Life & Culture

Ashager Araro: Israel's social media queen

Some tip Ashager Araro to become Israel's first black prime minister. Nicole Lampert met her


The word ashager isn’t easily translated into English. It means going forward from something bad to something good in Amharic, the language used in Ethiopia. And it couldn’t be more apt for a child born on the journey from the small village where her family were being persecuted for being Jews, into the land of Israel.

Ashager Araro is many ways the picture of modern Israel. An outspoken feminist Zionist, former lieutenant paratrooper in the IDF, she’s a social media queen and has been around the world talking about Israel. The impressive 29-year-old runs her own museum and is a one-woman educational whirlwind; if she becomes Israel’s first black prime minister it wouldn’t be surprising to anyone who knows her.

But she was born on the roadside in 1991 as her desperate family walked from their small village to the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa in the hope of rescue, as the civil war there meant Jews were no longer safe.

Her grandfather was killed during their escape. But her birth was seen as a sign from God. Ashager and her family were among the last of the Beta Israel tribe to make it to Israel in 1991 as part of Operation Solomon. There are around 140,000 members of the tribe living in Israel.

Known in Ethiopia as the Falasha, the outsiders, they are thought to have been parted from the rest of the tribes of Israel for more than 2,000 years and followed Judaism as it was practised before the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.

“There was a dream of going back to Jerusalem, a fire that always existed in my community even though they didn’t know about the larger Jewish world until the middle of the 19th century,” says Ashager. “They believed they were the last Jews and prayed to Jerusalem three times a day.

“Being Jewish was difficult. Christians tried to convert them and when they refused, they were told they couldn’t own any land. But it was only because of the civil war and the famine that they finally came to realise their dream of returning to Jerusalem.”

Ashager’s great grandfather, Armias Asias, was one of the first Ethiopians to meet the wider Jewish community when Jacques Faitlovitch, a Polish-born French Jew, discovered his village. “When Faitlovitch first showed up and said, ‘I am Jewish, like you’, they told him that he couldn’t be, as Jews are black not white. For seven days Faitlovitch had to live outside the village to purify himself while they tested his Judaism.” In 1925 Armias joined Faitlovitch on a tour to what was then Palestine and when he went home, he set up a school to teach the villagers Hebrew.

The core Judaism of the Beta Israel tribe is the same as that practised in Israel but there are key differences. More “modern” festivals such as Chanukah were not practised at all. Rosh Hashanah is celebrated as Ba’al-Matka (the holiday of the blasting).

“The day would start with the villagers going to the river to bathe and purify themselves,” says Ashager of the festivities. “They would pick wildflowers for their neighbours with wishes for a happy new year and during the prayers members did not use a shofar but drum beats and the noise of cymbals instead.”

As for Yom Kippur, the fast for Ethiopian Jews ends with a cup of sweet tea and some traditional bread called Dabo (see recipe far right).

The arrival of the Ethiopians was a shock both to the Africans and the Israelis. “The first thing most Ethiopian Jews, including my grandmother, did when the touched down was kiss the ground,” says Ashager. “This was the dream of Jews for thousands of years. But when my grandmother first saw Jerusalem she cried, as she was sure the Temple would still exist — it broke her heart that it had gone.”

Ashager admits she has faced racism but her parents taught her to rise above it. “At school I was put in a lower class for some of my subjects and when I complained I was told I needed the extra help — even though I didn’t,” she recalls.”People assume things about you. My parents always told me I should never use racism as an excuse; you have to work harder, be better. And they said racists were stupid people and we should feel sorry for them.”

She found her true potential in the IDF, where she came top of her class. “The army is an equaliser; they don’t care about your colour but your performance.”

From the army she was invited to become an ambassador for the Zionist organisation Stand With Us and went around the world to speak up for the Jewish state.

“One place I kept going back to was South Africa, where the universities host Israel Apartheid Week,” she says. “I ask first, do you believe Israel has the right to exist? If you say no, we cannot talk because Jewish people, like every other people, have the right to self-determination. And when I tell them I am pro-Palestinian — because I believe in a two-state solution — that blows their minds.

“Knowing what my family went through, especially my grandfather who died reaching Israel, means I could never not be a Zionist.”

Education has always been at the heart of what she does. She’s been a vocal in the fight against racism in Israel and after attending the funeral of Yehuda Biadga, a 24-year-old mentally ill Ethiopian who was shot dead by police in July 2019, she realised that she had to do the educating.

That’s why, just six months later,at the start of this year, she set up Battae — an Ethiopian educational centre – in the heart of Tel Aviv. Cruelly, it was forced to close when the pandemic hit Israel and Ashager is now crowdfunding to ensure it remains alive and can re-open. “Battae means my home in Amharic,” she says. “In the four months the centre was open we had hundreds of visitors a week, teaching them about our culture. What I loved most was seeing the change in people’s eyes when they learn something new. So many of them hadn’t realised what our community had been through; it is through connection that you understand each other’s point of view. I know we can make a real difference.” 

To find out how you can help save the Battae centre go to:

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