LGBT Ethiopians in Israel: A Minority within Minority

Author: Yanir Dekel
Published: May 28, 2015

During 40 Years of Pride conference in June, Yaniv Jember will shed a light on the lives of LGBT Ethiopian community in Israel, who faces various challenges both in the Ethiopian and the LGBT communities.

Yaniv Jember

Yaniv Jember, Executive Director of KALA, thinks it’s important to show visibility of LGBT Ethiopians in Israel at the 40 Years of Pride conference that will take place in Tel Aviv during Pride Week. “There is a very narrow view of our community,” he says. “The LGBT community in Israel may celebrate 40 years, but there are still sectors of the community that are not recognized and are fighting for their identity.”

“Most of the community that lives in the spotlight are white gay men from strong socioeconomic cities. Similar to other LGBT sectors that are not in the consensus, such as Arabs, transgender and religious people, there is a lot of ignorance and lack of understanding within the Ethiopian community to the world of LGBT. In addition to that, members of KALA also are criticized and encounter situations of ignorance and racism from members of the LGBT Community as well, which is even worse, in my opinion.”

KALA (Hebrew abbreviation of Kehila Lahatavit Ethiopit, ‘LGBT Ethiopian Community’), is a new organization that works to raise awareness of sexuality and gender issues within the Ethiopian community in Israel. In June 2014, shortly after it was formed, KALA received nation-wide recognition with a supportive article in Yedioth Ahronot, Israel’s biggest newspaper. Following the article, the organization was honored during the 2014 Pride Events opening ceremony. “Our biggest obstacle is to educate a very conservative community to accept the other, says Jember. “LGBT people were not at all visible in Ethiopia and in recent years the community has even stricter ideas on this issue including their own anti-homosexual laws. KALA is trying to actually expand the definition of what it means to be an Ethiopian in Israel and that being LGBT is part of it.”

Today, there are an estimated 140,000 Ethiopian Jews living in Israel. According to Jember, KALA was established in a pretty organic way when a group of people decided to address issues of LGBT Ethiopians who were looking for more people who share both Ethiopian and LGBT identity. “The organization is still being built, but the main reason and the goal for its launch was to address men and women from the Ethiopian community who are being discriminated against on the question of their sexual identity,” he explains, “and at the same time who want to maintain and sustain the tradition of that community. Since the LGBT community at large isn’t currently able to include people like us, we have established KALA.”

Just as many LGBT Jews in America find themselves struggling by being a minority within a minority, Ethiopian LGBT people feel the same in Israel. Therefore, the managers of KALA feel there’s a need to operate on several levels. According to Jember, besides the organization’s main page on Facebook, there’s a secret group on Facebook whose original name doesn’t appear, which helps closeted LGBT people in the Ethiopian community. “This is our initial response,” he says. “It has more than 60 members who discuss issues in the daily lives of LGBT Ethiopians.” Besides the Facebook group there’s also KALA Active, a small group of people who take part in a variety of activities such as blogs, interviews and informational meetings, and the KALA IGY which is one of the group’s most important activities: trying to reach Ethiopian youth.”

At the 40 Years of Pride conference, Yaniv Jember will speak on the LGBTQ Minorities panel, where LGBTQ people that are part of other minority groups in their country often face distinct challenges. “It’s our duty to create an LGBT community that allows people to include more identities and to integrate them, and provide a sense of belonging also to varied minorities within the LGBT community.”

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