or up to four if you're having other dishes in the meal. I've even crammed six eggs in a larger pot if you need to stretch it out a little bit.