Preserving the Mother Tongue: Shaping the Identity and Emotional Landscape of the Ethiopian Community in Israel

Belaynesh Mekonen Headshot
Event Date & Time
| -
Event Location
135 Nicholson Hall

216 Pillsbury Dr. SE
Minneapolis, MN 55455

Jewish immigrants from Ethiopia came to Israel mainly in two waves: Operation Moses (1984-85) and Operation Solomon (1991), geographically and culturally crossing the world. This journey remains as a traumatic memory in the community. Obstacles and integration difficulties became immediately evident and the community suffered severe culture shock. Most immigrants tried to assimilate and were even willing to abandon their values and traditions, but many felt and still feel rejection and racist attitudes toward them.

In this talk Belaynesh Mekonen will review the various approaches Israeli society has adopted toward minority languages, from the early melting pot policy calling for the acquisition of Hebrew while abandoning the various 'languages of exile,” to the more recent multilingual approaches supporting maintenance of immigrant languages. In the case of immigrants from Ethiopia, however, not many opportunities have been available to maintain or learn their language. Dr. Mekonen’s research explores the interrelationship between language maintenance and other linguistic patterns among immigrants from Ethiopia over three generations and their emotional contexts, including well-being, group identity, and family relationships. Her study contributes to a deeper understanding of the relationship between the use of the mother tongue and the emotional, family, and social-cultural experiences of the various generations of immigrants from Ethiopia in Israel; she argues that her findings provide the basis for planning a linguistic, educational, and family policy of mother tongue maintenance and for promoting cultural sensitivity in the education system and in other social frameworks. Implementing such a policy could help Ethiopian immigrants feel that they are an integral part of Israeli society while maintaining and fostering Ethiopian identity and culture as well as ensuring their emotional wellbeing.

Belaynesh Mekonen completed her Ph.D. in the Multilingual Education Program in the School of Education at Tel Aviv University, having previously completed master's thesis research examining the impact of the “Ethiopian Jewish Heritage Program” on cultural identity, acculturation attitudes, and academic and social adjustment among youth of Ethiopian origin in residential schools. She immigrated from Ethiopia to Israel with her family in 1991, at the age of fifteen. She has worked at the Israel Ministry of Education for over 23 years as a teacher, as an educational consultant, and as the director of the dropout prevention division. She was also a lecturer at David Yellin College of Education in Jerusalem. She currently serves at the Ministry of Education as an Educational Supervisor of Boarding Schools. Dr. Mekonen is completing a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Minnesota College of Education and Human Development.


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