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Ethiopian Israeli filmmaker pulls no punches

Shmuel Beru, who arrived in Israel in 1984 in the first wave of Ethiopian Jewish immigrants, tells his people's story in the award-winning 'Zrubavel.' But not that many white Israelis are listening.

August 10, 2009|Edmund Sanders

TEL AVIV — Growing up, they called him the "chocolate boy" and worse.

Shmuel Beru arrived in Israel at age 8 with the first wave of Ethiopian immigrants in 1984. Classmates, who'd never seen a black person before, rubbed his skin to see if the color would come off.

"I was like the new animal at a zoo," recalled Beru, now 33.

Today the actor-writer has turned his childhood struggle for acceptance into the first Ethiopian-made feature film exploring what it's like to grow up black in Israel. Drawing inspiration from filmmaker Spike Lee's stories about racial conflict in the United States, Beru examines an Ethiopian family's dreams of building a new life in a white-dominated and sometimes-racist Israeli society.

"I love my country," Beru said of Israel, "but I don't want to lie."

In a nation with so many competing well-documented narratives -- Jewish, Palestinian, Christian -- Beru's "Zrubavel," which opened in cinemas here in June, offers yet another perspective from one of the Holy Land's newer arrivals.

Since the 1980s, more than 80,000 Ethiopians have immigrated to Israel, many escaping famine and poverty in the Horn of Africa nation.

Known as Beta Israel, many of the Ethiopians were considered by some to be a lost tribe of Israel. Though living isolated in northern Ethiopian villages for centuries, they preserved customs remarkably similar to Judaism, which sometimes led them to be ostracized by other Africans.

They became the first large-scale immigration of black Africans to Israel and their adjustment to Israeli society has not been easy. For every success story about an Ethiopian Israeli being elected to parliament or becoming the latest singing sensation on Israel's TV version of "American Idol," there are a dozen more about Ethiopian gangs, domestic violence and the high rates of suicide and joblessness among Ethiopian youths.

Hebrew University expert Steven Kaplan, who has studied the Beta Israel, said that despite the government spending more money and energy trying to assimilate Ethiopians than it has for other immigrant groups, Ethiopians remain among the poorest groups in Israel.

"The most disturbing thing is that even after 30 years, if you ask me if we've turned the corner for the second and third generations of Ethiopians, I can't say we have with any real confidence," he said.

Beru said he hoped his film would counter negative stereotypes about Ethiopian immigrants.

"I wanted to show that no matter what your culture or color is, we all have the same stories," said Beru, interviewed recently at a Tel Aviv cafe. "We cry in the same language. We hurt in the same language."

For him, making the film was a deeply personal journey, enabling him to reconnect with his African roots and ultimately strengthen his appreciation for his adopted country.

"Zrubavel" is a classic immigrant saga, showing a younger generation fighting for acceptance and an older generation striving to keep its children rooted in the traditions of home.

The film follows the hard-working grandfather, a former Ethiopian army colonel reduced to sweeping streets in his new life; the son-in-law whose embrace of ultra-Orthodox Judaism alienates his family; the ponytailed college dropout, trapped between his father's dream that he become Israel's first black fighter pilot and a society pushing him toward more "suitable" work as a restaurant cook.

Beru's is a gritty, largely segregated world. White Israelis are bit players here, mostly one-dimensional authority figures, such as the police officers who taunt, beat and even kill Ethiopians with little remorse.

But Beru pulls no punches when portraying his own community's faults and responsibilities. His characters often wallow in self-pity, drink and use drugs, steal and beat their wives. In one scene, the troubled dropout robs and beats an innocent white senior citizen, before he is caught and beaten by police.

"My commitment was to tell the whole story," Beru said.

The film is based partly on Beru's personal experiences. He still hears the occasional racial epithet or is prevented from entering a Tel Aviv nightclub on the excuse that a "private party" is taking place.

As an actor, Beru often found himself typecast as a bodyguard, bad guy or pauper, despite his small build and easy smile. That was if he found roles at all. "It's hard to be a black actor in Israel because everything on TV is about white people," he said.

When he complained of the scarcity of good parts, he said, producers told him that white Israelis wouldn't "relate" to black characters.

But Beru said it's the artist's duty to provoke audiences and explore new territory. That's why he decided to write his own movie and hire Ethiopian actors for most of the roles.

The project provided him with the chance for a brief homecoming when he visited Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, for a screening this year, his first trip there since his family made the two-month trek to a Sudanese refugee camp 26 years ago.

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