Tuesday, August 11, 2020

WITMonth Day 11 | "Resilience in Immigration" by Shelly Engdau‐Vanda

Last year, I wrote about a book called "Lives of Three Generations of Bedouin Women" by a Bedouin-Israeli writer Nuzha Allassad-Alhuzail. That work of nonfiction grew out of the author's doctoral research and is a nonfiction, sociological book - very much not the sort that I typically read and review on the blog. But it sparked something in me, in terms of reading more nonfiction, and particularly reading more nonfiction by Israeli women of all sorts of different backgrounds. This quickly led me to Shelly Engdau-Vanda's "Resilience in Immigration: The Story of Ethiopian Jews in Israel", published under the same sociology series at the same publishing house. The two books are thus packaged similarly, and even something in their meta-storytelling matches - both works are by minority women in Israel, writing about communities to which they belong and experiences that broadly match their own (and sometimes very much don't).

And for me, the two books remain pillars in my understanding of different Israeli experiences and cultures. Written with the express purpose of "educating" (that is, conveying a certain sociological study), the two works are remarkably enlightening beyond just their author's demographic. Yet it is still worth mentioning that these are among the only works by Ethiopian- or Bedouin-Israeli women writers (if not the only). Not only do the books serve as a direct educational tool in their academic research, they also provide context for communities that are wholly underrepresented in Israeli literature specifically and world literature overall.

Resilience in Immigration is thus the first book by an Ethiopian-Israeli writer that I've ever read. In fact, very few works by Ethiopian-Israelis have been published in Hebrew, and few of those that have been published remain in print or are readily available. While this may seem like an offhand remark, it's actually fairly important in recognizing Resilience in Immigration's cultural context; while most Ethiopian-Israelis (and specifically those profiled in this book) have lived in Israel for over 25 years or indeed were born here, "integration" into the broader, homogeneous Israeli society has not come easy, and at times at all. Resilience in Immigration tracks the migration experience from Ethiopia through Israel, with several chapters dedicated to questions of "integration" or assimilation and associated struggles. The lack of Ethiopian-Israeli representation in broader Israeli media largely aligns with this, and the limited scope of Ethiopian-Israeli literature seems to echo this void.

The book's core is interviews with Ethiopian-Israeli adults who came to Israel as children, during Operation Moses during the 1980s. This saw thousands of Ethiopian Jewish refugees secretly airlifted to Israel through Sudan, due to persistent persecution and violence the Ethiopian Jewish community faced, as well the ongoing civil war there. Not all of Resilience in Immigration's interviewees remember this period in their life, but several could vividly recall the horrors of fleeing their homes, the Sudanese refugee camps, and the chaos surrounding the actual rescuing flights. Some had lost family. Some were separated from their families. Some experienced violence. It's not easy reading these accounts (particularly knowing that the latter part of the book goes into detail about the continuing struggles once in Israel), but it's also pivotal history that simply isn't taught in Israel. Like the best nonfiction, Resilience in Immigration made me want to read dozens more books on the subject. Unfortunately, there isn't much more out there.

In a sense, Engdau-Vanda's book is not merely the sociological study of a group of childhood survivors, but a short history of Operation Moses and its outcomes. She frequently centers the Ethiopian-Israeli community at large, alongside the individual experiences of those interviewed. This becomes important when detailing experiences with the arrival to Israel, the racial bias in how the new immigrants are treated or respected, the glaring inconsistencies in comparison with other immigration waves, and subsequent consequences. The book is organized by topic, but these naturally flow into each, starting from the harrowing journey to reach Israel through to arriving, integrating, facing racism, and the lasting effects of all of these.

My one struggle with Resilience in Immigration - like Lives of Three Generations of Bedouin Women" before it - was keeping track of those interviewed. It may seem a minor point (and it is!), but it felt necessary at times to understand who had experienced what, and in what form. This says more about my reading of the book than anything else, and is obviously not the fault of the author; one does not need to spoonfeed a reader. Otherwise, the book is sharp, tight, and eye-opening. That racism exists within Israeli society is not something that surprised me, but the pervasiveness is something that I don't think enough Israelis (even well-meaning Israelis!) fully comprehend. Nor do I think Israelis discuss enough the degree to which racist bureaucratic decision-making influences communities for decades afterward. These aren't even the express focus of Resilience in Immigration, but they're there, and impossible to ignore. (They are, I should note, also fully relevant to other experiences within the Israeli context. These too don't get enough attention.)

Which brings me back to the beginning. Resilience in Immigration felt to me like the natural companion to Lives of Three Generations of Bedouin women not because there's anything in common in the texts themselves (the experiences are very different), but because both books felt like absolutely pivotal experiences. As I wrote last year, I can't see someone translating Resilience in Immigration, but my goodness, they should. Readers from around the world deserve to encounter the individual experiences of minority (and majority!) communities within different countries and cultures. I would love to read similar accounts about migration within India, or Arabian-Peninsula Bedouin life as affected by Saudi political upheavals, or or or ...

And so, ultimately, I recommend this Hebrew-language book to my international, mostly-English-speaking audience. I also encourage my Hebrew-speaking audience to reflect on the dearth of Ethiopian-Israeli representation in our literature and seek out what we can. Resilience in Immigration has helped build that spark I felt last year into a solid flame, wanting to read more nonfiction by women from around the world. But specifically for now: I would love to see this gain a wider readership. That's all.

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