For South African photojournalist Ilan Ossendryver, photographing the Ethiopian Jewish community, also known as Beta Israel, started out professional but ended up personal.
His decades-long body of work is now represented in the exhibit “Beta Israel: Ethiopian Jews and the Promised Land,” at the Ogelthorpe University Museum of Art in Atlanta.
Ossendryver admits that he didn’t know much about Ethiopian Jews before receiving an assignment to cover their migration to Israel years ago. Turns out that assignment wasn’t so easy.
He recalls one of his first stops — an “absorption center” — in the southern Israeli town of Ashdod, where immigrants learn Hebrew and “get acclimatized to living in Israel.”
He brought his camera, “but they weren’t very happy about photography at the time.”
The newly arrived immigrants were shy and uncomfortable about being photographed. But Ossendryver wanted to capture what he saw as resilience in a community stuck between two cultures in two countries.
His images offer a snapshot into the contemporary life of a community with a history that may not be well-known to many. And it may not be well-known because it is not entirely clear.
The contested origin story of the Ethiopian Jewish community has made the ongoing migration to Israel — which has happened in waves for decades — a complicated one.
Jewish ancestry determines whether one has a right to Israeli citizenship. Over the years, many Ethiopian Jews have lived as Christians, for example, to escape persecution — often going as far as tattooing crosses on their foreheads.
For Ossendryver, photography can do what historical analysis and DNA testing can’t: Examine how the community actually lives today.
The exhibition actually shows two groups: One still in Ethiopia, striving to make sense of its identity and trying to blend in while sustaining its traditions. The other group is seeking to carve out a new life in Israel.
The journey to Israel is one that the majority of Ethiopian Jews have shared in recent decades. According to Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics, more than 78,000 Ethiopians have immigrated to Israel since 1980. By some estimates, only a few thousand remain in Ethiopia.
Getting to Israel isn’t easy — and life for those who get there isn’t easy, either, according to Ossendryer.
Recent events in Israel — like the vigorous and ongoing debate around immigration from Africa, accusations of discrimination and the recent news of Ethiopian immigrants being forcibly injected with birth control have also highlighted some tensions the community has faced within the country.
Even in the face of this adversity, Ossendryver says most Jews in Ethiopia have their eyes on Israel.
Ossendryver says one of his favorite scenes was a Jewish school in Gondar, Ethiopia. There, he says, students don’t have to choose between two worlds.
“It’s a really beautiful school. You’ll see there’s a picture of Africa, there’s a picture of Israel and a picture of Ethiopia all in Amharic,” the official language of Ethiopia, he recalls. “I found that quite nice to see.”